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.

BY: Mark LeVine

 

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.

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.

At the same time, however, the intense anger and occasional violence of the protests point to a central problem for Muslim activists across the world: the absence of leaders with a commitment to creative non-violence that can both rally angry co-religionists and transform the terms of the public debate.

Islam can't be blamed for this leadership vacuum. Among the successful political movements against war and autocratic rule in the past two decades, most of them (such as in Eastern Europe, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, or Mexico) have occurred in places where either the state collapsed, or there was enough openness in the political system to permit the building of mass movements for social change. But the Muslim world is far too complex and varied for any single movement or leader, however charismatic, to unite it in a common purpose. And at the level of individual states, most Middle Eastern and North African regimes are strong enough to prevent the emergence of successful non-violent mass movements that could seriously challenge their power (as we saw in 2005 with the failed promise of the Egyptian elections and Lebanon's democracy movement). The limited ability of figures such as Iran's Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize-winning lawyer and human rights advocate, or Mubarak Awad, the respected founder of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence in Jerusalem, to parlay their international recognition into successful movements for social change demonstrates the obstacles before even the most well-known and committed activists in the face of despotic regimes.

This stifling of the public sphere and the absence of civil society have had a profound impact in and outside the Muslim-majority world. It has fostered the growth of a younger, angrier, militant religious culture among the poor and middle class in Muslim countries and the disaffected segments of Europe's Muslim populations. Epitomized, at the extreme, by al-Qa'eda—and only slightly less threateningly by the protesters torching consulates and threatening death to cartoonists this past weekend--this culture appears incapable of breaking the cycle of violence. For these militants, the world is black and white--either for or against Islam--and the idea of engaging in difficult dialogues across the cultural divide is a waste of time.

But there's also a growing number of younger Muslims who move back and forth between their own and other cultures (not just Western, but African, Indian, and others as well). They are working to build an alternative to a culture of confrontation as the best way to solve the problems within their own societies and with the West. While the Danish cartoonists might have been exercising their right to free speech in penning the offensive cartoons, they have made it much harder for these moderate and progressive Muslims to build coalitions within and outside their communities.

And the reactions of the Western media generally have been almost as harmful, particularly toward moderate Muslims' attempts at peacefully registering their extreme distaste for the cartoons. For example, why do Western media portray large-scale protests and boycotts—time-honored tactics used by many other religious and ethnic groups--as undemocratic when Muslims engage in them?

Nor is the Western press helping to contextualize this controversy by pointing out America's own less-than-sterling recent record on free speech. Let's remember that the U.S. government has admitted targeting al-Jazeera news bureaus, and has both arrested and detained without trial journalists who were reporting news that challenged the official American version of events, particularly in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Is there editorial rationale for painting the founder of Islam as a bloodthirsty terrorist?...
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