Cartoon controversy

Press freedom attacks Islamic civil liberties in the case of the Danish newspapers' Muhammad caricatures, says the Jakarta Post

Jakarta Post
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
What the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten did in September was absurd. It failed to exercise self-restraint or consider what is fit to print. Publishing 12 cartoons degrading the Prophet Muhammad was certain to enrage Muslims, most of whom believe any visual depiction of the Prophet is forbidden.

The controversy stems from a cartoon competition organized by the Danish paper specifically designed to gauge how well Muslims in Europe respond to criticism. Judging from the fiery reaction, they are likely to conclude European Muslims are not European enough because they are easily inflamed.

Indonesia had its own experience with sectarian-tinged reporting during the conflict between Christians and Muslims that flamed up in the late 1990s on the eastern island of Ambon. Both sides had their own newspapers, which fanned the hatred daily. This accomplished nothing other than increasing the number of people killed in the conflict, with the number of victims eventually running into the thousands.

Although these were only small regional papers, it was still the worst practice of press freedom. The conflict ended only after the two sides grew too tired to fight. The lesson learned: press freedom used to fan hatred only drives people to kill each other.

Emotions continue to run high over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons and there is fear the controversy will grow even more out of hand than it already has, especially after more newspapers in Europe republished the cartoons, either as an expression of support for the Danish paper or to illustrate articles about the controversy.

Demonstrators attacked the Danish and Norwegian embassies in several Muslim countries over the weekend. Protesters damaged the Swedish Embassy in Syria. Iran has recalled its ambassador to Denmark in protest, and has formed a committee to review trade ties with countries where newspapers have published the cartoons.

Whereas the Indonesian experience in Ambon was local, the cartoon controversy has become global. The violence in Ambon, and similar conflagrations elsewhere in the country, was preceded by decades of economic mismanagement that bred social ills, including corruption, the breaking up of social cohesion and an unhealthy gap between rich and poor. The seeds of the religious conflict in Ambon, and also in Poso, were sown by years of tension between Muslims and Christians.

That tension stemmed from various factors, including questionable government policies, a Constitution that officially recognizes only six religions and the long-held pretense that relations between different faiths are always harmonious.

Examining the wider context behind the cartoon controversy could shed some light on the issue. Waves of Muslim immigrants have changed the complexion of Europe. In recent years the war on terror has loomed in the background. The United States has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. France recently experienced unprecedented riots across the country by largely marginalized immigrants.

European newspapers certainly have the legal right to publish the cartoons, and Muslims have the right to become angry, including Muslims in Indonesia. By exercising freedom of the press, the newspapers violated the civil rights of Muslims. In the eyes of Muslims, it was a deliberate provocation against Islam.

This is a case where civil rights clash with legal rights; the civil right to live without being offended and the legal right of press freedom. In the end, this cartoon contest was an ill-conceived test. The Danish paper should have realized it was dealing with a sensitive issue that was a wrong fit for assessing the tolerance of European Muslims, and the publication of the cartoons should have been rejected on moral grounds.

But now is the time to calm emotions. This is not a case of "either with us or against us". There is a middle ground where agreement can be achieved.

Resentment stemming from nonreligious issues like injustice, government repression and power struggles among the elite can manifest itself as a religious conflict. In the Indonesian experience, clashes between people of different faiths is often only the tip of the iceberg. After all, "religious conflict" is a term loaded with contradictions. No religion preaches conflict.