June 8, 1968 The controversy over the cartoons critical of Islam printed in European newspapers has seized the world’s attention. To some, it must seem that the Muslim prohibition against depicting the Prophet could not possibly be enough to fuel such a violent response. And, in truth, it probably is a combination of that prohibition and the nature of the content depicted in the cartoons. (That three far more offensive cartoons were mysteriously distributed within the Middle East didn’t help matters any.)
But the importance of Muhammad in the Muslim world, in and of itself, cannot be underestimated. Consider Ved Mehta’s 1968 article about the massive turmoil sparked by the theft of a single strand of the Prophet’s hair, an event that occurred in December 1963 in the contentious region of Kashmir. There, too, other factors played a role: the intractable politics of Kashmir, the larger context of India-Pakistan relations. Mehta relies a little too much on lengthy excerpts for my taste, but it is still a valuable piece of background to the current cartoon furor.
Note: The article is Part IV of a long series covering Mehta’s travels in India. The New Yorker got a little sloppy about numbering the parts of this series. I think the series ended up having eight parts, the last of which appeared in the April 11, 1970 issue. Still, wow. An eight-part series. It’s hard to imagine any editor anywhere, other than Shawn, who would have approved an eight-part series of this sort.