New Internationalist

Cartoon conflict

Issue 389

Sharif Gemie announces the birth of a global protest culture.

This has been a non-debate. Only about one per cent of the people who discuss the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad deny the principle of freedom of speech, and only about one per cent deny that such freedoms should be exercised responsibly. There is no deep disagreement concerning these fundamental moral principles but this controversy has demonstrated how intensely difficult it is to translate such almost self-evident principles into coherent practice on a global scale. Rather than discussing the rights and wrongs of the affair, I want to turn to the lessons it teaches.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Jyllands Posten (Jutland Post) is a right-of-centre Danish daily paper. It circulates in a country that, since January 2005, has been governed by a minority coalition of liberal and conservative parties, who are in turn dependent on a far right-wing party, the Danish People’s Party, which won 13.2 per cent of the votes in the 2005 elections. This government has passed laws severely restricting immigration. The Danish People’s Party campaigns for a still tougher anti-immigration policy and explicitly targets Muslims in its pronouncements. There are approximately 200,000 Muslims resident in Denmark, about 3.7 per cent of the total population. Many are now leaving Denmark for more liberal Sweden.

Early in 2005 a Danish author of children’s books, Kare Bluitgen, intended to write a biography of Muhammad. He wanted pictures for his work: to his surprise, no illustrator was willing to draw them. Was this out of fear of reprisals from Muslim terrorists? Or out of respect for the Muslim convention that the Prophet should not be depicted? Bluitgen contacted the Jyllands Posten, whose editor quickly decided that this constituted a case of ‘self-censorship’ and that his paper had to defend Denmark’s tradition of freedom of expression. There is more to this than meets the eye: in 2003, the same paper had refused to publish caricatures of Jesus on the grounds that they would be offensive. But in the increasingly xenophobic, anti-immigrant atmosphere of 2005, no one in the Jyllands Posten seemed concerned about the offence that their cartoons might cause Muslims.

Danish Muslims objected almost immediately. On 19 October 2005, three ambassadors from Muslim countries requested a meeting with the Danish Prime Minister to register their concern: he refused to meet them. This point is significant. The first impression that many Muslims gained from this affair was that the much-vaunted structures of freedom of speech did not work for them: while the militant London cleric Abu Hamza could be imprisoned on charges of inciting hatred, David Irving imprisoned for Holocaust denial and Ken Livingstone suspended from office for some stupid antisemitic remarks, there appeared to be no potential legal redress for Muslims offended by these cartoons.

Interpretations

Twelve cartoons were published: some have captions attached, but the most controversial of them does not, beyond the single word ‘Muhammad’. This cartoon showed a bearded, curiously Indian-looking face, wearing a bomb with a burning fuse in place of a turban. There was a single, carefully written verse, in Arabic, on the turban. It reads ‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah’ – the single most important phrase in Islam. The presence of this verse suggested that the illustrator had researched the topic and knew what he was doing: the insult his work presents was not simple carelessness or stupidity. Despite these words, this image is principally visual and – just like prehistoric cave-paintings – it is extremely difficult to assign a fixed meaning to this non-verbal image. To an extent, each viewer is free to devise their own interpretation.

For the Jyllands Posten, the drawings were ‘sober’, and constituted a contribution to ‘an ongoing public debate on freedom of expression’ (Jyllands Posten, 8 February 2006). For a number of right-wing liberals, the cartoons were a part of a joyous European satirical tradition. Thus Mario Vargas Llosa, the prestigious Peruvian-Spanish novelist, defended ‘the right to irreverence’ (El País, 12 February 2006). For some, the cartoon targeted fundamentalists and the manner in which they exploited Islam.

There were at least two objections to the cartoons from Muslims. First, some criticized the cartoons on religious grounds, invoking the long-standing Sunni Muslim objection to portrayals of Muhammad. (This ban is less strictly enforced among Shi’a Muslims and there are some beautiful miniatures from medieval Persia which depict the Prophet.) The second objection was more important. Writers such as the critical, radical Muslim Laurent Lévy objected to these cartoons on secular grounds, arguing that they are expressions of a new European racism (`Réflexions sur une étrange tempête’, http://oumma.com> 13 February 2006). Such critics see these cartoons working like older antisemitic cartoons. Their message is that while Muslims may live and work in Europe, while they may marry in Europe, dress like Europeans and even speak like Europeans, they can never assimilate European values. There is an essence of ‘European-ness’ which they will never attain. This bearded face, with its staring eyes and its head full of menace, is how 21st-century racists choose to depict the ‘true face’ of contemporary Muslims. This is the most disturbing interpretation of the cartoons: regrettably, it may well be the most accurate.

Consequences and protests

Early in 2006, news of the caricatures was transmitted across the world. Conservative Danish imams appealed to Saudi authorities. Radical Muslims debated the cartoons on their websites. Mobile phone messages circulated among Muslim communities in Spain and Belgium: ‘The code for Danish products begins with 57. If you want to boycott their products, don’t forget this.’ Authoritarian, xenophobic Muslims argued that these cartoons demonstrated that their criticisms of the West were correct.

Twenty years ago, no one in the Arab/Muslim world would have known or cared about cartoons published in Denmark. In the 21st century, news spreads from Denmark to Morocco to Indonesia if not instantaneously, then certainly within days. This, perhaps, is the first lesson from this episode: a global culture means that a tiny group of racist Danes cannot snigger in a corner by themselves. The rest of the world will read their papers; they will be judged and criticized; and their words will have international consequences.

The cartoons have been reproduced in approximately 20 countries, mainly by right-wing or centre-right papers. They have provoked an extraordinary wave of reactions: boycotts of Danish goods; death-threats; demonstrations in Brussels, London, Madrid, Rabat and Tehran; serious, violent riots in Benghazi, Beirut, Damascus and Peshawar; journalists arrested in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria; and the resignation of an Italian minister. It seems reasonable to estimate that at least a hundred have died in such riots. This seems a heavy price to pay for a Danish experiment in free speech. It must be stressed, however, that when Libyan police shoot Libyan citizens in a Libyan town, then the prime responsibility for the deaths lies with Libyan authorities, not with a Danish newspaper editor.

Some of these demonstrations involved considerable numbers: 75,000 in Peshawar, maybe 100,000 in Rabat. On the other hand, the sensationalistic image of the Middle East in flames is exaggerated. In most cases, these were actions by determined minorities rather than by the mass of the population.

For Europe’s right-wing liberals, these protests are not representative. Their frequent appeals to ‘moderate’ Muslims to voice their feelings against the protests are another expression of their repeated demand that Islam construct itself according to the West’s requirements. There remains a naïve liberal faith that the oppressed masses of the Muslim world are just waiting for the West to lead them to liberation. Of course, many Muslims do admire elements of Western culture: if George Bush really wants to win hearts and minds, he could begin by dropping a million Michael Jackson and Madonna DVDs in Iran. These would certainly be more effective in encouraging pro-Americanism than so-called ‘smart’ bombs. But there is no Muslim ‘silent majority’ in favour of these cartoons: the Jyllands Posten has been remarkably successful in uniting conservative theocrats and radical modernists, authoritarians and democrats, Islamists and secular nationalists in one wave of disgust. There are only a few Muslims who will defend the cartoons: for example, Ayann Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script for Dutch film Submission. A Muslim terrorist killed its director, Theo van Gogh. She deplores ‘self-censorship’, and applauds those who reproduce the cartoons; she argues that today Islam presents the same threat to European liberties as Communism did (El País, 18 February 2006). On the other hand, she acknowledges her minority status: it would be hard to argue that she represents a ‘silent majority’ within Muslim opinion.

Religious authorities did not organize the most important protests. One of the most telling images of the riots in Beirut was the sight of a grey-robed, neatly bearded imam physically restraining rioters intent on attacking the Danish embassy. The protesters here represent a new, activist Islam, intolerant of criticism, xenophobic and often seeking to break with the cautious conservatism of religious authorities. In Iran, where religious authorities are directly involved in government, few people followed the calls to demonstrate.

Globalized Islam

Why did these cartoons produce such extensive protests? There have been other causes, such as the war in Iraq or the beleaguered status of the Palestinians, arguably of greater importance, which have not created such a shock wave. The answer lies in the nature of this new, globalized Islam. One must start by understanding that dismissals of Islam as ‘medieval’ or ‘backward-looking’ are inaccurate. Islam, in many ways, is a modern religion, stripped of mysticism, relatively independent of nation-state structures, relatively coherent and based on a distinctive combination of individual piety and collective ritual. In his classic work Imagined Communities (1991), Benedict Anderson points out that modern European nationalism was based on devices such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which could structure a deep sense of solidarity between people who would never meet each other. The global rituals of Islam, its Ramadans and its hajj, are arguably more effective in developing a transnational, de-territorialized sense of solidarity: one that is particularly suitable for this globalized age. The catch is, however, that this strong sense of solidarity requires respect for certain symbols: the Prophet Muhammad is a central one.

The main question raised by this affair is the future ethics of this newly formed community of Muslims. Can they act in a manner that will help construct globally orientated structures? Or will they become merely another special interest group demanding its slice of the global pie? The tit-for-tat response of the Iranian Government, which has proposed antisemitism as a retort to Islamophobia, is disappointing and reprehensible. Rather than answering stigmatization with stigmatization, Muslim activists should instead lead those forces seeking to create a global culture based on a sense of respect for all the world’s citizens. The slogan used by some demonstrators in Rabat – ‘Respect us, and we will respect you’ – might be the beginning of such a move.

Sharif Gemie is Reader in History at the University of Glamorgan and Editor of Anarchist Studies (http://www.l-w-bks.co.uk).

Thanks to Patricia Clark, Sureyyya Evren, Norrie Laporte, Fiona Reid and Ali Wardak for their advice and comments.

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