February 07, 2006
The mainstream commentary about reactions in parts of the Arab world to the Danish cartoon is troubling in its overtones of racism and quick retreat to glib stereotypes—"this confirms it, Muslims and Arabs are hot-tempered, violent people." No reason to probe further to understand the roots of the violent reaction. What other explanation do you need? The street riots confirm what many Americans have been taught to believe about people in the Middle East: They hate freedom. This is what our president tells us on an almost daily basis. And the recent outcry fits nicely into the "clash of civilizations" narrative George W. Bush uses to explain Arab and Muslim antipathy toward the West.
In the case of the cartoon "blasphemy," there is a culture clash at play, but it's not freedom-loving versus freedom-hating. It's about competing notions of religious expression and of the role of religion in society. Middle East expert Juan Cole's illuminating post below explains what line was crossed by the caricature, and how we in the West also observe certain taboos. In fact, Cole notes that the same paper that printed the Mohammed image refused to publish cartoons mocking Jesus Christ on the grounds they would "provoke an outcry." And to the cultural reductionists out there, climb down from your high horses. Cole also points to plenty of instances where intolerance has led non-Muslims to violence:
Muslim Protests Against Anti-Muhammad Caricatures
Several readers have asked what I think about the protests among Muslims against the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper.
Of course people are upset when their sacred figures are attacked! But the hurt is magnified many times when the party doing the injuring is first-world, and the injured have a long history of being ruled, oppressed and marginalized. Moreover, most Muslims live in societies with strong traditions of state censorship, so they often assume that if something appears in the press, the government allowed it to do so and is therefore culpable.
Westerners cannot feel the pain of Muslims in this instance. First, Westerners mostly live in secular societies where religious sentiments have themselves been marginalized. Second, the Muslims honor Moses and Jesus, so there is no symmetry between Christian attacks on Muhammad and Muslim critiques of the West. No Muslim cartoonist would ever lampoon the Jewish and Christian holy figures in sacred history, since Muslims believe in them, too, even if they see them all as human prophets. Third, Westerners have the security of being the first world, with their culture coded as "universal," and widely respected and imitated. Cultures like that of the Muslims in the global South receive far less respect. Finally, societies in the global South are less policed and have less security than in Western Europe or North America, allowing greater space to violent vigilateism, which would just be stopped if it were tried in the industrialized democracies. (Even wearing a t-shirt with the wrong message can get you arrested over here.)
What Muslims are saying is that depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban is insupportable. It is often assumed that in the West we believe in free speech, so there is nothing that is insupportable.
But that simply is not true. Muslims mind caricatures of Muhammad because they view him as the exemplar of all that is good in human beings. Most Western taboos are instead negative ones, not disallowal of attacks on symbols of goodness but the questioning of symbols of evil.
Thus, it is insupportable to say that the Nazi ideology was right and to praise Hitler. In Germany if one took that sort of thing too far one would be breaking the law. Even in France, Bernard Lewis was fined for playing down the Armenian holocaust. It is insupportable to say that slavery was right, and if you proclaimed that in the wrong urban neighborhoods, you could count on a violent response.
So once you admit that there are things that can be said that are insupportable, then the Muslim feelings about the caricatures become one reaction in an entire set of such reactions.
But you don't have to look far for other issues that would exercise Westerners just as much as attacks on Muhammad do Muslims. In secular societies, a keen concern with race often underlies ideas of social hierarchy. Thus, any act that might bring into question the superiority of so-called white people in their own territory can provoke demonstrations and even violence such as lynchings. Consider the recent Australian race riots, which were in part about keeping the world ordered with whites on top.
Had the Danish newspaper published anti-Semitic cartoons that showed, e.g., Moses as an exploitative money lender and brought into question the Holocaust, there would also have been a firestorm of protest. For the secular world, the injuries and unspoken hierarchies of race are what cannot be attacked.
Muslims are not, as you will be told, the only community that is touchy about attacks on its holy figures or even just ordinary heros. Thousands of Muslims were killed in the early 1990s by enraged Hindus in India over the Ayodhya Mosque, which Hindus insisted was built on the site of a shrine to a Hindu holy figure. No one accuses Hindus in general of being unusually narrowminded and aggressive as a result. Or, the Likudniks in Israel protested the withdrawal from Gaza, and there were dark mutterings about what happened to Rabin recurring in the case of Sharon. The "sacred" principle at stake there is just not one most people in the outsider world would agree with the Likudniks about.
Human beings are all alike. Where they are distinctive, it comes out of a special set of historical circumstances. The Muslims are protesting this incident vigorously, and consider the caricatures insupportable. We would protest other things, and consider them insupportable.