The cartoon wars

IssueMarch 2006
Comment by Milan Rai

The crisis over the Muhammad cartoons is not, despite appearances, primarily about free speech, or the prohibition on depicting the Prophet. The damage to community relations is enormous, but there is a real opportunity before us to try to strengthen connections between Muslims and non-Muslims.

How do we know that the non-Muslim European uproar is not really about free speech? Look at the differing reactions to the two big decisions of Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. When Rose decided to commission and print satirical cartoons about Muhammad, he was largely supported by his bosses and the non-Muslim European intelligentsia. When he announced on 10 February that he might print satirical Iranian cartoons about the Holocaust, however, he was sent on “indefinite leave” by his bosses, and we didn't hear a peep out of those non-Muslim intellectuals who had championed the “right to offend”.

Boiling over

What the crisis is really about, on the non-Muslim side, is the perceived incompatibility of Islam with “the West”. Rose published the cartoons to prove that Islam is anti-Western, anti-democracy, anti-freedom, and with the (much-delayed) global Muslim response, he seemed to have got what he wanted. But the massive wave of Muslim protests was not a response to the depiction of Muhammad in a right-wing Danish newspaper. There was a chain of further provocations, including the (initial) refusal of the Danish government to meet with ambassadors from Muslim countries to discuss the matter, and, crucially, the coordinated re-publication of the cartoons in other European countries. (No doubt there was also distortion and misinformation from some Muslim leaders too.)

More importantly, the protests were not about depicting Muhammad, they seem to have been mainly about depicting Muhammad as a suicide bomber. This just adds to the sense of grievance felt by many Muslims around the world about Afghanistan, Chechnya, Guantanamo, Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine and other sites and forms of Muslim oppression. The anger expressed against the cartoons is therefore not so much an over-reaction to 12 images, but outrage boiling over after decades of humiliation. The protests -- violent and nonviolent -- are in large part outbursts against what is seen as the coordinated and systematic Christian-Jewish assault on Islam.

Opportunity knocks?

Contrast all this with the Satanic Verses. As I discovered when researching my latest book 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War, the demonstrations against Salman Rushdie's book were actually drawn from a narrow section of Islam. They were (apart from revolutionary Iran) demonstrations by South Asian Muslims (in Britain, South Africa and so on) from a strand of Islam that venerates the Prophet in a way that most other Muslims find excessive. They felt the insult in Rushdie's book much more keenly.

Today, the reaction to the Muhammad cartoons in the mainstream of the British South Asian community has been muted. This is largely a consequence of the fall-out from the 7 July bombings last year, which were carried out by three young Muslims of Pakistani heritage (and a non-South Asian convert). The angry protests have been from quite another strand of Islam.

Amidst the rancour and the widening gulf of misunderstanding, it is hard to be optimistic, but there is now an opportunity for people concerned with peace and justice to promote understanding and to strengthen the bonds of humanity. This isn't about applying Muslim “laws” prohibiting the depiction of Muhammad to non Muslim media. This is about arguing against racist and Islamophobic images (and speech) which spread hatred and fear.

Parity of esteem

In the West, we don't need to institute laws against hate speech or incitement. We need more free speech, more speech challenging bigotry. This isn't about giving Islam special privileges in non-Muslim societies, but about parity of esteem. This is about non-Muslims using the same standards in relation to Islam as we/they use in relation to Christianity or Judaism. This is about treating Islam not as a single, homogeneous, alien and hostile bloc, but as a diverse religion interwoven with Western culture -- a religion as varied as Christianity or Judaism.

This is about accepting and welcoming Islam as part of “the West”, as much as Christianity or Judaism.