- The Cartoons that Shook the World
The publication of 12 cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 led to what has been presented since then as the first global conflict based on identity and an illustration of a “clash of civilizations” between Muslim countries and “the West.” Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons that Shook the World is an attempt to question the validity of this view, through a detailed analysis of actors, strategies, and discourses involved in the international turmoil caused by the publication of the drawings. The author provides an accessibly written, meticulous account of the affair, supported by comprehensive interview-based fieldwork in Europe and the Arab world.
Klausen reaches beyond the civilizational smokescreen and sheds light on the web of [End Page 318] responsibilities of the many actors involved in launching and fueling the crisis. She denounces the “illusion of cohesion” of the protesters against the cartoons who “shared no consensus on exactly what was the problem with the cartoons or regarding the aims and means of the protests” (p. 1). The book covers most aspects of the affair, describing the outbreak and rise of the crisis, the media responses, and the Danish or Egyptian political contexts. Klausen outlines the differing points of view between “the West” and “Muslims:” while Western European countries insisted on the necessity to defend freedom of speech, this particular issue was eclipsed in Arab and Muslim countries in favor of the prevalent idea that the cartoons were an objective defamation of their religious beliefs and a symbol of the hatred of Muslims in the Western world. She reminds us that beyond the protest against cartoons, the underlying reason for anger in the Muslim world was a concern for equity and respect. Insisting that both sides considered themselves victims in this matter, Klausen describes a communication crisis that revolved around misinformation and manipulation of the masses. Klausen’s understanding of Danish society (as a Dane living in the United States) helps her to reassess the controversial role and strategies of Prime Minister Rasmussen and the Danish imams at the heart of the affair, and to investigate how a national issue turned into a global crisis.
Klausen remains cautious not to ascribe sole responsibility to any specific actor. Some imams added forged pieces to the cartoons they brought to the Middle East, but this fact had a limited influence on the internationalization of the outcry, driven by Egyptian authorities. Likewise, she rejects well-established analyses (based on meager evidence) accusing the imams of being connected to global Jihadi movements; she also discards the hypothesis that the cartoonists, the editors of Jyllands-Posten, or the government acted out of racism or Islamophobia. Rather, while indicating how the perception of Muslims by Danish public opinion worsened in recent years, Klausen aims at demonstrating that the Danes were only scapegoats in a battle that outreached them. As one Egyptian official declared to the author: “who cares about the Danes?!” (p. 168).
Klausen argues that the Egyptian government played a crucial role in blowing the scandal to international proportions, and that the cartoons were “surrogates for a push back against Western pressure to promote democratization in the Middle-East,” as well as a tool to “scale back freedom of the press” (p. 180). This is where the argument becomes less convincing. Although the Egyptian government is used to deflecting attention when confronted with international pressure, the exploitation of the events by the Mubarak regime is less than obvious. It also leaves out the role of countries such as Syria and the Gulf states in internationalizing the crisis. Moreover, the search for a culprit in the final chapter of the book seems to go against the grain of Klausen’s argument. It may appear as an attempt to minimize the responsibility of Danish society and the difficulties of this country—like others in Europe—to tackle the “multicultural challenge.” Furthermore, the book has several methodological...