On 30 September, 2005, Danish daily best-seller Jyllands-Posten publishes a number of cartoons. Starring, among others: caricatured prophet Muhammad, the key charismatic figure of Islam. All very well, but Islam prohibits any images of its prophet. Picturing him with a bomb-shaped turban and as explaining to a queue of terrorist-looking entrants into Heaven that “no virgins are left” is hardly of help (the latter cartoon refers to the alleged reward of 72 virgins for the martyrs of Islam, although without sufficient support from Muslim scholars).
At the outset, there is little public resonance. It takes full twenty days for Muslim ambassadors to file a complaint to the Prime Minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Anyway, who cares about some Danish newspaper? Freedom of speech remains one of the essential Western values, and Danish government refuses to apologise on behalf of an independent media source. In the meantime, other problems permeate the world. Iran is labouriously developing its nuclear might and plotting to wipe certain countries off the world map. Europe is breathlessly following the German election. The United States has hurricanes on its mind. Bird flu threat is looming over the population of the entire globe. In short, everyone is far too busy to pay substantial attention to a handful of caricatures, most of which appear less offensive than others.
Then, on 10 January, 2006, the interesting part begins. A Norwegian publication reprints the cartoons. Who asked them, is my question? Did they think they were doing Denmark a favour? In February, bigger world players see their media follow the lead, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Whenever a new country stubbornly joins this useless debate, Denmark gets the blame. Danish products are boycotted all over the Muslim world. Danish embassies are attacked, Danish flags burnt and humiliated, Danish diplomats put in danger.
Were France & Co in cahoots to punish Denmark for some ancient viles? Obviously not, as the governments cannot claim themselves responsible for the actions of national independent media. The governments only get to face the public reaction to what their media do.
It is sad that a bunch of hawkish journalists can provoke international riots and victims, and their national authorities get blamed. Denmark is one of the most tolerant countries towards emigrants that I know. Finland, where I currently live, is much less so. Yet nobody in the Islamic world complains. The main reason is probably the small number of Muslims in Finland. Why else? Because Finland is cleverly keeping its thoughts to itself and not sticking out promoting the abstract concept of freedom of speech.
Very wise indeed.