Banned Authors Week: The Jihad Against Scandinavian Cartoonists
Things are not going well for the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda. A tribal revolt backed by American forces has expelled it from its former stronghold of Anbar Province. The same thing is starting to happen in other parts of the country, as both Sunni tribes and non-Salafist insurgents turn on the organization. Just a few days ago, a top al Qaeda leader named Abu Usama al-Tunisi was killed in Iraq. Found with his body was a letter containing a desperate plea for assistance.
On September 14, al Qaeda responded to this deteriorating situation by trotting out an audiotape statement from "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi", the mythical figurehead of its Iraqi front organization. As you would expect, the statement contained numerous denunciations of other Iraqi insurgent groups for their betrayal. However, al Qaeda's pseudonymous leader also discussed some other matters. With al Qaeda in Iraq on the brink of disaster, "al-Baghdadi" took the time to threaten the life (pdf) of a Swedish cartoonist. Here is the relevant passage:
“Others who had previously claimed to be neutral also have attacked the Muslims. An excellent example of this is the degenerate crusader country of Sweden, where they published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed portrayed as a dog...We reserve the right to punish those who committed the crime...[Additionally], on this day forward, we call for the killing of the cartoon artist Lars who committed these despicable acts against our Prophet Mohammed. We announce a reward of $100,000 for anyone who kills that infidel criminal. The reward shall be $150,000 for anyone who beheads him as well. We also will give $50,000 to anyone who kills the chief editor of that newspaper. O’ Muslims, you shall seek this reward, ask for forgiveness, and kill these two infidels…”
On Monday, September 17, Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist threatened by al Qaeda, was taken into protective custody by authorities in his native country. What did he do to "merit" a $100,000 bounty on his head? This September 18 piece from Der Spiegel explains:
The flap began on Aug. 19 when a local newspaper, Nerikes Allehanda, published Vilks' caricature depicting a dog with Muhammad's face. The image is doubly insulting for conservative Islamists because they consider dogs to be impure, and Islam generally shuns graphic depictions of the prophet. The paper decided to print the image as a show of free speech after a number of art galleries decided not to exhibit it.
Still, why would jihadists in Iraq, with more than enough to worry about in their own backyard, put a bounty on a non-Muslim cartoonist living in Sweden? The answer lies in the radical Islamist quest to murderously silence any form of "blasphemous" expression, regardless of who creates it or where it happens. The same reaction occurred the last time a Scandinavian newspaper ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the famous 2005 drawings published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Just as they have called for Vilks' murder, so al Qaeda and its allies have issued numerous death threats against the editors and cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten.
The most prominent threat against the Danish cartoonists came from Osama bin Laden himself, in an audiotape released on April 24, 2006. In his remarks, the Emir of al Qaeda demanded that those involved in publishing the cartoons be handed over (pdf) to his organization for "trial":
“So our stance toward these mockers of our Prophet, peace be upon him, those who insulted him in those drawings, is that we demand that their government hand them over to us, for them to be judged according to the Law of Allah, as long as they are saying that it is freedom of expression and the government is not responsible, and that instead the responsibility falls on the newspaper itself. This request of ours is from the category of treating in kind, and we say to you that if you have forgotten, let us remind you that when you announced that Usama bin Ladin was accused of striking at American interests, you issued a Security Council resolution which was passed unanimously, declaring the extradition of Usama to be mandatory, despite no evidence being provided. Therefore, extradite to us those who have been proven to have committed this act.”
As the SITE Institute has documented, bin Laden's was just one of many such threats expressed by both prominent jihadists and posters on extremist web sites. The calls to murder the Danish "blasphemers" have continued to the present day. On August 31, the following was posted on an Islamist web site (based in Minnesota, disturbingly enough):
"Some Muslims have put the affair of the Danish [cartoons] behind them and have completely forgotten it... I have reopened this issue in order to irritate the infidel Danes, and to remind them that the affair is not over and that the brigades of the martyrdom seekers are on their way.
"[My] goal is to urge [my Muslim] brothers to put down their names [so as to indicate] that the affair is not over, and that they will soon set out to carry out blessed operations in Denmark. Please put down your names in order to strike fear in the hearts of the Danish people.
"I take upon myself the honorable [task] of being the first martyrdom seeker to crush the strongholds of heresy in Denmark.
"[Signed] Abu Al-Bara Al-Dosari. Place of residence: the secret state of Al-Qaeda, from which we will set forth to crush the heretic [regimes]."
Some might argue that this is just talk, but unfortunately jihadists have shown a disturbing proclivity to follow through on their death threats. As the Associated Press reported on September 4, Denmark has emerged as a desirable al Qaeda target, in large part because of the Mohammed cartoons. Just this week, it was revealed in court that a group of radicalized Danish Muslims considered staging a car bomb attack on the home of Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose.
As for Lars Vilks, he seems to have taken things remarkably in stride. Vilks refuses to back down, and has even discussed a rather bizarre plan to create a musical based on the controversy. To their credit, other Swedish media outlets have expressed their solidarity and demanded that free expression be protected in the face of al Qaeda's barbarous threats.
Still, Vilks received a chilling reminder of the danger he now faces while participating in a September 18 panel discussion. The Associated Press has the details:
During a question-and-answer session, a bearded man wearing a knitted skullcap walked up to a podium on the stage and delivered what appeared to be a threat against Vilks.
"I hope that your fate will be a lesson for you others," the man said in broken Swedish, drawing an angry reaction from a majority of the crowd, who booed, whistled and shouted at the man to get off the stage.
The man, who didn't give his name or identify the group he was representing, left the auditorium with an entourage of about 10 people and security guards following closely behind.
The two Scandinavian cartoon controversies are important not just as test cases for defending free expression, but for the insight they offer into the murderous totalitarian worldview of the jihadists. For one thing, it should be abundantly clear that there can be no appeasing an enemy who believes that offensive cartoons provide sufficient pretext for engaging in violence and destruction. It should also be obvious that al Qaeda and its allies regard their murderous campaign against intellectual freedom as an integral part of their efforts to create a totalitarian Islamist Caliphate.
Perhaps most importantly, the Scandinavian cartoon threats show that radical Islamists are no longer content with crushing apostasy and blasphemy in Muslim lands. This process started in 1989 with Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. By this action, the Iranian leader claimed the right to kill apostates anywhere in the world.
Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose, in an interview in the Fall 2007 Middle East Quarterly, has said that he didn't worry about the Rushdie example when he commissioned the cartoons. After all, unlike Rushdie, neither Rose nor any of the cartoonists are Muslim. What he didn't anticipate was that the Islamists, and not just Salafist-jihadists like al Qaeda, would seize on the cartoons as a pretext for extending their ban on "blasphemous" expression to cover non-Muslims living in non-Muslim countries. The Islamist reaction to the Scandinavian Mohammed cartoons represents the logical next step in the globalization of Islamist censorship. If they succeed in their efforts, banning offensive drawings will just be the beginning.