The furore which swept through cities across the world following the publication, initially in Denmark and later further afield, of a series of cartoons deemed “offensive” to Muslims, was predictable.
The scenes of outraged Muslims waving placards and burning flags in the streets were highly reminiscent of the Salman Rushdie affair, when – in February 1989 – the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses, to death for his “blasphemy”.
It seems neither side has learned very much in the intervening years.
On the streets of central London, where the media elected not to publish the offending cartoons, outraged Muslims marched, burned Danish flags and issued threats about how the West would be made to pay for the offence of portraying the Prophet Muhammed in insulting cartoons. One young man was dressed as a suicide bomber while a number of demonstrators taunted that London had had the attacks of 7/7 coming; certainly insensitive but also confusing, since a considerable number of the victims of the 7/7 attacks were Muslims.
Passers-by looked on bemused; most of them did not understand what all the fuss was about, others became increasingly angry by what they perceived as a torrent of racist abuse. As one black cab driver complained, when interviewed by a local television crew: “Britain is not a Muslim country; a lot of these people demonstrating are British-born but if they want to live in an Islamic state, they should find one that suits them and go there. I don’t agree with publishing the cartoons but there are people in this crowd shouting that the London bombers (of 7/7) are heroes. If that isn’t incitement to racial hatred, I don’t know what is.”
However, not all the bystanders agreed: “It was wrong to do something that would cause anger and real distress in the Muslim Umma,” (world community) a second man noted. “This demonstration is about respect, more particularly about the West not having any for Islamic religion or culture.”
The mainstream British Muslim organisations publicly distanced themselves from violence over the controversy, even organising a very peaceful rally of protest in Trafalgar Square. Denmark apologised but elsewhere the resentment could not be so easily quelled. In Pakistan, Indonesia, Europe and the Middle East there were full scale riots and, in some cities, even deaths. In Beirut, Lebanese Muslims have been fighting with Lebanese Christians in skirmishes horribly reminiscent of the savage and devastating civil war.
Paradoxically, the Danes have a long history of decency and fair play and this small Nordic nation, the last place one would imagine a controversy of this kind originating, must be feeling exposed and vulnerable in the wake of the vitriolic passions the cartoons debate has unleashed. Denmark and its neighbours Sweden, Norway and Finland, have a background of upholding human rights, including issues relating to freedom of speech but, as Muslim scholars have commented, on this occasion their decision, wherever it sprung from, was insensitive at best and downright foolish at worst. However, it was almost certainly not malicious and apologies have since been issued.
The controversy drags on, with trade sanctions imposed on certain states and others threatened. European embassies have been attacked and burned and a number of diplomats have been recalled; some countries are even warning their nationals not to visit Muslim states.
It is not for me to attempt to minimise or maximise the distress publication of these cartoons has caused Muslims across the world. It was wrong of certain members of the international media to publish them as, I believe, it is wrong to publish any material that is gratuitously offensive to any nationality, race or religious creed. I firmly and absolutely believe in freedom of speech but believe just as strongly that it is a privilege that must never be abused, otherwise it ceases to be of any real value. However, in this case, apologies have been issued and it is probably true to say that only a hardcore element, on both sides, now sees any virtue in continuing the feud. The row can be brought to a close now or go on to another punishing level where people, communities, trade and economy will suffer further. For the sake of the majority on both sides it is time to say enough is enough.