The latest round of culture wars does neither side any good. The western civilisational fundamentalists insist on seeing Muslims as the other – different, alien and morally evil. Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons in bad faith. Their aim was not to engage in debate but to provoke, and they succeeded. The same newspaper declined to print caricatures of Jesus. I am an atheist and do not know the meaning of the “religious pain” that is felt by believers of every cast when what they believe in is insulted. I am not insulted by billions of Christians, Muslims and Jews believing there is a God and praying to this nonexistent deity on a regular basis.
But the cartoon depicting Muhammad as a terrorist is a crude racist stereotype. The implication is that every Muslim is a potential terrorist.
This is the sort of nonsense that leads to Islamophobia.
Muslims have every right to protest, but the overreaction was unnecessary. In reality, the number of original demonstrators was tiny: 300 in Pakistan, 400 in Indonesia, 200 in Tripoli, a few hundred in Britain (before Saturday’s bigger reconciliation march), and government-organised hoodlums in Damascus burning an embassy. Beirut was a bit larger. Why blow this up and pretend that the protests had entered the subsoil of spontaneous mass anger? They certainly haven’t anywhere in the Muslim world, though the European media has been busy fertilising the widespread ignorance that exists in this continent.
How many citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers did take humanity forward by recognising no external authority of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: “Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes.” Hume: “The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words.” There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the generalised anti-Muslim ravings in the media.
What I find interesting is that these demonstrations and embassy-burnings are a response to a tasteless cartoon. Did the Danish imam who travelled round the Muslim world pleading for this show the same anger at Danish troops being sent to Iraq? The occupation of Iraq has costs tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Where is the response to that or the tortures in Abu Ghraib? Or the rapes of Iraqi women by occupying soldiers? Where is the response to the daily deaths of Palestinians? These are the issues that anger me. Last year Afghans protested after a US marine in GuantÃ¡namo had urinated on the Qur’an. It was a vile act and there was an official inquiry.
The marine in question explained that he had been urinating on a prisoner and a few drops had fallen accidentally on the Qur’an – as if pissing on a prisoner (an old imperial habit) was somehow more acceptable.
Yesterday, footage of British soldiers brutalising and abusing civilians in Iraq – beating teenagers with batons until they pass out, posing for the camera as they kick corpses – was made public. No one can seriously imagine these are the isolated incidents the Ministry of Defence claims; they are of course the norm under colonial occupations. Who will protest now – the media pundits defending the Enlightenment or Muslim clerics frothing over the cartoons?
It’s strange that the Danish imams and their friends abroad ignore the real tragedy and instead ensure that the cartoons are now being reprinted everywhere. How will it end? Like all these things do, with no gains on either side and a last tango in Copenhagen around a mountain of unused butter. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine the occupations continue.
â€¢ Tariq Ali is the author of Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. Email: [email protected]