No middle ground

Why did the Press consult counterterrorism experts?

by Zareena Grewal

The Press and its expert consultants wrongly assume (1) that Muslim objections to the Danish cartoons are based purely on a religious taboo, and (2) that violence is the “natural” outcome of offending Muslim sensibilities. This is faulty logic.

The riots that broke out (months) after the 2005 publication of the cartoons were not a spontaneous, irrational, and automatic Muslim response to images of the Prophet deemed offensive. Consider a counter-example: in 1997, Muslim American groups petitioned the Supreme Court to sandblast a frieze of Muhammad off the Court because, they argued, he was depicted as an “intolerant conqueror wielding a sword.” When the judge ruled against them, there were no worldwide riots, no major headlines.

What made the cartoons so particularly explosive? Klausen’s book shows that a complex series of events, including peaceful protests such as letter-writing and economic boycotts, preceded the worldwide protests, which in some cases escalated into riots. The death toll was the result of out-of-control riots and rough policing, not terrorism. The violence of the ordinary Muslims involved in the riots may not be justifiable, but it is qualitatively different from the terrorism of Al Qaeda, a distinction lost in so much of the analysis of the cartoon controversy.


Zareena Grewal is an assistant professor of American studies at Yale. She teaches on Muslims in America and U.S. cultural and political interests in the Middle East.