Cartoon Rage in Denmark

How continuing jihadist plotting over Muhammad cartoons threatens us all.

“An imminent terror attack has been foiled,” said Jakob Scharf, chief of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) on Wednesday. Scharf said that “militant Islamists with relations to international terror networks” had been arrested over their plot to storm the offices of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and “to kill as many of the people present as possible.” Jyllands-Posten’s offense took place over five years ago, when it published the now-notorious cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, touching off international riots and a smoldering Islamic rage that continues to manifest itself in jihad terror plots.

These cartoons are much less offensive than what is routinely printed in every American newspaper about presidents, presidential candidates, and other politicians. Yet the rage over them seems to grow with each passing day; Islamic supremacists seem determined to punish those who drew and published them, and to impress upon the West the point so memorably enunciated by the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu: “In confronting the Danish cartoons and the Dutch film ‘Fitna’, we sent a clear message to the West regarding the red lines that should not be crossed. As we speak, the official West and its public opinion are all now well-aware of the sensitivities of these issues. They have also started to look seriously into the question of freedom of expression from the perspective of its inherent responsibility, which should not be overlooked.”

Given the latest Danish plot and other manifestations of Islamic willingness to shed blood over cartoons, Ihsanoglu might have added “or else” to that statement. For Jyllands-Posten is not the only target. Several months ago, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris had to give up her job, her home, and even her identity because of death threats from Islamic supremacists who were enraged over her satire on the rage that the Muhammad cartoons inspired in the Islamic world: “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” That Islamic jihadists could force an American citizen into hiding for exercising her freedom of speech was bad enough; that her cause aroused only indifference from the media and the nation’s leading officials was even worse. And just weeks ago, Taimour Abdulwahab Al-Abdaly, the suicide bomber who killed himself in Stockholm, before he committed his attempted mass-murder explained: “Our acts will speak for themselves, as long as you do not end your war against Islam and humiliation of the Prophet and your stupid support for the pig Vilks.”

“The pig Vilks” is Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who published his own cartoon of Muhammad as a dog with a human head. Islamic supremacists, predictably, have also targeted Vilks for death. Last spring, he was attacked during a talk he was giving, and jihadists also tried to burn his house down.

It is useful to recall some of the earliest reactions to Cartoon Rage: Carsten Juste, the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, refused to apologize for publishing them: “We live in a democracy. That’s why we can use all the journalistic methods we want to. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn’t set any barriers on that sort of expression. This doesn’t mean that we wish to insult any Muslims.” Cultural editor Flemming Rose concurred: “Religious feelings,” he declared, “cannot demand special treatment in a secular society. In a democracy one must from time to time accept criticism or becoming a laughingstock.”

In contrast, several years ago Bill Clinton decried “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam” and asked: “So now what are we going to do? ... Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?” Of course not, but his question is beside the point. The cartoons are not a manifestation of anti-Islamic prejudice: criticism of Muhammad or even of Islam is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. Islam is not a race; the problems with it are not the product of fear mongering and fiction, but of ideology and facts -- facts that have been stressed repeatedly by Muslims around the world, when they commit violence in the name of Islam and justify that violence by its teachings. Noting, as some of the cartoons do, that there is a connection between the teachings of Muhammad and Islamic violence, is simply to manifest an awareness of what has been repeatedly asserted by Anwar al-Awlaki, Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Omar Bakri, Abu Hamza, Abu Bakar Bashir, and so many others. Do all these men and so many, many others misunderstand and misrepresent the teachings of Muhammad and Islam? This question, as crucial as it is, is irrelevant to an ethical evaluation of the cartoons. The fact is, these and other jihad terrorists claim Muhammad’s example and words as their inspiration. Some of the cartoons call attention to that fact.

Ultimately, then, the cartoon controversy is a question of the freedom of speech, and of a realistic appraisal of the jihad threat – even if expressed wryly or satirically. The cartoon controversy indicates the gulf between the Islamic world and the post-Christian West in matters of freedom of speech and expression. And yet if the West responds to plots such as the latest one in Denmark by limiting the freedom of speech as the OIC and other Muslim entities are demanding, it may yet turn out that this homage to the idols of tolerance, multiculturalism, and pluralism will mean the end of the hard-won freedoms that made Western civilization great.

Freedom of speech encompasses precisely the freedom to annoy, to ridicule, to offend. If it doesn’t, it is hollow. The instant that any person or ideology is considered off-limits for critical examination and even ridicule, freedom of speech has been replaced by an ideological straitjacket. Westerners seem to grasp this easily when it comes to affronts to Christianity, even when they are as sharp-edged and offensive as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s dung- and pornography-encrusted Holy Virgin Mary. But the same clarity of thought doesn’t seem to carry over to an Islamic context.

Yet that is where it is needed most today. The cartoon controversy, insignificant and even silly as it may be in its origins, is an increasingly serious challenge to Western notions of pluralism and freedom of speech. As such, those whom Islamic supremacists are targeting in cartoon jihads must be vigorously and unapologetically defended. To do less would mean death for a free society.