Confusion and lies: The real story behind the cartoons
By Riccardo Simons
Jakarta

Fury, rage, self-righteousness and defiant press solidarity have marked the publication and multiple republication of the 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but perhaps above all these emotions lie confusion and misunderstanding, fomented by people deliberately misleading others in a bid to provoke conflict.

The original 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad in the Jyllands-Posten in Denmark were not, as some commentators have pontificated, an absurd, spur-of-the-moment attempt to insult anyone. If we are to believe the source of it all, the paper's editors, they explain succinctly -- and with great conviction -- that the 125-year-old publication, renowned for its long tradition of candor and integrity, had no intention of defaming or insulting.

They were responding to a months-long discourse throughout Denmark about double standards, self-censorship and fear of violent backlashes when it came to reporting on Islamic issues. As an openly forthright publication with a history of lampooning political and religious figures; in a country where that right is protected by law and no government intervention is allowed, the editor decided it was in the interest of all democratic Danes to bring the issue to the fore.

The background to this is the aforementioned discourse, which was prompted largely by two events: the brutal murder by an Islamist of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in nearby Holland and the unwillingness of Danish illustrators to depict Muhammad for a children's book on religion. Denmark, and indeed, most western European countries, pride themselves on their hard-won freedoms, caring democratic governments and civilized discourse. But suddenly, or at least since September 11, 2001, there was this almost irrational fear of offending a seemingly hyper-sensitive group of people, 180,000 of which live among them right in Denmark. Danes took sides in the discourse, some argued that Danish Muslims had fully assimilated and would tolerate the satire as part of the country's centuries-old traditions, while others said the depictions would create chaos because the Muslims would only be able to see it as offensive.

Jyllands-Posten editors have explained that they were in the assimilation camp, believing that their fellow Danes, including those faithful to Islam, would understand the context as well as the Danish traditions and freedoms. And guess what. They were exactly correct!

The editors and the Danish Muslims proved to their fellow citizens on the chaos side of the discourse, that indeed Danes could all get along in a civilized manner despite a few differences.

The caricatures were first published in late September and for the next few weeks Danes debated the issues, yet no violence or chaos erupted. (On a very interesting side note, the second largest Egyptian daily Al-Faqr published the 12 cartoons and there was no response at all by Egyptians).

Meanwhile, Danish imams were split, a tiny number were aggravated, but the majority shrugged the cartoons off as an interesting exercise in press freedom. At least five upset imams tried unsuccessfully to both speak to the prime minister and take the paper to court. After those efforts proved fruitless and they realized that Danish youths were not going to explode, they set about to do something very, very sinister.

They put together a report of 30-plus pages, which included the 12 cartoons, but most importantly there were three more entirely bogus images supposedly depicting Muhammad, as a pig, as a pedophile and as someone in the act of bestiality -- with a dog!

They then left Denmark, in which the issue had been confined to up until late November, and took the report to several Middle Eastern countries to rile up hatred and vengeance using lies and deception.

The reverberations from that "road show" are still being felt now, as strong as ever and at least 13 people have been killed in three countries. But a question that needs to be asked is: Are these things happening because of the 12 cartoons -- after all, Egyptian Muslims obviously saw no reason to run amok -- or are they happening because of the three vile ones?

It has become abundantly clear that the violent, chaotic mobs currently burning and vandalizing all things Danish have no idea that:

1. The newspaper was fully in support of Danish Muslims and proved to the rest of their country that all Danish citizens were mature enough to handle satire, except the five "road show" provocateurs.

2. Such a concept as a fully free press without ANY government control could possibly exist anywhere in the world.

3. The three vile, pornographic images purportedly depicting Muhammad were bogus, have nothing to do with any newspaper and put in the report by the five imams themselves.

4. There is not an absolute ban on images of Muhammad; it is merely a tradition of some fundamentalists, specifically the Sunni branch.

In conclusion, it would be wise for all of us here in Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, to reflect on these facts and not let ourselves get riled by evil provocateurs, whose stock-in-trade are peurile lies meant to cause conflict in which everybody loses.

Let us also keep in mind the context of how this all came about: It was in Denmark, in a particular socio-political climate relating to a specific discourse within that whole context. The caricatures were seen as a healthy, satirical exercise in freedom and tolerance amongst Danes -- Muslims and non-Muslims. The problems started when a tiny group of deceitful men decided to attack Denmark, the West and Press Freedom. The uneducated, oppressed masses in the countries where the violence has occurred were plain and simply duped into believing a lie. The death toll has risen to 13 and the five deceivers should be held fully responsible, not Denmark's government or flag, not Lego's toys and certainly not Jyllands-Posten.