Sunday, February 12, 2006

Understanding the controversy over the Prophet cartoons

It has been several days since the protests over the cartoons of the Prophet began. It shows no sign of abatting. There has been deaths in Afghanistan over this. This week - another French media outlet - published the cartoons - helping to keep the issue alive. Reams of paper and endless hours of debates have been spent on this - very few catching - what seems to me a striking contrast.

A majority of the publications in the US, UK and India have desisted from publishing these cartoons, whereas they have been published in many countries across continental europe and New Zealand. Jordan and Malaysia are exceptions - cases in which it was an editorial goof up (so are we told).

What is the link? The countries in which they havent been published - it seems - have had years of multi-cultural experience, where people of all faiths have lived for generations. The media there are more sensitive to these issues. True of America, true of UK. Cant say the same about Continental Europe and New Zealand. It seems to be a clear case of Islamophobia in these countries - masquerading as Freedom of Speech. France - one may argue - has the largest concentration of Muslims in Europe (5 million). True - but as the recent riots and the scarf issue showed - those muslims arent all integrated successfully.

It is time for Europe to wake up to the multi-cultural reality they are today.

There is an interesting article on Denmark in The New York Times today. It is written by a Dane, living in Washington, who also happens to be a correspondent for a Danish paper. He argues "Denmark's reputation as a nation with a long tradition of tolerance toward others ... is something of a myth."

He continues "What foreigners have failed to recognize is that we Danes have grown increasingly xenophobic over the years. To my mind, the publication of the cartoons had little to do with generating a debate about self-censorship and freedom of expression. It can be seen only in the context of a climate of pervasive hostility toward anything Muslim in Denmark.

There are more than 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, a country with a population of 5.4 million. A few decades ago, Denmark had no Muslims at all. Not surprisingly, Islam has come to be viewed by many as a threat to the survival of Danish culture.

For 20 years, Muslims in Denmark have been denied a permit to build mosques in Copenhagen. What's more, there are no Muslim cemeteries in Denmark, which means that the bodies of Muslims who die here have to be flown back to their home countries for proper burial".

He also says - contrary to the impression being created - "the real story is that they and their followers ran out of options. They tried to get Jyllands-Posten to recognize its offense. They tried to enlist the support of the government and the opposition. They asked a local prosecutor to file suit under the country's blasphemy law. And they asked ambassadors in Denmark from Muslim countries to meet with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. They were rebuffed on all counts, though a state prosecutor is currently reviewing the case. But, really, what choice did they have?"

A pretty eye opening account.


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