Who Is Fanning the Flames of the Muhammad Cartoon Controversy?

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," February 11, 2006, that was edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: Protests continue throughout the Muslim world this week over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper over four months ago. Questions arising, however, about just who is behind the most violent of these demonstrations and how representative of Islam they really are.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri joins me from London with some answers.

Mr. Taheri, thank you very much for being here.

AMIR TAHERI, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you for having me.

GIGOT: You wrote this week that these demonstrations weren't really spontaneous combustion but, to use your phrase, were rent-a-mobs. Why do believe that and what's the agenda here?

TAHERI: Well, it's quite clear because those behind them are either governments, such as the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran or the government of Syria, and then a number of extremist political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Liberation Party, Hamas. These are really political groups, not legitimate organizations.

GIGOT: But Syria, for example, is a secular government, unlike the government in Iran, which is a religious government. What is in it for Assad to fan the flames of Islamic hatred?

TAHERI: Well, because last week there was a meeting between Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Khaddam, who was vice president of Mr. Assad, and now he's in exile trying to form a government in exile. So Mr. Assad is trying to prevent that alliance.

At the same time, Denmark is going to assume the presidency of the United Nations Security Council, exactly at the time that Mr. Assad's links to the murder of the former prime minister of Lebanon will come up.

And, of course, it would help him if he could blacken the image of Denmark and create a sideshow.

GIGOT: Well, so there's a political agenda here; it's not merely a religious one. Is the...

TAHERI: Absolutely. There is no religious grounds for these demonstrations. These are political organizations behind it and, you know, I have no objection to that because people are free to express their political views. But they should not lie. They should not say that they are representing Islam as a religion.

GIGOT: Well, you've wrote, also, this week that images of the prophet Muhammad has not traditionally historically been considered blasphemous in Islam, but this is a relatively recent development. Explain, when did that begin to become a problem?

TAHERI: Well, it became a problem 10 days ago when these people started finding a milking cow in this controversy for their political ends. Otherwise, you know, there have always been drawings of the prophet Muhammad and other prophets mentioned in the Koran that has never been a problem.

Since my article appeared in The Journal, I've received lots of e-mails telling me, informing me about other drawings of the prophet that I didn't know about. For example, there are several in the University of Edinburgh library, there are several at the Parliament's library in Tehran itself, exactly where the government is making so much noise.

And there is also a series of an Iranian satirical paper, which was published between 1950 and 1953, which published several caricatures and cartoons of Muhammad without any fuss.

GIGOT: If you had been advising the Danish editors, however, when they were thinking about whether or not to publish those cartoons, would you have advised them to go ahead and publish them, however? Because it does seem to have played into the hands of some of these radicals and given them a tool to fan the flames of this unrest?

TAHERI: Well, you know, I would have judged them as an editor. Some of these cartoons are of not very good quality. I wouldn't have published them. But some of them are of good quality. I would have published them.

You know, if all of us try to become politicians and, you know, self censor ourselves, you know, rectify our position and make politicking, you know, this is not our job. We are journalist and not politicians. You know, the answer to a bad cartoon is a good cartoon.

GIGOT: But as a Christian, for example, I resent ugly images of Jesus Christ, for example. I find that offensive and I wouldn't want an editor to do that. Shouldn't editors in the West show similar restraint regarding Islam?

TAHERI: Well, they should, but if they don't, I mean, they haven't committed a crime. You know, of course, you have to use your personal judgment not to offend anybody, to be polite, to be considerate. All of these things are, you know, courtesy and some are normal parts of human behavior.

But what I'm saying is that, all right, these are cartoons. You don't like them, you know, you're offended by them. The answer to that is cartoons. It is not, you know, sacking embassies and kidnapping people and threatening murder and mayhem.

You know, the same with the Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh. You know, the answer to him was not to cut his throat in the middle of Amsterdam, but to make a film against him.

GIGOT: All right. That's the last word. Amir Taheri, thanks so much for being with us.

TAHERI: Thank you.

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