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?...
Read more on page 2 >>

_Related Features

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.

_Related Features

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad