Puffy face. Heavy eyebrows. Bushy moustache. Black turban inscribed with sacred words in Arabic calligraphy. More interesting still: the turban is complete with wick – it is a bomb. If this picture had been without words, we would not have known that it was a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed. Yet we would still know: this is about Muslims. To me, this in itself is something distasteful.

The Jyllands-Posten newspaper, with a circulation of 175,000, is the most popular newspaper in Denmark. Its office is outside Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus. The building looks like a neat factory, its interior painted white. Those who know say that the newspaper is read by prosperous, law-abiding farmers and the rural middle class. Decent people, but it is not surprising that they do not like to see crowds of people coming from the poor south, usually Muslim and “not our kind”. Because for centuries they have been protected from things strange and frightening. These days, they support a government which, like them, regards immigrants with caution, even enmity.

“We have gone to war against the multicultural ideology that says everything is equally valid,” Brian Mikkelson said. Mikkelson, a 39-year-old politician who is now Minister of Culture, claims that the “cultural war” now raging in Denmark is a “war against the acceptance of Muslims’ norms and ways of thought.” To him “cultural heritage” (meaning “original culture” or “native”) is a source of strength in facing “globalization” and the flow of migration. Just how different is this voice from Hitler’s ranting in 1937 when he raved about the “characteristics of unity and homogeneity” in “German” culture? Have they forgotten the consequences:  the war or cleansing to wipe out cultures not of the fatherland, then called “Jewish”? Maybe this is a sign of the depth of spiritual confusion today: the concentration camps are not yet forgotten, and yet voices calling for “cultural war” against those who disturb “unity” and “homogeneity” gain respect.

One must admit that the cartoon published in the Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005 was indeed a cartoon. And all caricatures (from the Italian word caricare) ridicule by exaggerating one or more features of a figure. But the cartoonist had no idea about the face of this particular figure. What did the Prophet Muhammed’s face look like? What were its special features? The article that accompanied the cartoon was titled “Muhammeds ansigt” (The Face of Muhammed) but actually the “face” came from the cartoonist’s image of “Islam” – in a form not that far from what Danes in general imagine. In other words, what was depicted was a stereotype. That day’s drawing was something distilled from prejudice, excitement, fear, sneering at the other, at others; a feeling that has crept quietly into the heads of Danes in a time fired up by suspicion towards Muslims, with various degrees of hatred. It is not surprising that some of the cartoons are reminiscent of something horrific: the poster for the film Jud Süss in Germany in 1940 and the poster for the exhibition Der Ewige Jude in Austria in 1938: pictures made to vilify Jews, reproductions of stereotypes born from hate and fear. In Jud Süss: a dark, bearded face, with a sharp, mysterious gaze. In Der Ewige Jude: a figure with crooked nose, with side whiskers and a droopy moustache. In his right hand is gold, and in his left, a whip. Meaning, The Outsider, creeping around our neighborhood, so base, so stealthy, so frightening!

Jytte Klausen, Professor of political science at Brandeis University in Boston (author of The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe) shows how brutal the cries for cultural war shouted by the extreme right can be. Not long ago, two members of the Danish Peoples Party described Muslims as “a cancer on Danish society”. Meaning: a tumor that must be cut out. Both these men are Lutheran pastors. Like other right-wing extremists (like the Majelis Ulama Indonesia or Indonesian Council of Ulama here in Indonesia, for instance), these pastors oppose pluralism. Like others who hate (the Front Pembela Islam or Front of the Defenders in our midst, for example), the two of them want to destroy the principle of multiculturalism and want society to be subjugated by one value system. And as is usual with people who see themselves as the center of the world, they use double standards. Even the Jyllands-Posten does this. Three years ago, the newspaper rejected a cartoon that depicted Jesus, because it did not wish to offend its readers.

So what is disturbing is not just that there are people who insult the Prophet. What is disturbing is injustice and hate, and the failure of many parties, religious and not, secular or Muslim, the angry and the angered, to resist being infected by this festering sore. It seems we cannot expect much from an era that suddenly amazes and alarms us at the same time. This is the era when technology – the Internet in particular – can make distances of time and space appear to vanish. A cartoonist in Aarhus makes an insult with the locals in mind, as a way to deal with a particular Danish problem; but in no time he faces an unknown community. An ulama in Ponorogo is angry because of something that happens in a far, far away land he is unfamiliar with; it means that nowadays the true and the untrue seem to have no relation with limited localities or specific situations. Something happens, but it is something that “takes place” without having no place. And the question is: Do we really get closer? Or confused?


Goenawan Mohamad is one of Indonesia’s leading writers and essayists.

First Published: 01.03.2006 on Kakiseni

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