Sunday, May 27, 2012

"The Cartoons That Shook the World"

Jytte Klausen, The Cartoons That Shook the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Klausen's book is an interesting account of the global controversy that erupted after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a collection of cartoons depicting Muhammad.  Much has been written about this controversy, but Klausen's book is valuable to readers interested in it because it gives a detailed factual account, complete with chronology, of exactly how the controversy unfolded.  The Cartoons That Shook the World makes it clear that the sequence of events involved is far more complicated than the simple idea that publication equalled protests.  In fact, diplomatic maneuvering, ignorance and mistaken perceptions of what the cartoons were, the re-publication of the cartoons, and more helped feed the fire that eventually led to demonstrations accounting for (by Klausen's count) around two hundred fatalities and eight hundred injuries (p. 106).  The strength of the book comes from the factual detail included, and Klausen conducted dozens of interviews with some of the major players involved.  This is, I think it fair to say, more in the nature of quality journalism than deep scholarly analysis, but there is definitely room for multiple ways of approaching the subject.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly helpful was the discussion of the purported Islamic prohibition on representing Muhammad through images.  As Klausen explains, conceiving of there being a flat ban over-simplifies a complex idea.  "It was often said that Islam prohibits the depiction of Muhammad and that Muslims were angry because the prohibition was violated.  One need not spend much time in Islamic art collections to know that the Prophet's life and biography are the subject of many illustrations.  . . .  The representations are regarded as pictures of the human prophet and not of the divine, 'the beauty of which no human eye can capture,' according to the Koran."  (p. 8).  In a section titled "What Muslims Do and Do Not Do With Respect to Figurative Representations" (pp. 137-143), Klausen goes into more detail on this issue.  Klausen concludes that "it seems clear that the Danish caricatures did not violate a generalized Islamic prohibition on figurative representation but rather insulted Muslims by portraying the Prophet in a disrespectful manner."  (p. 139)

Earlier in the book, Klausen writes "[t]he cartoons live on in a deadlocked debate over the balance between free speech, civility, and the propriety and reach of blasphemy laws." (p. 54)  The concept of blasphemy was invoked during the controversy not just in its religious connotation, but also in its legal connotation as Islamic activist groups in Denmark hoped to apply the country's blasphemy law as a shield against the cartoons.  However, the Danish Public Prosecutor refused to consent to the proceedings, which further fed perceptions of hypocrisy and double standards.

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