Last week, a London judge gave six-year sentences to three young men for advocating murder and a four-year sentence to another man for inciting race hate, all of this during a February, 2006, demonstration against Danish cartoons satirizing Muhammad. That news from the Old Bailey, mostly ignored in Canada, was an ugly reminder of a bad dream from which we have never quite awakened.
The cartoon case brought international humiliation. Attempting to mollify Islamic demagogues, the West set new levels of craven appeasement. It was a particular embarrassment for journalism. Nervous editors who wanted to print the offending cartoons feared provoking more riots and adding to the deaths already caused by riots in the Middle East.
In Arab countries, the crisis shamed governments and diplomats who deliberately turned a trivial event into a major scandal. In response, much of the world practised what Irshad Manji calls "the soft racism of low expectations," treating the Arab masses like dangerous children, so emotionally immature they couldn't be trusted to deal with differences of opinion. Journalists and politicians corrupted themselves, pretending to take the protesters' concerns seriously.
Radical Islamists were pleased. They managed to disguise aggression as victimhood, and fuelled their continuing war with the West. They did their best to keep the incident alive as long as possible. Today they probably remember it with nostalgia.
For a world-shaking event, it started slowly. As Aluma Dankowitz tells the story in a detailed paper for the indispensable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the cartoons appeared on Sept. 30, 2005, in Jyllands-Posten, the biggest newspaper in Denmark. During October, Islamic community leaders demanded an apology from the editor but didn't get it; 3,500 Muslims (out of 170,000 in Denmark) demonstrated outside the newspaper office; ambassadors from Muslim countries asked the Danish prime minister to condemn Jyllands-Posten, which he declined to do; and the attorney-general, noting that no crime had been committed, turned away a Muslim attempt to press a criminal charge.
So the Muslim leaders from Denmark went to the Middle East, seeking a warmer welcome. They visited the Egyptian foreign ministry and the secretariat of the Arab League. They went to Lebanon, then Syria. Throughout their tour they delivered a single message: The Prophet has been defamed and we are all under attack. Soon the demonstrations started, always in cities where spontaneous demonstrations are not permitted: Damascus, Beirut and Tehran, to mention three. Not only did governments stage the riots, government offices provided many of the rioters. Scandinavian embassies were trashed, Christian churches attacked.
In April even Osama Bin Laden got involved, demanding that Denmark turn over the cartoonist for shariah justice. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said that if only the fatwa against Salman Rushdie had been carried out, as it should have been, this sort of thing wouldn't have happened.
Why did this particular cause attract so much official support? Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, the Sunni cleric who serves as spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, explained that the controversy promoted Islam's spiritual health. Arab nations needed awakening "from their stagnation," he said. The cartoons united the disputatious Muslim states in their love of the Prophet.
On the other hand, Pierre Akel, a Lebanese-born editor who runs an independent online magazine, www.metransparent.com, claimed that the crisis exposed rivalries among the Arab countries: "Every Arab ruler is competing for the title of 'Defender of Islam.' " Leaders not previously famous for their piety began falling over each other in their eagerness to attack the Prophet's denigrators. It was much easier than improving the lives of their people.
On Feb. 3, 2006, a crowd of about 300 marched on the Danish embassy in London. One man now convicted of soliciting murder came from Birmingham, took the microphone and shouted, "Bomb, bomb Denmark, bomb bomb U.S.A." Another handed out placards reading "Annihilate those who insult Islam."
The lawyers for all four accused claimed the cartoons deeply offended their clients, causing them to lose control of their emotions. But how unhinged could they have become about drawings published in a foreign country by a magazine they never read? Not one British publication printed the offending images, so they weren't insulted at the corner store.
The young men were of course shown the cartoons by politicized imams anxious to generate trouble and violence. The four convicts (ages: 24, 25, 27, 32) must now rot in jail, paying for the irresponsibility of older men whose judgment they foolishly trusted. In five years, whom will they blame? That's a big 21st-century question.