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Jyllands Posten

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The Terrorist Threat, Part XXVI

22 July 2011

The Terrorist Threat, Part XXVI

By Gwynne Dyer

You could almost hear the enormous sigh of relief as journalists around the world welcomed the news that there had been a big explosion in Oslo and many shooting deaths on a nearby island. There’s been practically no foreign news for them to write about – it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and all the major villains of international politics are on holiday – but this is terrorism, and terrorism always sells.

“Even if one is well prepared, it is always rather dramatic when something like this happens,” said Prime Minister Jens Stolteneberg with admirably Norwegian restraint. But restraint is not the dominant mode in journalism, and plenty of people were willing to hypothesise on who caused the explosion and why. The leading theories were:

1. It was Islamist terrorists taking belated revenge for the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten six years ago that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. They would have had to be very ignorant terrorists, since Jyllands-Posten is a Danish newspaper and Oslo is in Norway, but the distinction may not be clear if you live far away and you didn’t pay attention in geography class.

2. It was Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafy carrying out his threat earlier this month to attack European targets in retaliation for European help to Libyan rebels: “Hundreds of Libyans will martyr in Europe. I told you it is eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” There are six Norwegian fighter planes operating over Libya, after all.

3. It was an extreme right-wing conspiracy with its roots in Norwegian politics, taking aim at the ruling Labour Party.

It’s starting to look as if the last theory was correct, with Anders Behring Breivik, the sole suspect who has been arrested, cast as a Norwegian Timothy McVeigh. The point is that if you are not Norwegian, it doesn’t matter much. Indeed, even if you are Norwegian, it shouldn’t matter much. This is a big media event and a tragedy for those directly involved, but it is not actually a big event.

A hundred people killed in a train wreck or an airline disaster is a two-day story in the country where it happened, and a one-day story that does not lead the television news (unless there are particularly dramatic pictures) in the rest of the world. Whereas a hundred Norwegians killed in a bomb attack and a shooting spree once in a half-century makes headlines around the world.

This is quite understandable in some ways: we know that we all have to die eventually, but we feel entitled not to be murdered by strangers. Besides, news is really news precisely because of its scarcity value. If there were bomb attacks and shooting incidents in Oslo every day, most foreign media would soon stop reporting it on a daily basis. There would be a piece of reportage or analysis every month or so, and that would be it.

The problem is that terrorism gets people’s attention, just as it is intended to. It then becomes the basis for making policy. And often that policy is very expensive, very intrusive and very foolish. There will now be thousands of new metal detectors, and thousands of new “security” personnel to run those machines and carry out body searches, at the entrances to public buildings across Europe and probably beyond.

There may even be armed guards at youth camps run by political parties. It will create some employment at a time when it is needed, but that will presumably not be the aim of the exercise. The goal, or so we will be told, is to reduce the likelihood of such a terrible event happening again. But you can’t do that. All you can do is to move the terrible events around.

If you make all government buildings everywhere totally impenetrable, with overlapping layers of tight and time-consuming security, then the next bomber with a grievance will just blow himself up in a bus. Or in a supermarket, or at a major sports event, or just in a crowded city street. Unless you are willing to legislate against more than a dozen people being together anywhere, terrorists will continue to enjoy a “target-rich environment.”

Fortunately, these terrible events are very rare. They are rare partly because governments keep track of individuals and groups that show some interest in terrorism, but mainly they are rare because there really are not that many such individuals and groups.

The ordinary citizen’s safety lies in statistics, not in ever more elaborate “security” measures. You are still more likely to die from falling off a ladder or drowning in the bath than you are to die in a terrorist attack. When they tell you to re-shape your life or your foreign policy in response to the “terrorist threat,” tell them to go jump in the lake.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“This is…it”; and “Fortunately…groups”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Defending “The Life of Brian”

6 February 2006

Defending “The Life of Brian”

By Gwynne Dyer

“Without this there would be no Life of Brian,” said Roger Koeppel, editor-in-chief of the German newspaper Die Welt, claiming that his decision to republish the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused such offence to many Muslims was a free speech issue. “It’s at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire.” That is true, but it is not the only truth.

Europeans did not overthrow the power of Christian religious authorities to kill people who disputed their version of the truth just to hand it to Islamic religious authorities several centuries later. There is no contradiction, however, between asserting the right of free speech and condemning those who use it to inflict gratuitous pain on others. Particularly when it is the powerful abusing the vulnerable.

Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the series of twelve cartoons about the Muhammad over four months ago, has the largest circulation of any Danish newspaper. Denmark’s Muslim community, only 170,000 strong, is one of the most marginalised and beleaguered in Europe, and the governing coalition includes a large party that is explicitly anti-immigrant and implicitly anti-Muslim. The paper’s culture editor, Flemming Rose, claims that the decision to commission twelve cartoonists to lampoon Muhammad was just an attempt to start a debate in Denmark on self-censorship in the media, but he got a lot more than that for his money.

The cartoons were neither clever nor funny, and two of them were blatantly offensive. One depicted Muhammad himself as a terrorist, his turban transformed into a fizzing bomb; the other showed him speaking to a ragged queue of suicide bombers at heaven’s gate saying “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.” They deliberately implied that Islam is a terrorist religion, and Denmark’s Muslims quite reasonably demanded an apology. It was still a storm in a very small teacup — but then the usual suspects got to work.

The newspaper refused to apologise, and Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, sucked up to the anti-immigrant vote by refusing even to meet ambassadors from Muslim countries who wanted to protest about the cartoons. So a group of imams from the Danish Muslim organisation Islamisk Trossamfund toured Saudi Arabia and Egypt in November and December with copies of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and included some others that were even more offensive and showed Muhammad as a pig and a child molester.

It took a lot of time and effort to build this into a real confrontation, but the Norwegian Christian monthly Magazinet helpfully republished the cartoons in January, Saudi Arabia and Libya withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen, and indignation built steadily in Muslim chat-rooms and blogs on the internet. By the end of January Danish flags were being burnt and Danish goods boycotted in the Arab world, and both the Danish prime minister and the editor of Jyllands-Posten went into reverse, publicly apologising for the offence that had been caused. But it was too late.

Various right-wing newspapers in Europe including Die Welt and France-Soir saw the Danish apologies as a failure to defend free speech, and republished the offending cartoons on their front pages. This gave radical Islamist fringe groups in European countries a pretext to stage angry demonstrations — the slogans at the London demo called for more terrorist bombs like those of last July and urged the faithful to “Butcher those who mock Islam” — and the confrontation finally achieved lift-off.

Late last week mobs attacked the European Union’s offices in the Gaza Strip and the building housing the Danish embassy in Jakarta. Incensed by text messages saying that Danish right-wingers were planning to burn copies of the Quran (though they didn’t, in the end), angry Muslims burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria and the Danish consulate in Lebanon during the weekend. The idiots, the ideologues and the fanatics on both sides have the bit between their teeth now, and it will take some time for the fury to burn out. But it is important to remember that most people have NOT lost their heads.

Inayat Banglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said of the demonstrators who had urged more bomb attacks in Britain: “It is time the police acted, but in a way so as not to make them martyrs of the prophet’s cause, which is what they want, but as criminals. Ordinary Muslims are fed up with them.” The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference warned that “Over-reactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts…are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world.”

Similarly on the Western side — you can’t really say Christian any more, except for the United States and maybe Poland — the great majority of newspapers did not publish the cartoons. In Britain, in Poland, in Russia, in Canada and (with one exception) in the United States, none did. It is not self-censorship to refuse to publish these abusive images that link Muslims with terrorism, it is simply common courtesy.

It does not mean that no Western cartoonist may ever use Muhammad again (though they will doubtless be more cautious about the context in future). The ban on images of Muhammad is a Muslim tradition, not a Western one. But we live in a joined-up world where everybody can see everybody else all the time, and being polite to the neighbours is a social obligation. Jyllands-Posten and its emulators were very stupid and very rude.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5.  (“Europeans…vulnerable”; and “The newspaper …molester”)