Huffpost Religion

European Art Offends Muslims

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LONDON — With the West locked in conflicts across the Muslim world, why would anyone throw fuel on the fire?

A small group of Europeans have been doing just that – provoking death plots and at least one murder by turning out art that derides the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran in the name of Western values.

Behind the scenes is something bigger: a rising European unease with a rapidly growing Muslim minority, and the spreading sense that the continent has become a front in a clash of civilizations.

Recent events – including surprising electoral success by an anti-Islamic Dutch party, moves to ban veils in France and minarets in Switzerland, and arrests in Ireland and the U.S. this week in an alleged plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist – are signs of the rising tensions.

Swedish artist Lars Vilks says he was defending freedom of speech when he produced a crude black-and-white drawing of Muhammad with a dog's body in 2007. Authorities say that set him in the crosshairs of an assassination plot by extremists including Colleen LaRose, a 46-year-old Muslim convert from Pennsylvania who dubbed herself "Jihad Jane."

Vilks said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he wasn't interested in offending Muslims as an end in itself, but wanted to show that he could make provocative art about any topic he chose. "There is nothing so holy you can't offend it," he said.

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten also said it was defending free speech in 2005 when it printed 12 cartoons of Muhammad, one in a bomb-shaped turban, setting off protests and the torching of Western embassies in several Muslim countries. And bottle-blond Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders said he was promoting European values by producing Fitna, a 15-minute film that lays images of the Sept. 11 attacks alongside verses from the Quran. The film was shown in Britain's House of Lords this month.

The cases are extreme, but millions of moderate Europeans also are re-examining the meaning of the liberal values widely cherished across the continent. How, many are asking, should a liberal society respectfully deal with immigrants who often espouse illiberal values? Should the immigrants adopt the values of their adoptive land – or, to the contrary, should society change to accommodate the newcomers who now form part of it?

France, home to at least five million of the estimated 14 million Muslims in Western Europe, launched a parliament-run dialogue on what to do about full-face veils last year. It ended with a parliamentary panel recommending a ban on the veils in buses, trains, hospitals, post offices and public sector facilities. In December, a large majority of Swiss voters backed a ballot initiative banning the building of any new minarets.

The measures sparked some peaceful protests. But the most incendiary provocations have come from the Dutch and their Nordic neighbors, nations with long histories of homogeneity, tradition of provocative artwork and less experience with large-scale immigration than former colonial titans like Britain and France.

Jan Hjarpe, a professor emeritus of Islamic studies at Lund University in southern Sweden, near Vilks' home, said the deliberate provocations were helpful to Islamic extremists, who have been hunting for targets that would win them popularity in the Muslim world.

"It has had almost no effect on the Muslim community in Sweden, who regard it as not very interesting," he said. "These threats against him have to do with extremist groups that want something to react to."

Denmark's Prophet Muhammad cartoons emerged from a discussion in 2005 about whether Islam was being treated with special sensitivity among Danish artists for fear of reprisals from extremists. Jyllands-Posten said the project was a way to challenge self-censorship and show that Muslims, too, must be ready to put up with mockery in a society based on democracy and free speech.

Denmark has an estimated 200,000 Muslims – about 4 percent of the population – while the numbers in Sweden are believed to be somewhat higher.

Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry. Danish Muslims took the cartoons as an affront, viewing them as symbolic of a backlash against Muslim immigrants in Denmark, manifested by the rise of a nationalist party and sometimes harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Danish press.

An ax-wielding Somali man with suspected al-Qaida links has been jailed since January on preliminary charges of terrorism and attempted murder after breaking into the home of Kurt Westergaard, the 74-year-old Danish artist whose Muhammad-with-bomb-turban cartoon outraged the Muslim world three years ago. The Somali man had won an asylum case and received a residency permit to stay in Denmark, officials said.

Outrage, threats and violence over depictions of Muhammad are nothing new: Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding in England for a decade because the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, ordering Muslims to kill him because his book, "The Satanic Verses," insulted Islam.

Rushdie has survived, but in 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was slain on an Amsterdam street by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent incensed by his film "Submission," a fictional study of abused Muslim women. It featured scenes of near-naked women with Quranic texts appearing on their flesh.

Van Gogh was repeatedly shot, and his throat was cut. A letter pinned to his chest with a knife threatened the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of radical Islam who helped write the film.

The death accelerated the swelling of anti-Islamic populism in the once-tolerant Netherlands, where Muslims now make up some 5 percent of the 16 million population.

In the 1980s and into the 90s, large numbers of immigrants – mainly Turks and Moroccans encouraged to move to the country as cheap labor – barely integrated into mainstream society and instead stuck together in low-rent inner-city neighborhoods.

In light of the tragic record of the Dutch toward the Jewish population during the Nazi occupation, when some 70 percent were deported and killed, it was considered impolitic to show resentment against another ethnic group. But that didn't mean the resentment wasn't there. It was only in 2002 when the populist politician Pim Fortuyn began speaking openly against immigration and the threat to the Dutch identity that people felt free to voice their anger. Fortuyn's popularity soared, and the party he founded was hugely popular even after Fortuyn himself was assassinated (by an animal rights activist).

Successive governments clamped down on immigration and forced new arrivals to learn about the Dutch language and culture in an attempt to integrate them into mainstream society.

Wilders is derided by his enemies as a neo-fascist but has been able to turn his provocations into political success: his Freedom Party winning in the town of Almere and coming in second in The Hague this month the only two races it ran out of 394 cities and towns that elected local councils.

If the outcome is any indication of the parliamentary vote in June, Wilders could emerge as a king-maker on the national stage with no combination of parties is likely to be able to form a working majority in the next parliament.

One widely praised new book, journalist Christopher Caldwell's "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe" has prompted ongoing discussion of whether Islam can ever truly be integrated into European society. Some see cause for optimism, however faint.

"I wonder whether the liberal order is really quite so weak and inept, whether the story is quite over just yet," Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in one review.

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Associated Press Writers Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Art Max and Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.