An informative and insightful, if somewhat problematic, commentary from Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly. Anjali Kamat argues that the cartoons are not merely “offensive” but propagandistic, and that leaving racism out of the simplistic “free speech/Islamic intolerance” equation is to miss the critical point:
The row over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, far from quietly subsiding, has grown more impassioned with every passing day. Regardless of how the issue is eventually resolved—and it will disappear from the headlines—the controversy reveals a dangerous and virulent anti-Muslim racism that will almost certainly return to haunt us. While the United States has recently distanced itself from the “free speech at all costs” position, this is a pragmatic move aimed at sustaining its military ambitions and must not obfuscate the decisive role that US media and policy have played in demonizing both Muslims and their faith.
The twelve cartoons, originally published last September in Denmark’s largest-selling daily–the conservative Jyllands Posten, drew the ire of Muslim diplomats and a section of Scandinavian Muslims, but the controversy seemed to have died a largely unnoticed death until they were republished in the Norwegian Christian publication, Magazinet, last week and protests erupted across the so-called “Muslim world.” In response to the official condemnations, the closing of Saudi Arabian, Libyan, and Syrian embassies in Denmark, threats against the editors, protests from Gaza to Yemen, and an incredibly well-orchestrated boycott of Danish goods in the Gulf states, newspapers across Western Europe republished the cartoons “in defense of the freedom of expression.” Also at stake, according to these editors and the defenders of the cartoons, are the core values of a democratic, modern society — the most crucial of which, judging by the current furor, is a keen sense of humor. “Yes, we have the right to caricature God!” screamed the front-page headline of the French newspaper France Soir on February 1, 2006.
To frame the issue as a battle between free secular democracies and an Islamic world defined by narrow religious orthodoxies and a crisscross of indelible “red lines” limiting the freedom of expression, is to be trapped within a claustrophobic vision of humanity. Such a vision infuses Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory with the renewed vigor of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The debate raging across Europe, blinded by its discourse of a humorless Islam versus a playful Freedom, is unwilling and unable to see the cartoons for what they are: hateful and racist.
Depicting the Prophet as a wily blind sheikh with a sword and flanked by two wide-eyed veiled women or, with a bomb growing out of his elaborate turban, is not offensive simply because it “hurts the religious sentiments of Muslims” or because it is an affront to the Prophet. The images are violent, and they incite and rationalize further violence against Muslims. They are inseparable from overused platitudes about Islam as a ticking time bomb, which in turn cannot be understood apart from policy and national security decisions based on a tacit understanding of all Muslims as potential terrorists who have no rights under the law.
Jyllands Posten commissioned the twelve cartoons in defiance of “the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world” after a Danish author completing a book on the Prophet could not find a single artist willing to illustrate his work–apparently for fear of reprisals along the lines of the infamous murder of [Dutch] filmmaker Theo van Gogh. When Muslim diplomats demanded an official apology last October, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quick to draw a line separating European from Muslim governments: “The Danish government cannot apologize on behalf of a Danish newspaper. That is not how our democracy works … and we have explained that to the Arab countries.”
This past week, as protests grew within and beyond Europe, and the boycott proved remarkably successful (causing Danish firm Arla Foods to lose over $1 million each day) theories of a civilizational schism between “European” culture and the “Muslim” culture of a quarter of the world’s population, including some twenty million first- and second-generation Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian immigrants in Western Europe, grew apace. Jyllands Posten‘s culture editor offered the following explanation: “This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society — how much does an immigrant have to give up and how much does the receiving culture have to compromise.”
Neither the trope of Islam as intolerant nor the intolerance with which Islam has been portrayed is by any means unique to the specifics of today’s debate. These are old tropes. The picture of Europe and the Islamic world as two fundamentally distinct entities pitted against each other stems from a medieval Christian worldview that was honed to secular perfection during the British and French colonization of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent global “war(s) on terror” have emboldened an anti-Muslim racist politics, but the specific stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists or intolerant fundamentalists have been fairly consistently deployed since at least the 1970s.
What is relatively new about the current impasse is the defiantly resentful tone of those supporting the publication of the cartoons, who present themselves as a besieged and dwindling community of free speech advocates defending freedom against a violent horde of Muslim fundamentalists gathering at the gates of European capitals. The debate on the cartoons tells us less about fanatic Muslims than about how Europe is choosing to deal with its “Muslim question” and its growing anxieties about Muslim demographics. The recent riots in the poorest slums of France and the violent anti-immigrant policies of right-wing political parties across Western Europe speak volumes about the sordid reality of repression, racism, and poverty that most European Muslims contend with. The hysterical tone of some free speech defenders comparing official apologies for the cartoons to a dangerous form of appeasement thus betrays a fantastic sense of delusion. Wake up, Europe! This is not Munich in 1938. The real siege is in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other sites of the U.S-led war on terror, not in the editorial offices of European capitals. Indeed, if a comparison must be made to that era of impending fascism, then recalling the anti-Semitic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s would be more appropriate.
It should not bear repeating, but to depict the most revered figure in Islam as essentially and fundamentally violent, to reduce the Prophet to the level of media-spewed images of terrorists and Islamic radicals, is deeply offensive and about much more than distorting the life and teachings of the seventh-century figure. Leaving aside the fact that many devout Muslims through history have seen no contradiction between their faith and visually depicting the Prophet, fixating on the rigidity of Islam and over-simplifying its impact on the lives of Muslims avoids a crucial point. It is, after all, Muslims who are overwhelmingly at the receiving end of Western violence.
When protestors burn down embassies and hard-line clerics call for “a day of rage,” one need not to turn to crude explanations of “Muslim rage” that echo the influential Orientalist Bernard Lewis — notorious for his impact on the neoconservatives. A cursory glance at the recent history of European and American violent interventions and overt support for repressive dictatorships across the largely Muslim populations of the Middle East, North Africa, and South and South East Asia would be a far better place to start.
The point that these cartoons are not merely “offensive” but war propaganda is indeed a critical one, and it is terrifying how completely it is overlooked. But Kamat seems to loan credence to the propagandistic notion that the West stands for “free speech”—and perhaps the corollary, which has been argued too frequently on the left, that free speech is therefore a tool of oppression. She characterizes the Western position as one of “free speech at all costs”—which is rather an irony as Britain imprisons Islamic clerics for thought crimes and every protest mobilization in the United States turns into a First Amendment struggle.
Kamat calls out France Soir for the “screaming” headline “Yes, we have the right to caricature God!” Yet that was precisely the position that progressives took in the controversy over art photographer Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. It is true that Christians are not oppressed and marginalized in the US (or Europe) as Muslims are—but does that entirely justify the double standard?
Ceding the mantle of free speech to the xenophobes like Jyllands Posten and the imperialists like Bush and Blair plays into the hands of both.
The demoralizing thing about this highly dichotomized debate is that in nearly every commentary the outrage goes all one way. If the racism and propagandistic aspect of the cartoons is invisible to those who pose it as a “free speech” issue, the escalating and often xenophobic violence in reaction against the cartoons (for instance, in Turkey) is too often invisible to their opponents. The “picture of Europe and the Islamic world as two fundamentally distinct entities pitted against each other” may “stem from a medieval Christian worldview,” but it certainly seems to have been embraced by many in the Islamic world. And invocation of Nazi propaganda cartoons by way of analogy to the Jyllands Posten caricatures is slightly ironic given the anti-Semitic cartoons that seem to appear routinely in the Arab press, as has been pointed out repeatedly.
Kamat’s last paragraph is correct that it is oppression under a Western-enforced order in the Muslim world that provides the raw material of popular anger for such violent outbursts. But while a generation ago that anger was harnessed by Marxists and Arab nationalists, today it is increasingly exploited by Islamist clerical reactionaries—just as racist fears of imperial and demographic decline in the West are exploited by scapegoaters and Christian fundamentalists.
See our last post on the cartoon controversy.