Cartoongate and the Long Road to Civilization

Twelve political cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad tell us more about Western fears of Islam than they do about Muslim attitudes.

Has the Muslim world gone that mad? Do a billion Muslims really want to kill a few uncouth cartoonists because they violated Muslim religious sensibilities, however dear they may be?



Luckily, the answer to both questions is no. In fact, what some Islamic scholars are calling "cartoongate"--the publication in more than a half-dozen European papers of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad--is revealing more about the state of the Western world--particularly European fears of Islam--than about Islam today.

Originally published in September 2005 in a Danish newspaper, The depictions of Muhammad include some very insulting images indeed: Islam's Prophet with a turban-shaped bomb on his head; Muhammad at the Pearly Gates informing newly arrived suicide bombers that Heaven has "run out of virgins" (an allusion to the 72 heavenly virgins who supposedly await martyrs); Muhammad menacingly holding a sword with two veiled women behind him, and so on. The images were commissioned because the paper's editor was having trouble finding anyone willing to caricature the Prophet, depictions of whom are prohibited according to Muslim tradition.

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These images have supposedly unleashed a firestorm of protest across the Muslim world. Yet the reality, as so often is the case when it comes to Western portrayals of Muslims, is different than the rhetoric. Yes, tens of thousands of Muslims have marched in protest against the cartoons; but out of 1.4 billion, that's not exactly a huge number. And death threats have been made by some extremist groups. But however upset they may be, most Muslims have not taken to the streets, and if they're protesting, it is through the modern democratic method of demonstrations and threatens to boycott Danish products.

As the latest protests in Beirut make clear, the reasons behind them combine elements of class, politics, and religious identity. The consulates are often located in wealthy neighborhoods that are home to the country's elites, wealthy foreigners, and expensive shops far beyond the means of most protesters. And the protest organizers are most often groups looking to gain political capital by challenging weak governments at a moment of heightened tension.

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