Mohammad The Prophet
Or...Shouting Fire In A Crowded Theater

By Terrell E. Arnold
On September 30, 2005 twelve cartoons depicting Mohammad the Prophet were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Admitting that cartoonists generally were reluctant to work with him on illustrations for a children's book on Mohammad the Prophet, the writer, Kare Bluitgen, reportedly commissioned and published these cartoons to illustrate how difficult it was to get people to work on this subject. It took several months for this blooper to become common knowledge in the outside world, but the result has been predictably chaotic.
The crisis, according to one report, was precipitated by a young Islamic scholar in Denmark who hand delivered the cartoons to leading Arab officials and clerics. This young activist Ahmad Akkari now appears to admithow much he underestimated how volatile publishing the cartoons could be. Certainly the creator now knows why illustrators were reluctant to work on his book, but that is only the first lesson.
Islamic religious aversion to images of people or animals, especially images of God or the prophets, is well known, probably even in Denmark. In Christendom, outside of images on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, godly depictions are rare. Even mention of the name of God is often frowned upon and is written by some as g-d to avoid full reference. Most societies, regardless of the specifics of their beliefs, are circumspect about references to their deity. This subject is not, therefore, the proper subject of flippant discourse in any society.
Westerners as a group may have become fairly casual about various biblical references, and cartooning, even of delicate subjects, is actually a commonplace way of raising certain issues without offense. The offense, if any might be taken, may be diminished in some societies by cartooning, and cartoons about some subjects may make people angry, but rarely at the cartoonist. Some would class this state of mind as a sign of western moral decay, but others might class it as a sign of maturity.
Whatever the case, any detachment about religious matters has been achieved by a relatively small number of Muslims. Aniconism, the aversion to images, including not depicting images of the Prophet, is an Islamic practice that has outlasted generations of exposure to the outside world, and it presently resides among the strongest of Islamic core beliefs. Mosques, old or new, are often elegant studies in geometric designs and Arabesque wood work, and mosque windows (mashrabia) are often screened with finely turned and finished lathe work. But there are no human or animal images in them.
In quiet global times, when there were no significant disagreements between Islamic countries and the West, the Danish cartooning gaffe might have passed with relatively little note. It would in no case have been ignored, but it came on top of a pile of provocations: The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the War on Terrorism that US and increasingly European officials and media refer to as a clash of civilizations, the increasing poverty of many Islamic societies, the readiness of certain individuals and groups to use this gaffe to their own advantage, and the ready global circulation of any story together rendered the climate to say the least poor for an offense against Mohammad the Prophet. In this regard, a Bush team decision to tie the crisis to its Middle East agenda by blaming Iran and Syria only further inflames Islamic emotions.
Danish journalists, the Government of Denmark, and media allies in many countries have argued that publishing the cartoons is covered by freedom of speech, that is, in the United States, speech that is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. In a waspish defense of that argument, the cartoons have been published worldwide on the Internet, in the newspapers of 20 countries or more, and in one US newspaper.
That sounds all well and good, but none of the media organizations taking this position would publish a cartoon of an Israeli rabbi with a bomb fuse in his skull cap, even though there have been some fairly rabid ones. Nor would they publish an image of Jesus Christ holding a hand grenade with his arm drawn back to throw it, even though a number of Christians openly support violence. The image of Mohammad the Prophet with a bomb fuse in his turban is no less offensive.
None of those images would pass muster in the US as "protected speech". In fact, predictably all of them would have the same effect as shouting fire in a crowded theater. Not everybody who heard about them or saw them would be angered enough to react violently, but some would.
The publication of the cartoons was at a minimum thoughtless. Reactions have been excessive, but such effects in the present state of world affairs were totally predictable. Justifying the publication as an act of free speech is a dangerous example of a growing Western habit of looking down its nose at the sensibilities of Islamic peoples.
It is time for serious fence-mending, starting with recognizing that even if the cartoons were an innocent stupidity, they were potentially offensive to one out of six people on the planet. Even if real and determined work is attempted to repair the damage, it is unlikely to be successful in the short run. Both the reactions to the cartoons and the task of cleaning up after them are closely linked to past and proclaimed future western policies and actions toward Islamic societies.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, _A World Less Safe_, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State who held several senior diplomatic positions, including Consul General, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Deputy Director of the State Department Office of Counterterrorism, and Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



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