The Danish Caricatures Seen from the Arab World

Ana Belen Soage. Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions. Volume 7, Issue 3. December 2006.

The publication of a dozen caricatures portraying the prophet Muhammad in the Danish daily newspaper JyllandsPosten, and thereafter in other European media, sparked a wave of Muslim resentment against the West. The crisis is not unprecedented: in 1989, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa, followed by violent demonstrations in many countries, and a series of assassinations and bombings. The parallels are clear: as well as comparable levels of violence, there have been calls for a fatwa against those involved in the publication of the caricatures, and Hizbullâh leader Hasan Nasr Allah declared that ‘if a Muslim had carried out imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the apostate Salman Rushdie, those despicable people would not have dared to insult the prophet of God’.

This article will try to ascertain why the reaction to the publication of the caricatures has been so acrimonious. The sources considered here are the opinion pages of the international Arab press; the websites, sermons and television appearances of influential religious figures; and the satellite channel AlJazeera. Three possible explanations will be explored: genuine religious piety, the tense international situation, and an instrumentalisation of the affair by political and religious leaders. This latter point, in particular, is crucial to understanding how what started as a diplomatic incident has turned into an international crisis.

The Centrality of Muhammad

The prophet Muhammad has a very special status in Islam: not only is he the messenger of God (rasûl alallâh), but also the seal—that is, the last—of His prophets (khâtim alanbiyâ’). The collection of his words and acts—the Sunna—is a source of authority second only to the Koran itself. He has been portrayed as the embodiment of all virtues, and although he insisted—and the Koran reiterated—that he was just a man, he is considered infallible (ma’sûm). In the Day of Judgement, Muhammad will intercede for every Muslim before God. There is no doubt that the very real affection felt towards the prophet is behind much of the emotion in the believers’ reactions; many sermons and articles concentrated on the prophet’s qualities, as if trying to make up for the insult of which he had been the target.

In fact, well‐intentioned Muslims assumed that the affront could only be the result of ignorance. Egyptian preacher and TV star ‘Amr Khâlid urged his young followers to take action to remedy it: ‘It is our duty to the prophet of God to make his message known … Do not say that this is the task of the ulema (religious scholars)—it is the task of all of us’; he also invited them to send him messages about the prophet, which he pledged to deliver ‘to the whole world’, and proposed an internationally‐televised encounter with young people in Copenhagen. Other practical measures were suggested: a reader of al‐Ahrâm demanded that the Danish government introduce a lesson about Muhammad in its schools’ curriculum.

There is a widespread perception that western education programmes present a distorted picture of Islam: ‘Alî Jum’a, Egypt’s mufti, wrote that they engendered hatred, and cited a study carried out by professor ‘Abd al‐Jawwâd Flâtûrî of Cologne University which he thinks could be used to demand the correction of that picture in western syllabi. This idea was reiterated in the course of a press conference to present a manifesto signed by 42 well‐known Muslim clerics, thinkers and preachers; figures like the muftis of Egypt and Jerusalem and the spiritual leader of Hizbullah, as well as TV personalities like ‘Amr Khâlid and the Saudi Salmân al‐Awda (host of MBC’s Alhayât kalima and coordinator of the website Islam Today). The manifesto itself contained an appeal to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and its members to work for a UN resolution banning affronts against all prophets.

In the Islamic world, blasphemy—in most cases, against all monotheisms—is already an offence; in Egypt, for instance, it can lead to five years in jail. The Islamic sharî’a has traditionally considered blasphemy punishable by death, although modern Muslim thinkers like Mohammad Hashim Kamali maintain that, given that the Koran does not prescribe a punishment, determining a penalty is left to the judicial authorities of the day. In the Koran, God often instructs Muhammad to be patient to those who insult him and, according to historical records, no action was taken against them during his years in Mecca. The only recorded instances of prosecution occurred when the prophet had become the head of the community in Medina. Kamali concludes:

The death penalty was designed not for blasphemy as a crime against religion alone but primarily as a crime against the community and the state … Blasphemy presented a major threat to the existence and continuity of Islam at a time when neither the new faith nor the nascent Islamic state were secure against rampant hostility and challenge.

Blasphemy is yet another example of how the political and the religious have been intricately linked in Islam since its very inception. In fact, as will be shown in the next section, the current political situation goes a long way towards explaining the reaction to the publication of the caricatures.

A ‘Clash of Civilisations’?

For many in the Arab world, the caricatures represent yet another instance of western animosity towards Islam. At the beginning of the crisis, Zayn al‐’Âbidîn al‐Rukâbî argued that the silence of the European churches could only be attributed to ‘agreement and collusion’, and attacked those who had been too willing to stand up for an ‘Other’ who had proved to be ‘hating, careless, distant and adversarial’. His words were echoed by Asmâ al‐Husayn: ‘Do we know the truth now? Do we know who ‘the Other’ is? He whom we—or, at least, some of us—used to consider the epitome of civilisation and progress is nothing but a foe, and clearly does not like you nor your Islam’. Salmân al‐’Awda stated that ‘the West is heading towards a kind of civilisational isolation … In theory, it recognises the Other … but I do not think that it effectively recognises the Other’s culture, civilisation or religion’. Liberals like Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz lamented that the first victims of what happened were ‘the moderates who for years have been insisting on the need to open to the Other’.

Always eager to reflect the feelings of ‘the Arab street’, AlJazeera dedicated much attention to the issue. The view of its audience is clear: in an AlJazeera net poll asking ‘Do you think that the world is heading towards a clash of civilisations?’, over 83 per cent of respondents answered positively. Many vented their fury against the West in the phone‐in show Manbar alJazeera. A viewer from Qatar said that ‘the enmity of the Crusaders, the Jews and the Christians is old … from the raids against the Romans—Tâbûk, Yarmûk and others—to the crusades, to modern colonialism, to the raid on Iraq. It is all a continuous series’. Another viewer, this time from Saudi Arabia claimed that when the Iranian president cast doubts on the Holocaust ‘the world raised [in outrage] and would not sit down’, while insulting the prophet was defended as ‘freedom of opinion’. A Palestinian talked of ‘a campaign against Islam under the banner of freedom of expression’ which had revealed ‘the true face of the West’, and continued: ‘The reason is that this umma [the Islamic community] lacks a strong leadership … If we had in this era an ‘Umar, a Mu’tasim or a Saladdin, they would not dare do that.’

The need to make a stand was a constant theme: The first point of the ulema‘s manifesto mentioned above states: ‘We clasp the hand of the umma, which set in motion to support the prophet of God (pbuh), proving that this umma is alive’. The head of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, sheikh Yûsuf al‐Qaradâwî, responded to [imaginary?] Danish claims that Muslims would not be able to go without its products because they do not produce anything by asserting that ‘we can do without you, with alternatives from the East … And we will do without you with what we have, and with thrift and abstinence… And if we have no other choice and we have to fast and protect our prophet (pbuh), we will fast and go hungry’. Badriyya al‐’Abd al‐Rahmân wrote in Islam Today: ‘I know that my boycott and your boycott will not harm or reduce the significance of Denmark’s butter, reputation and silly cows. But we will do it for ourselves, so we do not lose the simple “No” that we have now and fills our mouths. To say: we are here, we exist in this world’.

However, the condemnation of violence was pervasive. The 42 ulema warned against ‘deplorable actions that may distort the justness of our demands’ and urged ‘not to target non‐Muslims in our countries or outside them on account of those who offended the prophet (pbub).’ Al‐Qaradâwî stated that although he had called for ‘a day of rage for God, his prophet and all the prophets of God, and the sacrosanct things in Islam and in all religions’, he ‘condemned the outcome of that rage in the countries where it exceeded its proper bounds’. However, some sought to justify it: Egyptian Islamist Fahmî Huwaydî maintained that ‘the attitude of the Danish government bears a great part of the responsibility for what happened to its embassies’, for after four months of vain efforts, ‘it was not strange that the feelings of some exploded’.

Religious leaders avoided the issue of terrorism; any depiction of the prophet is deemed blasphemous, and the mere fact of bringing up the subject could be interpreted as an implicit justification of the caricatures. However, some commentators did point to the obvious link between Islamic terrorism and western perceptions of Islam. For example, ‘Alî al‐Sa’adî wrote that the ‘umma has the right to show its disapproval and condemnation to all those who try to distort the image of its prophet and present it falsely, but it also has the obligation to say to terrorism and its partisans: “You are responsible, because you contributed to that”‘. Qadrî Hifnî explored western and Muslim attitudes to terrorism, and wondered regarding the latter:

To what extent does our Arab and Islamic culture bear the responsibility for what happened? … Should we condemn those terrorist acts and completely wash our hands of their perpetrators, judging them to have abandoned true Islam? Should we just say that they are mistaken, considering them fighters whose struggle has lost its way? Or should we excuse them, on the grounds that what they do is the result of the oppression suffered by Muslims?

Manipulation by Political and Religious Leaders

In a recent paper published in Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Renato Moro indicated something that is often overlooked by those who continue to believe that history is linear; that progress and secularisation go hand in hand:

In the age of secularisation, phenomena surrounding the politicisation of religion continue … There is, on the one hand, a political use of religion by lay power; on the other, an internal process of transformation toward politics.

Although Moro was referring to Catholicism, his statement might be most pertinently applied to the Muslim world—and this crisis has offered us a good example of the two processes he identifies. In the Middle East, even nominally secular regimes have resorted to religion to legitimise their policies: Nasser set up the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in order to prove that Islam and socialism were fully compatible, and the 1980s Iran‐Iraq War was dubbed by the Iraqi propaganda machine ‘the Qadisiyya of Saddam’, in reference to a seventeenth‐century battle in which the Muslim (Arab) armies defeated the Persians. On the other hand, Muslim ulema and preachers have often seized the opportunities provided by crises to try to reclaim their influence in society.

This factor was analysed by Saudi intellectual Mashârî al‐Dhâidî. After warning that the crisis risked getting out of the control of those who have been leading it, he mentioned al‐Qaradâwî, as he attacked some politicians ‘of whom it is difficult to believe that they really have strong feelings about Islam’ but have sought to instrumentalise their people’s outrage, like ‘the author of the Green Book’ (Muammar al‐Gaddafi), and ‘the symbol of the Ba’ath party’ (Bashar al‐Asad). But he harshly judged the manipulation of the case by Islamists, like the Saudi protester who, after a Friday prayer, took to the floor to lament that insulting Islam, not strange coming from ‘our spiteful Jewish and Crusader enemies’, was also to be found among ‘our fellow citizens, who speak our language—and some of which, unfortunately, write in newspapers published in our country’. Or again, the ‘renowned preacher’ who argued that ‘an apology—even official and complete—will not be enough if it is the result of the economic boycott. It must be the result of genuine feelings of guilt … although Muslims will not be truly content with anything but the obliteration of the hostile criminal [the caricaturist].’

The most remarkable feature of this crisis has been precisely its instrumentalisation by religious figures. Most Muslim governments have been doing a balancing act, trying to avoid damaging their relations with the West or alienating their own population: King Abdullah condemned the caricatures while sitting next to George W. Bush, who uttered conciliatory comments. Musharraf uneasily combined a strong condemnation with a (largely ignored) ban on rallies of protest. And many criticised the mild reaction of the sheikh of al‐Azhar, Muhammad al‐Tantâwî, an appointee of president Mubarak. The leaders of the campaign have been people like Salmân al‐Awda, who has repeatedly refused to accept the Danish apology—or, rather, denied that it was an apology at all—and al‐Qaradâwî, who accepted the apology handed to him by a Norwegian delegation but called for the boycott to continue until Norway issues a blasphemy law. There also seems to be an element of rivalry. Al‐Qaradawi—who did not sign the ulema‘s manifesto—criticised Amr Khâlid’s idea of a meeting in Denmark as ‘a departure from the ulema‘s consensus’, perhaps upset that upstarts like Khâlid were stealing the limelight from ‘real’ scholars.

However, some chose to concentrate on the manipulation of the crisis by outside forces. Whilst acknowledging that ‘some Arab regimes have an interest in stirring up Arab and Muslim popular feeling against Europe’, Muhammad Sa’îd maintained that the main culprit was the European far right—including the JyllandsPosten—which ‘has plunged into a battle against the moderate governments by provoking Muslims and Arabs’. However, the first beneficiaries are the US and Israel: ‘The Bush administration has re‐won Europe by intensifying the feelings against Arabs, using the Arabs’ own reactions … And Israel has obtained a significant transformation in the European stance towards the Palestinians and the Arab‐Israeli struggle.’ He is not alone. In a region of the world where censorship and government control of the media has led people to question everything, and to interpret any event ‘backwards’ (that is, identifying first who its main beneficiary is), not a few have been pointing their fingers at the American and ‘Zionist’ enemies of Islam.


The three factors identified above have played a role in the uproar unleashed by the Danish caricatures. First, there is a strength of religious feeling in the Muslim world—due to historical, social and educational factors which are outside the scope of this study—that may be difficult to gauge from inside western secular societies. In addition, the targeting of a religious symbol like Muhammad, the only prophet that Muslims do not share with Jews and Christians, was perceived as the last in a long list of humiliations and assaults: it is probably not a coincidence that the more violent demonstrations were held in countries like Syria, Iran and Libya, whose relations with the West are tense. Finally, the crisis provided an opportunity for some political leaders to show their religious credentials and divert their populations’ frustration towards an external target, and for the ulema to reassert their influence as political leaders.