by Yule Heibel on February 6, 2006

Making a time line is a skill taught to children when they’re still quite young. At least it used to be — it’s certainly recommended as a teaching strategy by homeschooling how-to books, irrespective of their ideological or religious agenda. Perhaps it’s a skill no longer taught in public schools?

I’m wondering about this lost skill of making time lines as I reflect on what has been written in the western press about the Danish cartoons currently inflaming Muslim communities — and European embassies. When I wrote my $0.02 worth over the weekend, I noticed the time line problem right away: the cartoons were published on September 30, 2005, yet these “spontaneous” protests, still escalating, didn’t start until much later. What was up with that, I wondered? In my Addendum to ‘Connecting the dots’, published yesterday, I cited a number of newspaper articles that began to lay out a time line: the cartoons were published at the end of September 05; by the end of December 05, a delegation of fundamentalist imams (who don’t shy away from preaching hatred in Denmark) are embarked on a tour of Egypt and other Middle Eastern Muslim countries where they spread lies about the cartoons and their publication, telling their audiences that there were 120 cartoons (not 12) and illustrating the perfidy of western infidels with material never presented in the Danish press. By January 06, the Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami and its youth branch offer a bounty to anyone who murders the Danish illustators who drew the cartoons; by the end of January 06, moderate Muslims in Denmark are trying to get the hate-mongering imams to shut up, but unfortunately no one pays much attention to them; other European newspapers, noticing what’s happening in Denmark, begin publishing the cartoons also, defending freedom of the press but ironically playing right into the hands of the hate-mongering imams who only want to fan the flames — literally and figuratively. It’s difficult to draw any other conclusion than that they’ve been planning to use this incident to incite riots since the cartoons’ original publication in September. And by the beginning of February, there are indeed riots in the streets and European embassies are burning.

I saw an article today that lays out the timeline, warts and all on both sides: Muslim rage: Spontaneous, or political calculation? by Anne-Beatrice Clasmann and Thomas Borchert. Here it is in full:

Copenhagen/Cairo – It took four months before Muslims around the world began protesting against 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

These were four months in which Islamic preachers and diplomats spread the word from Copenhagen to the villages of Upper Egypt and Afghanistan that ‘the Prophet has been insulted.’

Some observers in Denmark see ‘agitation’ by Danish imams travelling in the Middle East as the spark that caused the conflagration of religious passions.

In the Arab world, there are those who suspect the increasingly violent demonstrations are the product of cynical political calculation by Arab regimes using anger for their own purposes.

The conflict is playing into the hands of Islamist groups. In some Islamic countries, a contest of sorts has broken out between the government and opposition to see which side is doing more ‘to defend the Prophet.’

When the cartoons were first published on September 30 in the Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s biggest paper and sharply critical of Islam, it initially looked like just another skirmish in Denmark’s heated debate over immigration and the proper attitude towards Islam.

It took nearly three weeks before the ambassadors of 11 Islamic countries demanded that the Danish government intervene and asked to speak with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Rasmussen, citing press freedom, coolly refused, which critics now say was a big mistake in crisis management. Among those critics are 22 former Danish ambassadors who spoke out in December. They also faulted what they said was Denmark’s overly harsh tone towards Islamic immigrants.

Meanwhile, imams resident in Denmark were travelling around Arab countries with the cartoons, showing them as well as other unflattering caricatures of the Prophet circulating in Denmark that the newspaper had not published.

Many Danes believe this is what set off the huge wave of protests. Danish government sources said the imams reponsible may be deported.

The imams themselves say indignation spread in January during the hajj in Mecca. The ‘tsunami of protest’ then swept over Denmark at the end of January, when Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Copenhagen and devout Saudis called for a boycott of Danish products.

Many Muslims have followed the call. In Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world, signs have gone up in supermarkets saying, ‘We don’t sell any Danish products.’

In the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News, there was even a call on Monday for a total, long-term boycott of Western goods aimed at forcing Western countries to ‘apologize for having insulted our beloved Prophet.’ [article here]

Meanwhile, much gets written that muddies the waters. Shelley Powers and I disagree strongly about this crisis, with Shelley suggesting that the cartoons are equivalent to defacing a Jewish neighbourhood with swastikas. I think that’s an absurd comparison, and typical of how this issue is getting derailed. First, defacing private or public property with graffiti is not comparable to publishing something in a newspaper: the latter involves a regulated medium (newspapers), while the former involves activity that’s a priori illegal (destruction or defacement of public or private property). And there are libel laws that apply to publications. Second, a cartoon that “offends” a group’s religious beliefs is not comparable to a symbol (the swastika) that will now be forever associated with a murderous and criminal government intent on the genocide of an entire people, continent-wide. It’s just an absurd comparison, but that’s what this has come to.

Meanwhile, the imams who preached hatred in Denmark — and then took their lies to Egypt and Afghanistan, spreading absurd propaganda about 120 cartoons — were protected in Denmark by freedom of speech laws. They took that freedom, twisted it into lies, and deliberately planted the seeds that bloomed into “spontaneous” riots across the Muslim countries of the Middle East. They should go to jail.

There’s a bigger problem here: regardless of what the West does, fundamentalist hate-mongers will continue to look for opportunities to incite violence against anyone who disagrees with them. What the Western press should perhaps be doing is giving the moderate Danish Muslims (and other moderate Muslims elsewhere) more of a voice, and being respectful and encouraging of moderate Muslims anywhere in the West who stand up to and oppose their bigotted imams.

I harped on this in comments to my own entry yesterday (Connecting dots?), which readers can see there. I’m going to point again to Irshad Manji in closing, whose Project Ijtihad is nothing less than an attempt to reform Islam from within. Take a listen to her MP3 message, also cited in the previous comment: “There’s a toxic alchemy of duplicity and complacency among Muslims today, including those of us [Muslims] in the West. The way to promote tolerance is to actively tackle the intolerance that’s percolating in our own ranks.”

Joseph Duemer posted about this, too, and I commented there as follows:

This whole issue (and how it’s being mediated) has left me feeling very dispirited. In the west, we’ve made “iconoclasm” into a kind of on-the-edge virtue, as when we call some famous architect “iconoclastic” because s/he smashes the cliché. To an extent, we’ve internalised our own historical iconoclasm, forgetting just what a barbarous, brutish, and exceedingly violent thing it was. And so we constantly question the clichés, because that’s what good avant-gardists in the iconoclastic army of modernity do.

But have we now reached the point where we’ve evacuated the Enlightenment so that it, too, is just another cliché? Have we reached the point where our “inner iconoclasm” lets violent iconoclasms, fed by bigotted and hate-filled representatives of blinkered fundamentalism, set the tone?

…To which Joe responded, wryly: “Well, there are a lot of people—East & West—who have evacuated the Enlightenment, but I’m still trying to live in the rubble of that noble building.” Indeed. Let’s hope that we aren’t just rearranging the furniture in the parlour (sort of like the deckchairs on the Titanic?).

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