From The Jakarta Post

Offense taken, but questions remain about acts of violence

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 a 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 controversial, emotive issue out in the open.

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 Sept. 11, 2001, there was this almost irrational fear of offending Muslims, 200,000 of which live in Denmark. Danes took sides in the discourse, many argued that Danish Muslims had fully assimilated and would tolerate the satire as part of the country's centuries-old traditions, while many others were pessimistic, believing any offense would surely trigger riots by Danish Muslims.

Jyllands-Posten editors have explained that they were in the assimilation camp, firmly believing that their fellow Danes, including those faithful to Islam, would understand -- even if they were offended by them -- the context as well as the Danish traditions and freedoms. Their faith in the civility of all Danes, regardless of religion, was proven by the fact that there were only peaceful protests in Denmark after the cartoons were published.

Of course, many people, Muslim and non-Muslim were offended, but their point was proven -- that Danes of all stripes would respond in a civil manner.

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

Meanwhile, Danish imams were split, a number were greatly offended, aggravated and frustrated, but many others seemed to shrug the cartoons off as an interesting, yet very controversial, 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 that is now viewed by the majority of Danes as very provocative and 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 at least two Middle Eastern countries to rile up people.

The reverberations from that "road show" are still being felt now, as strong as ever and at least 15 people have been killed in four 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:

First, 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.

Second, such a concept as a fully free press without ANY government control could possibly exist anywhere in the world.

Third, 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.

Fourth, there is not an absolute ban on images of Muhammad; it is a tradition of some fundamentalists, specifically those in 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 questions, and not let ourselves get riled by provocateurs, whose stock-in-trade are false rumors 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 group of deceitful men decided to attack Denmark, the West and press freedom. The violent protesters may well be very angry about the original 12 (however there was no violence in Egypt or Denmark after their initial publication), but the rage was taken to a new level with the three other images, and people reacted exactly the way the provocateurs wanted.

The writer is a Southeast Asian-based independent researcher. He can be reached at
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