The Islamophobia debate

Zafar A Malik

Dear _New Internationalist_,

I am writing to complain about the title of an article in your May 2007 issue: ‘The making of an Islamic Jack the Ripper’. The idea of an ‘Islamic Jack the Ripper’ is as much an oxymoron as the term ‘Islamic terrorist’, only encouraging false peceptions of Islam and Muslims. Abbas Zaidi could have chosen any number of ways to describe the identity of this individual: Pakistani? – yes; Asian? – yes; Islamic? – no. He may be a Muslim, but his behaviour is certainly not Islamic.

By choosing the word ‘Islamic’ the title implies that such behaviour is tolerated and even acceptable in Islam. According to sharia law there are very specific ways to deal with murderers and those who assault and harass women. Both the title and content of the article propel the myth that Islam not only tolerates violence and misogyny, but advocates it. It also implies that piety, religiosity and even being a _hafiz_, are potentially dangerous attributes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Islam itself condemns extremism and favours moderation, and women have had successful roles in public life since the very beginning of Islam. It’s worth noting that Muslim women had the right to vote 1,200 years before women in western Europe. Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was a very successful businesswoman and his employer to boot; and his later wife Aisha was an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, and gave public consultations to both men and women.

As a Muslim woman myself, I also object to the portrayal of a Muslim woman in the Polyp cartoon (*NI 399*, April 2007) which shows a forlorn-looking, brown-skinned woman next to some cut-out burqas. It illustrates a patronizing and misguided pity for Muslim women, that only serves to perpetuate a negative stereotype. It is based on a very Western cliché and illustrates the artist’s complete lack of understanding of the values behind sexual modesty, which apply to both men and women in Islam. Rather than recognizing the beliefs, work and intelligence of Muslim women, the artist is objectifying us as mute victims.

Most practising Muslim women feel insulted and irritated by the Western preoccupation with what we wear. The majority of Muslim women find Islamic dress liberating. It frees us from the constant pervasive sexual objectification that the fashion industry dictates to women in Western cultures. We get on with our lives, dressed with modesty and dignity. Western feminist assumptions about Islamic dress are patronizing and ignorant. Practising Muslim women often find Western clothing styles repellent and degrading, although we would be too polite to say so. It will be a great sign of progress when Western non-Muslims can learn to tolerate and accept Islamic dress, and move on to the real issues affecting Muslims around the world. •

_Sincerely Ms Amatullah Matthews Taunton, England._

Silencing dissent

*Peter Tatchell* believes accusations of Islamophobia are being used to silence legitimate criticisms of fundamentalism.

‘The strength and survival of free society and the advance of human knowledge depend on the free exchange of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence and some of the most powerful ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo and Darwin, have given profound religious offence in their time. The free exchange of ideas depends on freedom of expression, and this includes the right to criticize and mock. We assert and uphold the right of freedom of expression, and call on our elected representatives to do the same. We abhor the fact that people throughout the world live under mortal threat simply for expressing ideas, and we call on our elected representatives to protect them from attack and not to give comfort to the forces of intolerance that besiege them.’

_This declaration of liberal humanitarian values was issued in London in March 2006 by supporters of the Rally for Freedom of Expression. The rally was called to protest against threats by Islamic extremists to kill the illustrators and publishers of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and in defence of authors, journalists, publishers, artists and human rights advocates the world over who are being threatened, arrested, jailed, tortured and murdered because of their ideas and opinions._

The protest condemned all religious and political fundamentalisms that seek to deny freedom of conscience, speech and expression. It was not an attack on Muslim people or the Islamic faith. While not saying the cartoons should have been published, it defended the principle of free speech – including the right to satirize religion (and other beliefs), and the right of satirists not to be killed.

This defence of freedom of expression was widely denounced by many Muslims and left wingers as ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic’. They smeared rally supporters as agents, dupes or fellow-travellers of the far-right British National Party. In this inflammatory, accusatory atmosphere, reasoned debate became almost impossible. Not surprisingly, some people who privately endorsed the declaration were reluctant to do so publicly, and many others were reluctant to attend the rally. Fearful of being tarred with accusations of racism and Islamophobia, they were intimidated into silence.

Making allegations of anti-Muslim prejudice is an increasingly common way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism, as I discovered earlier this year.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, accused me of running an ‘Islamophobic campaign’, after I criticized the Chief Mufti of Russia for urging Muscovites to ‘bash’ gay people if they tried to hold a Pride March. This was not the first such slur by the Mayor. He previously denounced me as an ‘Islamophobe’ in 2004. I had criticized his decision to host at City Hall the right-wing Muslim cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. I do not oppose Qaradawi because of his race or religion, but because he wants to deny human rights to Muslims, Jews, women and gays.

While Qaradawi is a ‘moderate’ compared to the Taliban and al-Qaida, he is the spiritual head of the Islamist political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He endorses the suicide bombing of Jewish civilians, killing Muslims who abandon their faith, the compulsory wearing of the _hijab_ (headscarf) by women, female genital mutilation, the execution of homosexuals in Islamic states, domestic violence against disobedient wives, and the blaming of rape victims if they have not dressed with sufficient modesty.

This anti-humanitarian interpretation of Islam first and foremost oppresses Muslim people. Accordingly, three years ago 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from all over the world signed a petition denouncing Qaradawi as an apologist for terrorism and human rights abuses.

Qaradawi is an avowed Islamist. In contrast to ordinary Muslims, Islamists see their religion as not merely a faith, but also a political movement. Their aim is to win state power and to run the state on strict Islamic lines – a clerical regime enforcing sharia law. They want theocracy, not democracy.

Wherever Islamists have gained political power – such as Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban – democracy and human rights are crushed. Islamist states don’t have free elections or a free press. Religious minorities are persecuted. Left-wingers, trade unionists, students, journalists, gays and feminists are detained without trial, tortured and sometimes executed.

Mayor Livingstone justifies fêting Qaradawi on the grounds that he wants a dialogue with Muslims. I agree with dialogue. But why dialogue with such a reactionary Muslim leader? The Mayor should be embracing progressive Muslims who don’t oppress other Muslims and who support human rights. After all, most Muslims are not fundamentalists. Many share a human rights commitment. But they are sidelined by the Mayor and by most mainstream Muslim organizations in Britain and worldwide.

The Mayor is right to oppose Islamophobia. Muslims should be defended against prejudice and scapegoating. Terrorist outrages, such as 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, are no justification for the backlash we often witness against innocent, entirely blameless, Muslims.

It is undeniable that Muslim people are some of the most disadvantaged in Britain, with disproportionate numbers living in poor housing and without jobs. Globally, many Muslims suffer grave injustices – including the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US and UK occupation of Iraq. In countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, millions of Muslims lack safe, clean drinking water and face everyday hunger. These injustices do not, however, justify the Mayor of London’s collusion with authoritarian, homophobic and sexist Islamists like Qaradawi.

But the slurs against me are mild compared to what happens to people worldwide who resist the inhumanities of political Islam.

• A death _fatwa_ was issued against the Bangladeshi feminist writer, Taslima Nasreen, after she dared suggest a modest reinterpretation of the Qur’an to improve women’s rights. She was forced to flee her homeland and seek refuge in Europe.

• In Germany, Mina Ahadi and 300 other women refugees from Muslim countries have renounced Islam, in protest at the forced veiling and stoning of women in Islamist states. They now require police protection to ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as Dutch film director, Theo Van Gough, who was assassinated by a fundamentalist fanatic.

• Islamists are behind the terror attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. Under the Iranian ayatollahs, gay lovers are strung up by their necks in public squares; as are young girls who have sex before marriage, dissident Sunni Muslims like Dr Ali Mozafarian, and Kurdish, Balochi and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists.

Exposing these inhumanities, perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims in the name of Islam, is not Islamophobic. It is solidarity with oppressed people, based on the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible. •

*Peter Tatchell* is a British-based human rights campaigner and is now the Green Party candidate for Oxford East.

Talking to Muslims

*Sharif Gemie* and *Patricia Clarke* set out a context to move beyond the current ballet of kneejerk reactions.

Often people respond badly to criticism, even when well-intentioned: they frequently suspect the motives of the critic. This tendency is so common that Freud identified several defence mechanisms that were provoked by such situations.

Recipients of criticism sometimes seem to confuse the issue deliberately. Thus, those who criticize Israeli Government policies are routinely accused of antisemitism. These issues become even more complicated when we consider current Western debates concerning Muslims. Some critics of Muslim practices clearly are motivated by Islamophobia. For example, it is difficult to see how a couple of hundred girls wearing headscarves to school can threaten the French state – yet this practice was outlawed in French schools in 2004. Such state initiatives are significant: they immediately suggest that there is something wrong, unnatural or unacceptable about all Muslim beliefs, and thus provoke the harassment of veiled women on the streets, and hostility to men who wear what can be seen as distinctively Muslim clothes. Islamophobia is a very real threat in many Muslims’ lives: it makes them suspicious and distrustful of even well-meaning critics. Its effects should not be minimized: it does short-circuit many debates and conversations.

However, the accusation of Islamophobia can also be deployed tactically by some Muslims as a way of sidestepping issues and avoiding criticisms.

There are a number of quite plausible reasons to explain why we might hesitate to criticize the social, religious and ethical practices of another culture. One element in this dilemma has been caused by US and UK foreign policy. Those in the West who oppose campaigns such as the two invasions of Iraq often feel reluctant to question Muslim practices in the Middle East; just as some on the Left were reluctant to criticize the Soviet Union during the Cold War for fear of playing into the hands of American imperialists. One could also argue that Western and Muslim values are so different that they cannot be compared because they are incommensurable – it would be like criticizing cricket for not following the rules of football. In addition, such silences can also be motivated by a fear of adopting ethnocentric positions which simply assume that certain idealized Western norms – such as ‘British values’ – are the correct and appropriate models for the rest of the world to follow. This type of cultural and moral relativism has the additional effect of avoiding any sustained examination of core Western values, whether Judeo-Christian, liberal-Enlightenment or mass-market pop-commercial in character. Lastly, when one considers the worldwide rise of religious and political fundamentalisms and the linked refusal to question or debate, it becomes hard to see how any real debate with Muslims is possible.

These arguments seem overly restrictive, pessimistic and simply inaccurate. The forces of globalization are pushing the varied cultures of the world into ever-closer contact with each other, although these contacts often take the form of conflict rather than dialogue. Muslims and Westerners are learning that they do have some common interests and values, as well as differences. Creating – or recreating – a world of self-enclosed, autonomous separate communities, each with its own set of values and economic practices, is not a realistic option. We have to find common ground. How can this be done?

One way is to appeal to the established notion of universal human rights. Article 55 of the United Nations declares that it will promote: ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. This is a bold and brave declaration, but it has its problems.

Some Islamic states are understandably suspicious of human rights perspectives. These may be seen as ethnocentric: as Western cultural values presented as natural norms for the rest of the world. In addition, they have clearly been applied unevenly and hypocritically: the US gets away with Guantánamo Bay and extraordinary rendition whilst Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses are presented as a justification for invasion. Criticisms which appear to serve imperialist interests, even when they raise legitimate cases for concern, are probably worse than useless. Current American criticisms of human rights in Iran, for example, serve almost no constructive purpose whatsoever: they merely make the Iranian people feel threatened by the ‘shock and awe’ of another Middle East invasion, and therefore encourage them to rally more closely – and more uncritically – to their government.

At a practical level:

*1* Any discussion is likely to develop slowly, as was the case in the Northern Irish peace talks. Occasional faltering and mistrust on both sides is to be expected. However, it is essential that all sides are considered as equal and valid partners and that all participants have a willingness to accept (or at least to consider) criticisms from the other. In other words, to avoid Islamophobia, we might at least listen to the criticisms that Muslim states, organizations and commentators make of Western societies.

*2* Criticisms must be clearly founded on evidence, not on woolly assertions or stereotypes. Sometimes criticisms put forward in the name of human rights are impossibly vague and even – arguably – inaccurate: ‘Islam oppresses women’ is both unspecific and debatable, whereas ‘female genital mutilation is a violation of women’s rights’ is not.

*3* In any such cross-cultural debates, it would be tactically very, very useful (but nothing more than that) to accept – broadly – the legitimacy of Islamic legal and political cultures. As the dissident Iranian feminist lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, has shown, it is perfectly possible to develop concepts of equality and human rights from within the really quite wide body of Islamic concepts. However, in terms of a long-term strategy, one would wish to see the development of a global public sphere in which all citizens were automatically legitimate participants, whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic or whatever.

*4* In constructing such debates there is a problem finding legitimate interlocutors. Despite the popular Western images of a centralized, despotic power, Islam is actually not a monolithic religion. Its power structures and cultures are decentralized, overlapping and – frankly – messy. Muslims in the West are under some particular pressure: one problem which constantly arises is that fairly low-level, inexperienced religious or administrative authorities are asked to act as if they were heads of well-organized lobbies or parties. One frequent result is an apparent retreat into dogmatism, as the claimed ‘authority’ merely repeats what he thinks he can remember from traditional scholarship. What is required, instead, is more sensitive and imaginative appreciation of the many internal debates and discussions which are developing within Muslim societies. •

*Patricia Clark* is a lecturer in Philosophy at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University. *Sharif Gemie* is a Reader in History at the University of Glamorgan and editor of _Anarchist Studies_.

To Barcelona or Hell

Deadly hide-and-seek; French Immigration discovers migrants looking for work in Fortress Europe.


Flying in over the Atlantic to Senegal, you might think that you had arrived in a tropical paradise. The first impression you get of this West African country is of 300 kilometres of beautiful, golden-white sandy beaches, lapped by a deep, turquoise-blue sea, and banded by deep green forests. Who would want to leave this idyll? Yet in April, May and June of this year, about 12,000 young men made exactly this decision, choosing to travel illegally from Senegal and from neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco to the Canary Islands.

They did not leave in air-conditioned jets or comfortable transatlantic ferries. They left in old fishing boats, with no reliable means of navigation. In one horrifying case from December 2005, an entrepreneur approached about 60 young men, mostly Senegalese, and asked each of them for $1,500 to take them to the Canaries. They paid, and were taken to an eight-metre long yacht, with no mast, no name and no flag. The boat was to be towed. The departing entrepreneur assured them a captain would be along in a few moments. A handful grew suspicious, and jumped off. About 50 stayed: their story will never be known, but in May 2006 the yacht was found drifting near the Barbados islands, with just 13 stinking corpses on it. They had drifted about 5,000 kilometres westwards, across the Atlantic, at a rate of about half a kilometre an hour.

The majority of the would-be migrants do not endure such tragedies, but all of them experience danger and hardship. Some of them are experienced fishers, but even they are ill-equipped to control their tiny, crowded craft in the difficult, 1,200-kilometre journey to the Canaries, which usually takes about a week. While they take supplies of food, water and fuel, it is difficult to prepare properly for the journey. Their boats are old and mostly without coverings: they arrive drenched by sea-water, thirsty and starving. Worse still, these boats are crowded: there is room to sit, but little more. Many arrive with sores due to this prolonged, enforced immobility.

Most are picked up by the newly installed Spanish system of maritime surveillance which scans the sea around Gibraltar and the Canaries. On arrival they are given water, sweet tea, biscuits and clean clothes. There then begins an awkward, complex process, a type of micro-diplomacy. The Spanish state aims to repatriate these travellers. The travellers do their best to obstruct this process, knowing that if they can stay on Spanish soil for 40 days, they may be given temporary residence. Some claim not to understand anything that the police ask them, and others feign illiteracy when presented with the five-language identification form. If the Spanish authorities cannot identify from which country they have come, they may be able to stay.

Push and pull

What makes thousands of young men undertake this journey? First, it has to be stressed that these are not the poorest of the poor. The Spanish state currently demands that legal immigrants hold a bank account with $5,000 before considering a visa application: this is beyond the capacity of most Senegalese. But like almost all emigrants, these people can raise the smaller sums needed for the illegal journey to the Canaries.

Senegal, despite relatively high development funding, is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Official Senegalese estimates suggest a poverty rate of 87 per cent , and an unemployment rate of 48 per cent. Senegal’s principal exports are peanuts, petrol, cotton and fish. It is a crisis in this last industry that has produced this latest wave of migration: according to some experts, fishing stocks off the Senegalese coast have been exhausted by giant European fishing-ships, operating with the permission of the Senegalese Government. Sometimes this latest crisis creates a new logic of despair. Senegalese fishing-boat owners, unable to pay their workers, offer them boats in lieu of pay. Migration seems the only way out for the newly unemployed. Even when the fishing boats operated, they were unable to provide for their families properly. Now, in conditions of unemployment, the images of well-paid European employment that they see on the internet, in the press and – less directly – in the tourists who visit, seem irresistible. ‘Barca or Barcakh’ they say: to Barcelona or to Hell, to continue living in Senegal. Their images are not mirages or delusions. There is already a well-functioning network of Senegalese migrants living in Barcelona, who write back, describing the city and their work in the country’s illegal, ‘informal’ economy. This is not the only thing they send back: these young men, often newly married, are loyal to their families. Back home their funds allow development and social mobility upwards. In the towns of Senegal, the local people can immediately spot the houses which have been built with these family subsidies. They are not luxurious villas, but neat, clean, well-constructed bungalows. Illegal work in Spain’s enormous ‘informal economy’ is a tough, difficult and even dangerous experience for these Senegalese migrants, but it is also quite possibly the only effective means that they have of providing for their families.

Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about this latest chapter in the development of the global economy. Similar stories can be found in all the Mediterranean countries of the European Union, as the flows of migrants and of capital shift according to the wider context of cultural attraction and economic deprivation. To cite some relevant examples: on 19 May this year _Le Monde_ reported that French aid to the west African country of Mali was some $92 million in 2005; funds sent back by the 140,000 Malians resident in France to their families in the same year amounted to $230 million. A leader of Moroccan workers was quoted in the Spanish daily _El Pais_ this June: ‘We are the second greatest source of income for Morocco.’ His words are no idle boast.

On the other hand, these Senegalese boat people have confirmed something about contemporary European culture. There can be no doubt that Spanish reactions to these people have been overwhelmingly negative, ranging from hostility to fear. The comment by one police chief in the Canaries, quoted in _El Pais_, is probably quite typical: ‘This is not a wave [of immigration], it is a tsunami.’ The Spanish Government, like almost all EU governments, sticks to a policy of encouraging ‘trade and aid’ across the Mediterranean, but refusing mass migration. What exactly is feared? The migrants’ presence in the ‘informal’ economy encourages Spaniards to see them as contributing to illegal or criminal activities. Furthermore, as unauthorized workers, they pay no taxes. Such stigmatization is senseless: in general, these men are mostly fathers, keen to support their families. The quickest way to end their illegal presence on Spanish soil is to allow their legalization: and, to give the Spanish Socialist Government credit, one of its first acts in 2004 was to declare an amnesty for illegal workers, allowing them some entry and integration into the structures of Spanish society. Even demographically, arguments concerning the swamping of European societies make little sense: the EU is an ageing region, which depends on immigration to maintain current population levels and – therefore – to ensure the continuation of relatively generous pension provisions for the aged.

Globalized migration

In June 2006 it was estimated that the number of would-be migrants to the Canaries was 22 times greater than the number for the similar period in 2005. No doubt as conditions in Senegal change, as the Spanish state adopts new tactics and as macro-economic factors shift, it will soon end, only to be replaced by another migration drama from another sector of the new border separating the EU from the South. While accepting the transitory, temporary nature of this current crisis, there are still some long-term lessons that it teaches us.

First, these new, illegal migrants are tough, resourceful, determined people. Proposals for ‘Fortress Europe’ policies to stop such initiatives are self-deceptive: some migrants will always get through, whether by crowding on to fishing boats in Senegal, clutching onto the bottom of trucks that cross the English Channel, or using improvised ladders to storm the high barbed wire fences in Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in Morocco. Terms such as ‘avalanche’ or ‘tsunami’ are misleading: 20,000 to 30,000 illegal immigrants can hardly ‘swamp’ the 40 million inhabitants of Spain.

Most of these would-be migrants are natural conservatives, seeking to support their homes and families

Second, their principal aim is (obviously!) not to invade, not to convert, but to work. In fact, most of these would-be migrants are natural conservatives, seeking to support their homes and families. A sensible domestic policy would seek to regularize and regulate their presence in a manner which prevented their marginalization. Despite all the talk of defence of the nation-states of Europe against the flood of migrants, this new hostility actually suggests something different: a breakdown in concepts of nationhood. In the 19th century, nationhood could either be obtained by conforming to certain fixed criteria (whether birth, ethnicity or language) or by choosing to belong through ‘learning’ nationhood. In the 21st century these criteria have now been re-interpreted to prevent new citizenship: a suggestion of how globalization may work in practice. Migration and the fears that it provokes have become essential elements of globalization. While goods, investment and cultures flow relatively easily across national borders, the flow of labour is still being restricted. This represents an impossible contradiction, and the desperate efforts of the Senegalese migrants can be understood as an attempt to resolve this dilemma. Keeping such people outside the EU will be extremely difficult, costly and ultimately worthless.

*Sharif Gemie* is Reader in History at the University of Glamorgan, Wales, and editor of _Anarchist Studies_.

Cartoon conflict

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.


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’, 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_ ().

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

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