A year ago, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "When the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with `Islamophobia'." This phobia seems to be on the rise, as the publication of vicious cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammed by a Danish newspaper, and their re-publication by several newspapers across Europe, have demonstrated. At a time when Muslims across the world feel deeply offended by prejudiced stereotypes of Islam post-9/11, the cartoons have not just been insensitive, they have been downright provocative. In the first instance, they offend the strong belief among Muslims that the Prophet must not be depicted in any way. The Koran prohibits idolatory or giving shape or form to Allah, who must not be objectified. But the specific prohibition on graphic or other depictions of the Prophet derives from his hadiths to the effect that neither his grave nor anything connected with him should, after his death, become an object of worship. Aside from this, the cartoons promote hate by suggesting that Islam preaches violence and terrorism. While Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that originally published the cartoons, responded with a quick apology, other European newspapers, notably in France, decided to republish the cartoons on the ground that they were defending freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is supremely important. But surely it does not require its champions crassly to cause offence to the faith and beliefs of an identifiable group. At the end of the day, the European newspapers have to reflect on the consequences of their actions: eight killed, many more injured, and the anger of hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide re-fuelled.
On the other side, the violent reactions in the Muslim world, against all manner of targets, including the Dutch embassy in Lebanon, have been uncalled for. From Europe to West Asia to South Asia and South-East Asia, the steady ramping up of the protests smacks of orchestration by elements in countries with Muslim populations that are out to squeeze political mileage out of the situation. Extremism feeds extremism, and the anti-cartoon protesters have played right back into the hands of the Islamophobes. The image of a Muslim in London made up as a suicide bomber, and the open threats of another 7/7 by marching demonstrators, have evoked anger across Britain, which is struggling to contain Islamophobia in the aftermath of the underground bombings. Commendably, British newspapers displayed a rare unanimity in deciding not to reproduce the cartoons. The protesters in London should have paused to think about that, just as they should have in New Delhi. It is still not too late for both sides the European media and the militant protesters to step back and prevent the controversy from growing into a full-size, hugely divisive, and ugly confrontation.