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


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It is certainly true, as the French newspaper Le Monde argues, that Western laws permit religions to be "freely analyzed, criticized, and even subjected to ridicule." But what editorial rationale is there for printing a picture of the founder of Islam as a bloodthirsty terrorist? How does it fulfill the role of the press in a free society? Just because a paper has the right to free speech doesn't mean that it should print insulting images that have no relationship to the reality of the situation they're meant to represent.

Another age old misconception about Islam is at the root of this controversy: the idea that Muhammad cannot be depicted visually in Muslim tradition. Jyllens-Posten's editor apparently felt that it was worth the time, money, and inevitably hatred the cartoons would generate to challenge this taboo.

The reality is, however, that the Prophet has been depicted by Muslim artists across Islam's history, particularly in the medieval period. Had the editors of Jyllands-Posten or any of their European colleagues who are so worried about free speech actually taken the time to understand the history of Islamic art and Muhammad's role in it, they would have learned that the issue is much more complicated than their simplistic conceptions about Islam allowed. (The general understanding in Islam is that Muhammad--like other Muslim prophets and, not surprisingly, God--cannot be depicted visually because to do so could lead to idolatry.) But since the editors' goal was apparently not to educate their readers but rather to prove they weren't afraid to provoke Muslims while defending freedom of expression (how it was threatened by the prohibition against depicting Muhammad no one has explained) yet another chance for dialog was turned into an opportunity for spreading anger and distrust.

In this context, the motivation of newspaper editors across Europe who have reprinted the cartoons "in solidarity" with the Danish newspaper are especially perplexing, as are their comparisons of the depictions of Muhammad to caricatures of a priest or rabbi. Exactly what are they supporting? It's hard to tell.

Aside from the fact that no mainstream paper in Europe has ever depicted a rabbi with a bomb in his yarmulke, the comparison underscores the arrogance and ignorance behind cartoongate. Muhammad is not the equivalent of a priest or even of a Pope.

Of course, Muslim newspapers have long depicted Jews in similarly hateful ways as the Muhammad cartoons. Perhaps the uproar will lead them to reconsider the practice, and in fact some Muslim commentators are reminding their readers, viewers, or listeners of this fact.

Ironically, the same day that editorial pages of U.S. newspapers began criticizing Muslims for their lack of respect for free speech, peace activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested and removed from her seat at the State of the Union speech for wearing a T-shirt under that listed the number of U.S. war dead in Iraq as of Jan. 31. A security guard saw the shirt, shouted "Protester!" (perish the thought!) into his walkie-talkie, and off she went, with nary a word of protest uttered by the U.S. media.

For most of the Muslim world, America's willingness to kill tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of our own young people for a war launched on a series of half truths and outright prevarications (which almost no one in our own journalistic establishment had the courage to expose, despite clear evidence at the time) is as "crazy" as their willingness to boycott or even threaten violence against Westerners over a few religiously insulting cartoons.

This sad state of affairs would seem to support the arguments of the "clash of civilizations" proponents, in which two incompatible cultures will fight it out for control of the world and its resources. But if we look at the original meaning of "civilization," among both European and Muslim intellectuals and until the 19th century, the term referred not to separate and competing cultural entities with different properties ("modern," "traditional," "backward," "advanced"), but to a universal concept--a state of maturity—in which all peoples could participate.

In that regard, cartoongate reveals how far both Western and Muslim civilizations still have to travel before they become as civilized as they imagine themselves to be.

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