London With the West locked in conflicts across the Muslim world, why would anyone throw fuel on the fire?
A small group of Europeans has 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 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. last 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 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.”
“I’m actually not interested in offending the prophet. The point is actually to show that you can,” Vilks said in a recent interview. “There is nothing so holy you can’t offend it.”
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 cases are extreme, but millions of moderate Europeans also 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 should society change to accommodate the newcomers?
France, home to at least 5 million of the estimated 14 million Muslims in Western Europe, had a parliamentary panel recommending a ban on full-face 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.
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.
Denmark has an estimated 200,000 Muslims — about 4 percent of the population — while the numbers in Sweden are believed to be somewhat higher.
Outrage, threats and violence over depictions of Muhammad are nothing new: Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding 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.
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.