If you get rid of the Danes, you'll have to keep paying the Danegeld
By Charles Moore
It's some time since I visited Palestine, so I may be out of date, but I don't remember seeing many Danish flags on sale there. Not much demand, I suppose. I raise the question because, as soon as the row about the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten broke, angry Muslims popped up in Gaza City, and many other places, well supplied with Danish flags ready to burn. (In doing so, by the way, they offered a mortal insult to the most sacred symbol of my own religion, Christianity, since the Danish flag has a cross on it, but let that pass.)
Why were those Danish flags to hand? Who built up the stockpile so that they could be quickly dragged out right across the Muslim world and burnt where television cameras would come and look? The more you study this story of "spontaneous" Muslim rage, the odder it seems.
The complained-of cartoons first appeared in October; they have provoked such fury only now. As reported in this newspaper yesterday, it turns out that a group of Danish imams circulated the images to brethren in Muslim countries. When they did so, they included in their package three other, much more offensive cartoons which had not appeared in Jyllands-Posten but were lumped together so that many thought they had.
It rather looks as if the anger with which all Muslims are said to be burning needed some pretty determined stoking. Peter Mandelson, who seems to think that his job as European Trade Commissioner entitles him to pronounce on matters of faith and morals, accuses the papers that republished the cartoons of "adding fuel to the flames"; but those flames were lit (literally, as well as figuratively) by well-organised, radical Muslims who wanted other Muslims to get furious. How this network has operated would make a cracking piece of investigative journalism.
Now the BBC announces that the head of the International Association of Muslim Scholars has called for an "international day of anger" about the cartoons. It did not name this scholar, or tell us who he is. He is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. According to Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, Qaradawi is like Pope John XXIII for Catholics, "the most progressive force for change" in the Muslim world.
Yet if you look up Qaradawi's pronouncements, you find that he sympathises with the judicial killing of homosexuals, and wants the rejection of dialogue with Jews in favour of "the sword and the rifle". He is very keen on suicide bombing, especially if the people who blow themselves up are children - "we have the children bomb". This is a man for whom a single "day of anger" is surely little different from the other 364 days of the year.
Which leads me to question the extreme tenderness with which so many governments and media outlets in the West treat these outbursts of outrage. It is assumed that Muslims have a common, almost always bristling, view about their faith, which must be respected. Of course it is right that people's deeply held beliefs should be treated courteously, but it is a great mistake - made out of ignorance - to assume that those who shout the loudest are the most representative.
This was the error in the case in Luton, where a schoolgirl's desire to wear the jilbab was upheld in the erroneous belief that this is what Islam demands. In fact, the girl was backed by an extremist group, and most of the other Muslims at the school showed no inclination to dress in full-length gowns like her. It's as if the Muslim world decided that the views of the Rev Ian Paisley represented the whole of authentic Christianity.
There is no reason to doubt that Muslims worry very much about depictions of Mohammed. Like many, chiefly Protestant, Christians, they fear idolatry. But, as I write, I have beside me a learned book about Islamic art and architecture which shows numerous Muslim paintings from Turkey, Persia, Arabia and so on. These depict the Prophet preaching, having visions, being fed by his wet nurse, going on his Night-Journey to heaven, etc. The truth is that in Islam, as in Christianity, not everyone agrees about what is permissible.
Some of these depictions are in Western museums. What will the authorities do if the puritan factions within Islam start calling for them to be removed from display (this call has been made, by the way, about a medieval Christian depiction of the Prophet in Bologna)? Will their feeling of "offence" outweigh the rights of everyone else?
Obviously, in the case of the Danish pictures, there was no danger of idolatry, since the pictures were unflattering. The problem, rather, was insult. But I am a bit confused about why someone like Qaradawi thinks it is insulting to show the Prophet's turban turned into a bomb, as one of the cartoons does. He never stops telling us that Islam commands its followers to blow other people up.
If we take fright whenever extreme Muslims complain, we put more power in their hands. If the Religious Hatred Bill had passed unamended this week, it would have been an open invitation to any Muslim who likes getting angry to try to back his anger with the force of law. Even in its emasculated state, the Bill will still encourage him, thus stirring the ill-feeling its authors say they want to suppress.
On the Today programme yesterday, Stewart Lee, author of Jerry Springer: The Opera - in which Jesus appears wearing nappies - let the cat out of the bag. He suggested that it was fine to offend Christians because they had themselves degraded their iconography; Islam, however, has always been more "conscientious about protecting the brand".
The implication of the remark is fascinating. It is that the only people whose feelings artists, newspapers and so on should consider are those who protest violently. The fact that Christians nowadays do not threaten to blow up art galleries, invade television studios or kill writers and producers does not mean that their tolerance is rewarded by politeness. It means that they are insulted the more.
Right now, at the fashionable White Cube Gallery in Hoxton, you can see the latest work of Gilbert and George, mainly devoted, it is reported, to attacks on the Catholic Church. The show is called Sonofagod Pictures and it features the head of Christ on the Cross replaced with that of a primitive deity. One picture includes the slogan "God loves F***ing".
Like most Christians, I find this offensive, but I think I must live with the offence in the interests of freedom. If I find, however, that people who threaten violence do have the power to suppress what they dislike, why should I bother to defend freedom any more? Why shouldn't I ring up the Hon Jay Jopling, the proprietor, and tell him that I shall burn down the White Cube Gallery unless he tears Gilbert and George off the walls? I won't, I promise, but how much longer before some Christians do? The Islamist example shows that it works.
There is a great deal of talk about responsible journalism, gratuitous offence, multicultural sensitivities and so on. Jack Straw gibbers about the irresponsibility of the cartoons, but says nothing against the Muslims threatening death in response to them. I wish someone would mention the word that dominates Western culture in the face of militant Islam - fear. And then I wish someone would face it down.