AT the start of this week, the death toll stood at three and the situation seemed likely to deteriorate, even as commentators throughout Europe tried to hose down suggestions that what we have been witnessing is a clash of civilizations. It is harder to allay the impression that it is a clash of cultures, exacerbated by inordinate degrees of obduracy on both sides.
Simplistic views of the dispute reduce it to a contest between two absolutes: immutable religious beliefs and uncompromising freedom of speech. And never the twain shall meet, goes the argument, which is often deployed in defence of the stance that Islamic and European value systems are inherently incompatible. Invariably, the implicit or explicit corollary is that most Muslim immigrants will never really fit into Europe.
There is no incontrovertible evidence that this is what the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten set out to illustrate late last September, when it decided to publish a dozen third-rate caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. It had apparently commissioned the drawings as a sort of test case after hearing from comedian Frank Hyam that he was scared of satirizing the Quran, and after learning that childrenâ€™s writer Bent Bludnikow, who had written a book about the Prophet, couldnâ€™t find any illustrators who were willing to put their names to their work.
Neither the poor quality of the caricatures, nor – more significantly – the fact that at least a few of them were explicitly racist deterred Jyllands-Posten from publishing them. The newspaper reputedly has a history of extremist inclinations, including support for Mussolini and Hitler back in the 1930s. More recently, Denmark has been among the European countries where xenophobia been whipped up by right-wing forces. The conservative government of prime minister Anders Rasmussen depends for its survival on the parliamentary support of the Danish Peopleâ€™s Party, one of whose MPs has publicly likened Muslims in Europe to â€œa cancerâ€.
This context is obviously not irrelevant to the publication of the cartoons, which was followed by angry complaints from Danish Muslims, protest marches and, deplorably, death threats against journalists and cartoonists. After Rasmussen refused to receive a delegation of Muslim ambassadors, some local imams decided to go on a tour of the Muslim world with a dossier containing the offending drawings and their correspondence with the authorities, along with three further caricatures considerably more obscene and inflammatory than anything published by Jyllands-Posten.
The provenance of these supplementary drawings is uncertain: they are said to have been received in the mail by unnamed Muslims in Denmark. It is not clear whether the distinction between the two sets of cartoons was clear to all those who saw the sexed-up dossier.
Was parading the sketches through the Muslim world such a a terribly good idea? Having made clear how hurt they were, it may have been wisest for the concerned Danish Muslims to leave it at that.
It would, no doubt, have helped if Jyllands-Posten had promptly apologized for its indiscretion and if Rasmussen had at least lent an ear to the protesters. The apologies came only after a boycott of Danish goods in the Middle East threatened to hurt Denmarkâ€™s economy, which raises doubts about their sincerity. Jyllands-Posten, incidentally, has expressed regret for injuring Muslim feelings, not for publishing the caricatures.
In retrospect, would it not have been best from the Muslim point of view if the matter had been restricted to Denmark? Among other things, that would probably have prevented the cartoons from being reproduced in newspapers throughout Western Europe, as they were last week (with the notable exception of Britain). More important, that may also have kept the issue from being adopted by the international brotherhood of extremists.
Small bands of British Muslims, for instance, have chosen to express their anger through vows of further atrocities along the lines of 9/11 and 7/7. Thatâ€™s precisely the sort of asinine emotional bluster that feeds into the consciousness of those who, in turn, might choose to condemn all Muslims as terrorists or endow a representative figure with a fuse-bearing turban. Nor has the torching of embassies in Damascus and Beirut done wonders for the image of the followers of Islam.
It could be argued that even the commercial boycott and diplomatic ruptures have implicitly been based on the misapprehension that European governments exercise the sort of control over the press that is more or less mandatory through much of the Middle East. A plea to the Vatican by the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, also hints at a naive misconception of the churchâ€™s role in Europe.
Europeans are justifiably proud of their right to free speech, won during a long struggle against the power of the very church that Prince Nayef appealed to, plus various other vested interests. However, it is not a right that has consistently been honoured during the past century. Even now, there are limits to free speech, some based on custom and common sense, others enshrined in legislation.
For instance, in Germany and Austria, Holocaust denial – that is, to contend that Nazis did not conduct a campaign of Judaeocide – is punishable by imprisonment. Whether or not this is justified, the point is that it is clearly a curb on the freedom of expression, in a country – Germany – where newspapers seemed a bit too keen to reproduce the Danish drawings, using the argument that to refrain from doing so would be tantamount to self-censorship. Other European papers contended that republication of the cartoons was necessary in order to show their readers what the fuss was all about. But would they have been quite so eager to go down that road had the story – and illustrations – in question related to, say, graphic child pornography or paedophilia?
Most probably not. Why? Obviously, in the interests of good taste, and in order not to offend public sensibilities. Does this mean Muslim sensitivities somehow matter less than those of other sections of the public?
Another argument that has been trotted out by numerous Western commentators is that all sorts of satirical and sometimes even derogatory references to biblical luminaries are commonplace in their culture, so why should Islamic figures merit a different approach? There is some validity in this point. Depictions of Jesus Christ, for instance, that would once have invited charges of blasphemy and harsh punishment now generally elicit no more than a few polite protests, if that (although there are occasional exceptions).
However, one suspects there would be a wider and more emotional response were Jesus to be disrespectfully depicted in a Muslim or a Jewish publication. And, while weâ€™re on the subject, itâ€™s probably also worth pondering whether Jyllands-Postenâ€™s efforts would have been reproduced quite so widely across Europe had the object of derision been Jews rather than Muslims.
Some European writers have compared the Danish caricatures to the open slather against Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. Others have noted that they would have sympathised more readily with the Muslim outrage had anti-Semitism not been so rampant in the Islamic world. Neither of these views seems altogether unreasonable.
Meanwhile, there are various other pertinent questions that need to be raised, and directed at Muslims – predominantly those who are always on the look-out for any opportunity to take up arms (metaphorically or otherwise) in the face of perceived insults to their faith, rather than the less excitable sorts whose moderate voices tend to be drowned out amid the cacophony.
The most obvious of these is, which of the following has lately contributed more towards reinforcing Islamophobia: the stupid cartoons, which in the normal course of events would have vanished from the consciousness of most Jyllands-Posten readers within a few days, or the violent protests in the Muslim world, the instances of arson, the unambiguous death threats and invocations of terror and hellfire on the streets of London and elsewhere?
Then again, is it reasonable to expect secular societies to abide by Islamic strictures against iconography (which arenâ€™t accepted by all Muslim sects anyhow)? Besides, isnâ€™t it sometimes wiser – and braver -to let sleeping dogmas lie? Furthermore, regardless of their validity, donâ€™t Muslim complaints of victimization in Europe ring a little hollow when so many Islamic countries go out of their way to discriminate against religious minorities?
Echoing Oliver Wendell Holmes, Noam Chomsky argues: â€œIf youâ€™re in favour of free speech, then youâ€™re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.â€ It is also widely accepted that cartoons that donâ€™t give offence to some section of the population are generally effective. It is important, nonetheless, to know where to draw the line.
Editorials in much of the British press have been at pains to point out that whereas Jyllands-Posten – and, by extension, Le Soir, Die Welt and all the rest of them – had every right to publish what they did, they were certainly under no obligation to do so. In other words, they ought to have known better. The same could be said of those Muslims whose irrational reaction to what they saw as an unreasonable provocation has facilitated the further demonization of Islam and its adherents.
Sometimes the thoughts and actions of the supposedly ultra-devout hint at a cerebral malfunction. Perhaps thatâ€™s the sort of idea that provoked the 10th-century freethinking Syrian poet Abu al- Ala al-Maarri to produce the following stanza:
The Jews, the Muslims and the Christians,
Theyâ€™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.