Cartoon controversy continues - Who speaks for Islam?

Updated On: Feb 14, 2006

In the midst of worldwide unrest over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, both Malaysia and Indonesia have provided good examples of clear, measured but strong protests against the publication of the cartoons.  

Mr Eric John, US deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had also praised Indonesia and Malaysia for their voices of moderation, and noted the fact that democracies in these two countries “proved that Muslims can flourish in such a political system”.

Malaysian and Indonesian reactions to the cartoon controversy were seen as important as Malaysia currently holds the Chairmanship of the 57 nation Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Indonesiais the country with the largest number of Muslims.  It was also reported that Denmark has sought Malaysia’s help to quell the anger among Muslims worldwide.

In his speech at an international conference, “Who speaks for Islam? Who speaks for the West?”, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called on all parties for moderation, saying “Let us start by curbing the extremists in our midst.” He pointed out the need to build bridges between the west and the Muslim world.

He also urged the mainstream media to pay more attention to voices in the West “who realise that the exercise of hegemonic power and the demonisation of Islam are not conducive to inter-civilisational peace” and to “numerous groups and individuals in the Muslim world who are deeply distressed by the violence and terror perpetrated by certain fringe groups within the ummah, just as they are equally uncomfortable with the sweeping denunciations of Christians, Jews and the West.”

The New Straits Times (12 Feb) has also reported Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak commenting at the same conference that the “rising tension in Muslim-West relations is largely due to the fact that the moderates of the two groups opted to remain silent over issues related to Islam.” As a result “the silent majority looked on as the extremists and intolerant minority took over and turned the civilisational dialogue between Islam and the West into an ugly shouting match.”

Meanwhile in Indonesia, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, speaking in his capacity as the Chairman of Golkar Party, has called on Indonesian Muslims to forgiveDenmarkfor its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. "Protests have been made and Denmark has also apologized. As good Moslems we must be able to forgive ," he said at the commemoration of the Islamic new year and inauguration of the executive board of the Angkatan Muda Majelis Dakwah Islamiyah (the Younger Generation of the Islamic Propagation Council-AM-MDI) at the Golkar Party headquarters.

But despite these efforts by Indonesian politicians not to play up the issue, the Danish government acting on what it said as “reliable information of security threats to Danish personnel” had decided to pull its ambassador and staff at the Danish Embassy out of the country.  This was apparently not well-judging from the response from the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirayuda, who commented that  the relocation of the Danish Embassy was “hasty, even unnecessary, given that the rallies here have been relatively peaceful.  

The Jakarta Post tried to steer the debate away from blaming press freedom for the uproar by pointing out that the issue was not so much about press freedom as about bad journalism.

In both countries, the newspapers have provided coverage of the frustration felt by many over the insensitivity of the publication of the cartoons. However, they have also been careful in pointing out that the violent protestors did not necessarily reflect the true face of Islam. The episode seemed to have also strengthened the long-held belief of many in the region that press freedom had to be balanced with sensitivity for the culture and belief of others.


DPM: Silent Majority Must Speak Up, New Straits Times 12 February 2006

Denmarkasks Malaysiato help out, The Star, 12 February 2006

Curb the extremists in our midst, says PM, New Straits Times 11 February 2006

 Is the Cartoon Uproar about Defending Free Speech or Bad Journalism?,  The JakartaPost 13 February 2006

Kalla says Ire Vented at Media, not West,  Jakarta Post 13 February 2006

No need to Break-Off Diplomatic Ties with Denmark: Kalla Says,  Antara 12 February 2006

VP Calls on Moslems to Forgive Denmark, Antara 9 February 2006

 Denmarkwithdraws ambassador, embassy staff from Indonesia, The Star, 11 February 2006

US praises IndonesiaMalaysiahandling of controversial caricature, AP, 11 February 2006.