In the past week, a small local issue in Denmark regarding some caricature drawings of the prophet Mohammed printed in the Danish daily Jyllands-posten has exploded in the global news. Demonstrators in Beirut and Damascus have burned down the Danish embassies and seem to be generally unappeasable.
Meanwhile, both the Danish government and the newspaper is walking a thin line, defending both the newspapers’ rights to publish whatever they please and the necessity to have empathy for the sensitivity of religious beliefs. They are in such a position that they’re forced to apologize for something that they really can’t bring themselves to apologize for. And the best they can do is to apologize for the reaction that it has caused.
Which really is like apologizing for for the pain caused by kicking someone in the groin but not the actual kicking itself. And of course, it has done little to change the flammable mood of those insulted. Little matter, then, that the newspaper is constitutionally allowed to kick whomever they please. Whether they’re lying down or not.
The whole case have been used by extremists in both camps. Danish racist and neo-nazi groups have been threatening to burn copies of the Qu’ran, and it is most likely this rumour, spread by text messages to the demonstration in Damascus that made the crowd attack the Danish embassy. As a matter of fact, no books have been burned. And only a very few nazis demonstrated at all, all the time under close watch of both police, a muslim counterdemo and a young group of protesters from the Danish left (of which the police decided to arrest more than a 160 peaceful protesters).
I was at another manifestation yesterday around noon, before the embassy attacks, that called for mutual respect. Some 500 or even a 1000 people showed up and stood in a formation that spelled out R E S P E K T while chanting “we want more respect”. Then a 40 metre banner was stretched out by the people present, which spelled out respect in Arabic:
It was with all the best of intentions and the people arranging it were quite pleased with it, hoping that with coverage from Al-Jazeera, BBC, Sky News and even some Japanese tv station that the message would come out and help brake this spiralling anger:
Only later did we hear about the burning embassies. That kind of imagery always wins out. Just like last summer when the G8 protest was drowned out by the terror bombing in London.
Actually, that same afternoon I was at a workshop about Palestinian refugees at the Danish Social Forum , and one of people there, a young Palestinian refugee named Nidal said that the images of Palestinians burning Danish flags that have gotten so much attention in Denmark in past week has been slightly misinterpreted.
Apparently, Palestinians burn flags all the time. At least at every protest rally they do. Every time some country offends them in some way, the burn the flag of that country to show their anger. Not hate, anger. In the past Palestinians have burned the Egyptian, Libanese and Syrian flags in protest against policies administrated by these countries.
Of course, this argument has paled somewhat since then. Where it goes from here, I have difficulty saying, but I certainly don’t think that this is the Clash of Civilizations that some make it out to be.