March issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

One of the most curious aspects of the international furore over a bunch of largely unfunny cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper is the gestation period between publication and pandemonium. The mediocre sketches saw the light of day last September. The reaction against them did not gather pace until last month.

It could be argued that it took that long for a coterie of Danish imams to disseminate evidence of the supposed blasphemy. But that explanation does not stand up to scrutiny. After all, an Egyptian paper, Al Fajr, reproduced the drawings, alongside a condemnation, as early as October — months before they were republished in a swag of European papers. At around the same time, an Indonesian paper posted at least one of the drawings on its website. Neither of them elicited much of a response.

This initial nonchalance feeds into the suspicion that this year’s violent protests were orchestrated by organisations with agendas of their own. The riots across the Muslim world have consumed scores of lives, and in the case of Nigeria they evolved into deadly confrontations between the nation’s Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, even in cases where the protests were generally peaceful, some of the slogans catered to the worst fears of European Islamophobes — exalting Al Qaeda, for instance, and threatening a repetition of last year’s appalling terrorist attack on public transport in London.

In Jordan, meanwhile, Jihad Momani, the editor of a newspaper called Shihan, which reproduced three of the offending caricatures, raised a pertinent point: “What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras, or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony?” For his troubles, Momani has not only lost his job but faces criminal charges. According to one report, he has also lost most of his friends: even those who agreed with him in private are unwilling to support him in public.

The widely reported reactions to Jyllands-Posten’s supposed blasphemy give the impression of having been coordinated with those who are keen to reinforce the impression that Islam is synonymous with mindless violence and therefore incompatible with European “values”.

There is no evidence of such coordination, but the point is that attacks on embassies and other ostensibly western interests, calculatedly or otherwise, tend to bolster the “Clash of Civilisations” thesis — not least because the voices of Muslim liberalism or moderation are either drowned out by the extremist cacophony, or not raised in the first place out of a fear of repercussions. As the Egyptian judge and author Said Al Ashmawy puts it, “I keep hearing, ‘Why are the liberals silent?’ How can we write? Who is going to protect me?…. With the Islamisation of society, the list of taboos has been increasing daily. You should not write about religion. You should not write about politics or women. Then what is left?”

Whether or not one agrees entirely with Ashmawy’s view, there can be little question that, although it varies from one country to another, in the Muslim world generally the space for intellectual discussions on aspects of Islam is extraordinarily limited. Worse, in many cases it appears to be shrinking. It wasn’t always thus, and it is clearly no coincidence that this contraction has developed in tandem with the growth of political Islam since the late 1970s.

The strand of intolerance that runs through political Islam is, similarly, not unrelated to the fact that many Muslim societies have traditionally alternated between dictatorship and autocracy, relying on repression to smother dissent. Nowadays, in many Muslim countries, the broadly unrepresentative and often corrupt regimes face an Islamist opposition that can lead to rivalry in the piety stakes, with the result that liberals get crushed in the competition. The orchestrated outrage over the Danish cartoons seems to be a case in point, as officially encouraged protests in countries such as Libya, Syria and Algeria lurched out of control.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, those behind the violent protests appear to have had an agenda that bore only a tangential relation to indignation over Jyllands-Posten’s original sin. In the former case, it seems that elements not far removed from the Taliban relished an opportunity to demonstrate their clout. In the latter, the more tasteless exhibitions of destructiveness have been attributed to obscurantists who are uncomfortable even with General Musharraf’s lip service to moderation, and were keen to whip up broadly anti-occidental frenzy in the run-up to George W. Bush’s visit.

With one notable exception — Egypt’s Al Fajr — every newspaper in the Muslim world that dared to reproduce any of the caricatures has faced the wrath of the authorities. In most cases, the papers in question sought to justify their decision by saying that they wished to show their readers what the fuss was all about. What’s more interesting is that in some cases — Shihan in Jordan, for instance, and The Observer in Yemen — criticism of the sketches was combined with appeals for a peaceful reaction. In the Yemeni paper, its editor, Muhammad Al Assadi, commented: “Muslims had an opportunity to educate the world about the merits of the Prophet Muhammad and the peacefulness of the religion he had come with …. Muslims know how to lose, better than how to use, opportunities.”

Perhaps what’s most intriguing of all is that a Saudi tabloid called Shams published some of the drawings. The BBC reported last month that its publication was suspended while the authorities investigated its daring decision.

The appearance of the cartoons in several publications across the Muslim world is noteworthy, given that newspapers in France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and other European countries (with the notable exception of Britain), were widely criticised when they reproduced some or all of Jyllands-Posten’s drawings after the Danish paper issued an apology for hurting the feelings of Muslims.

The apology came after a spreading boycott of Danish products threatened Denmark’s commercial relations with the Arab world, which have an annual worth of $2.6 billion. Many of the European papers claimed they resented the affront to press freedom implied by the climbdown. It was widely suspected, however, that in most cases they simply found it too hard to resist a free kick against Europe’s beleaguered Muslims.

Xenophobia is common nowadays in European nations with a sizeable immigrant population. That includes Denmark, whose right-wing government relies on the support of the virulently anti-immigrant People’s Party. According to UK-based Danish musician Kiku Day, “The world needs to realise that the Denmark that helped Jews flee from Nazi deportation is long gone. A new Denmark has appeared, a Denmark of intolerance and a deep-seated belief in its cultural superiority.”

This context is by no means irrelevant when considering the first step in what evolved into a global issue. What are the chances that Jyllands-Posten would have dared to be so provocative amid a less illiberal atmosphere? No one at the newspaper could possibly have guessed that a dozen mediocre caricatures would unleash a worldwide storm, arson attacks on Danish and other embassies and so many deaths. At the same time, however, it is hard to accept that the paper’s cultural editor was only trying to test the limits of freedom of expression, after an author working on a children’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad lamented the fact that he was having trouble finding an illustrator.

That the relatively tastefully illustrated biography has not, as far as one can tell, elicited a hostile response from any quarter, suggests that the hostile response to Jyllands-Posten’s offering had more to do with the nature of the drawings rather than the fact that the Prophet had been depicted at all. Arguably the most offensive of the caricatures shows a bearded man vaguely reminiscent of Pir Pagara wearing a turban — more subcontinental than Middle Eastern — with a lit fuse sticking out of it. The obvious implication is that any follower of the Prophet is necessarily a terrorist.

An evangelical Christian blogger in the US imagined a comparable “critique” of Jesus: “a cartoon of Christ’s crown of thorns transformed into sticks of TNT after an abortion clinic bombing.” Incidentally, evidence of Jyllands-Posten’s hypocrisy grew when it emerged that in April 2003 it turned down some caricatures of Jesus on the grounds that they would “provoke an outcry.”

At least one other Posten cartoon could be construed as racist, while another was capable of generating mild amusement. The rest were either innocuous or pathetic. Was there enough to get worked up about? Well, the grievance is in the eye of the beholder. The nastier drawings could certainly have contributed to reinforcing racist prejudices. But they are extremely unlikely to have influenced anyone who did not already have negative views about Islam. A detailed letter to Jyllands-Posten from representatives of Danish Muslims, or some sort of a broader petition, explaining why the depictions were hurtful to Muslims, would probably have sufficed as a response.

It would have helped, of course, if Jyllands-Posten had promptly proffered an apology. Nor would it have hurt for the Danish prime minister, Anders Rasmussen, to receive the eleven Muslim ambassadors who sought a meeting, if only to hear them out and politely explain that there was nothing he could legally do about their complaint.

The insistence from parts of the Muslim world that Copenhagen must punish the newspaper and the cartoonists is both unreasonable and unrealistic, given that they have broken no Danish laws. A more progressive government than Rasmussen’s may have been more sympathetic to Muslim plaints, but it probably would not have behaved any differently.

What happened next is that a delegation of Danish imams, armed with a dossier that contained not only the Posten’s cartoons but also a few additional — and far more reprehensible — drawings, headed for countries such as Lebanon and Egypt. This was an unfortunate and avoidable turn of events, because it led to the irrational reactions witnessed since the beginning of last month, as well as the reproduction of the caricatures in newspapers across the world. The question arises that if the drawings were indeed blasphemous, didn’t the imams compound the original offence by disseminating them far and wide?

One might also wonder why it is that clerics invariably emerge as spokesmen for Muslim communities in the west, even though it is often said that Islam in its purest form involves direct communication between mortals and the deity: intrusion by the clergy is not only unnecessary but actually inimical to the religion’s spirit.

In the European context, meanwhile, it is worth noting that there’s more than an element of hypocrisy in all the pious sermons about freedom of expression. After all, the British historian David Irving was last month sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for questioning the received wisdom about gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps. His opinions may be vile, but they are also easily refutable: locking him up serves no useful purpose. It also shatters the myth that, under European laws, anything goes. Ken Livingstone’s even more controversial suspension as the mayor of London for a politically incorrect jibe — he compared a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard — only bolsters that impression.

The press in Europe is indeed much more free than the press anywhere in the Muslim world. Nonetheless, it would be ridiculous to suggest that no holds are barred. Some commentators have compared the anti-Muslim cartoons to anti-Jewish propaganda during the rise of Nazism. That may be an exaggeration, but it serves as a reminder that those who insist on the right to demonise Muslims or Islam are on a slippery slope.

Besides, as Martin Jacques pointed out in a thought-provoking article in The Guardian last month, “Europe has never had to worry too much about context or effect because for around 200 years it dominated and colonised most of the world. Such was Europe’s omnipotence that it never needed to take into account the sensibilities, beliefs and attitudes of those that it colonised, however sacred and sensitive they might have been … There is a profound hypocrisy — and deep historical ignorance — when Europeans complain about the problems posed by the ethnic and religious minorities in their midst, for that is exactly what European colonial rule meant for peoples around the world. With one crucial difference, of course: the white minorities ruled the roost, whereas Europe’s new ethnic minorities are marginalised, excluded and castigated, as recent events have shown.”

Karen Armstrong, the author of a biography of the Prophet, is equally indignant: “We trumpet abroad about what a compassionate culture we are. But these cartoons depicting Muhammad (PBUH) as a terrorist are utterly inaccurate, feeding into an Islamophobia that has been a noxious element in Western culture since the time of the Crusades.”

And, commenting in The New York Times, Robin Wright suggests: “The Muslim uproar over those Danish cartoons isn’t as alien to American culture as we like to think …. Editors at mainstream American media outlets delete lots of words, sentences and images to avoid offending interest groups, especially ethnic and religious ones …. That kind of self-censorship is not just an American tradition, but a tradition that has helped make America one of the most harmonious multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in the history of the world.”

On the other hand, it is also important to remember that sections of the right-wing press in the west consider Muslims fair game, in part because it is invariably extremist sections of the community that grab the headlines. This does not, of course, rule out racist intent, but at the same time it suggests that fundamentalism feeds into Islamophobic perceptions and presumptions. Intolerance breeds intolerance. A recent survey suggests, for instance, that around one-fifth of British Muslims would like Shariah laws instituted in parts of the country with substantial Muslim populations.

This is an absurd state of mind, and there can be little doubt that the implicit arrogance would be widely resented by most Britons. In fact, this is precisely the sort of thinking that irrigates the imaginations of those who argue that multi-culturalism is incompatible with western norms of civilisation. That is nonsense, of course: few things are as dull and dreary as mono-cultural societies. In ideal circumstances, multi-culturalism enriches societies by enabling cultures to learn from one another. But those circumstances include mutual respect for each other’s cultures — and they preclude disdain as well as assumptions of superiority.

Needless to say, this works both ways. Just as European Muslims have the right to expect that they won’t be discriminated against, they have no right to demand special treatment. The controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan makes a pertinent point when he says Muslims should bear in mind that: “For the past three centuries, western societies — unlike Muslim-majority countries — have grown accustomed to critical, ironical — even derisive — treatment of religious symbols, among them the Pope, Jesus Christ and even God. Even though Muslims do not share such an attitude, it is imperative they learn to keep an intellectual distance when faced with such provocations and not to let themselves be driven by zeal and fervour, which can only lead to undesirable ends.”

As far as the Danish cartoons are concerned, what we have been witnessing isn’t Samuel Huntington’s fabled “Clash of Civilisations” but a clash of cultures, or perhaps a clash of fundamentalisms, with both sides capitalising on incompatible — and unacceptable — assumptions about Islam.

Racism is an abominable travesty, but it works both ways. If it is incumbent upon European nations to accept their Muslim minorities without overt prejudices, it is equally important for Muslims to abide, by and large, by the rules of the societies they settle into.

The crisis over the cartoons has, somewhat inevitably, evoked memories of the hullabaloo over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Infamously, that book led Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to pronounce a death sentence on Rushdie, even though there was never any chance that the novel might shake the faith of true believers. There may be something in the argument that Rushdie’s freedom of expression was worthier of defence than the probably malicious intent of Jyllands-Posten’s editors. That may be so, but the comparable reaction is undermined by the parallel inefficacy: just as The Satanic Verses could do little harm to Islam, the religion is not so fragile as to be threatened by a bunch of third-rate cartoons.

And just as Khomeini’s fatwa did far more to influence western opinions about Islam, the obscurantist reaction to the cartoons — including a price being placed on the head of one or more of the cartoonists by Pakistani and Indian personalities (Maulana Yousuf Qureshi and Haji Yaqub seem to have little faith in the prospect of punishment in the Hereafter) — has proved far more detrimental than the caricatures.

It would, in retrospect, probably have been best to ignore the drawings. Their dissemination throughout the world, in combination with the violent retorts, has caused far more damage than the unfortunate original initiative. It would have been far easier to sympathise with the Danish imams had they responded equally vehemently, for instance, to Denmark’s role in the Iraqi occupation. Or to the indecencies at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

As it is, there is a lot to protest about in the Muslim world — from the often indecent treatment of minorities to anachronistic cultural hangovers such as honour killings and female circumcision. These are among the human rights transgressions against which the self-ordained flag-bearers of Islam never raise a protest. One can only wonder how such atrocities are somehow considered less worthy of attention and outrage than mere cartoons.

It is occasionally argued that Islam, as a religion considerably younger than Judaism and Christianity, is still playing catch-up: in other words, give it another 500 years or so, and it’ll have undergone a reformation whereby it will be a great deal more relaxed about its status and, therefore, less prone to extremism. The very concept of blasphemy, by then, will be little more than a curious anachronism.

That may well be so. The trouble is, none of us will be around to check out the veracity of this theory. Perhaps it makes more sense, at the moment, to look back at an era when Muslim societies were far more tolerant and enlightened and less paranoid about openly debating the merits of religions, including their own. It is hard, for instance, to imagine any contemporary poets coming up with the sort of verses that a blind free-thinker by the name of Abu Al Ala Al Marri was able to get away with in 10th-century Syria:

The Jews, the Muslims and the Christians,
They’ve all got it wrong.
The people of the world only divide into two kinds,
One sort with brains who hold no religion,
The other with religion and no brain.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.