Reading the Demonstrations Wrong

Reading the Demonstrations Wrong

James O’Connell hits the nail on the head several times in his article about the reaction in Muslim communities to the publication of several caricatures about the Prophet Muhammed. But he also avoids the central issue, and gets quite a number of things wrong.

He’s quite correct about religious criticism and the traditions of the West: after all, it’s in Europe that scholarly study of the Bible (called “higher criticism”) took root and spawned an entire cottage industry of looking at holy scriptures based on historical reliability and not the infallibility of the Pope. And it‘s no secret that Christianity in Europe often means increasingly empty churches. The role of religion in Europe seems to be fading quite fast; even John Paul II wanted the European Constitution to make mention of Christianity and its role shaping the continent’s destiny, much to the chagrin of those who wanted to avoid mentioning religion at all.

But O’Connell dismisses the anger of Muslims over the caricatures almost as if it were farce. This is not a question of a mere cartoon, as he writes in exasperation, but of taking one cultural context (the tradition of the West) and slamming against another (the avoidance of depicting the Prophet) without any benefit of understanding why it’s even an issue. If we want to hear a lecture about the virtues of Western civilization, then we should pay attention to the fault lines of another civilization as well without dismissing it out-of-hand.

Islam is under siege, and Muslims know it. The attacks of 9/11 and subsequent bombings in London, Madrid, Bali and even Turkey has put an ugly face on a religion shared by over a billion and a half souls. In Europe, many Muslim immigrant communities feel shunned by their adopted countries. The spasm of violence in the French banlieus of a few months ago was less about hooliganism and more about exclusion. Many Muslims fail to integrate into their host societies, or often feel they need to give up too much just to remain at arms length, as full acceptance never seems to be in the cards.

I agree with O'Connell that even Islam should not be given a free pass when Western intellectuals want to examine the religion and culture in the same ways Christianity is studied. And I too, was shocked and appalled at the deep arrogance of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, along with the cries of many loudmouthed individuals who promptly claimed they would carry out the sentence. In that instance, there was a clash of civilizations that made Islam look reactionary and unacceptable to Europeans and Americans who value the freedom of speech. The lack of defense for Rushdie among Muslim intellectuals (or rather, the delayed one) spoke volumes to the nature of social criticism within Muslim societies: witness the 1994 stabbing of Egyptian writer Naguib Mafhouz by Islamic militants for his critique of fundamentalist ideologies. Even Nobel Prize-winning authors need to tread carefully.

But it’s highly unlikely that any of the cartoonists were out to make an intellectual point. If they wanted to be provocative, there is very little to argue against them because that is the essence of the freedom of expression. Yet the timing couldn’t be worse for Muslims, what with the war in Iraq, poverty and social alienation. For many Muslims, I’d venture to say that the American occupation of Iraq and the pressure on Iran to abandon any nuclear ambitions it has are proof that the West wants to keep Muslims under its thumb. And then along comes several cartoons that might be interpreted as salt in the wound: the depiction of Muhammed as a terrorist (i.e., Islam is a violent religion that’s bequeathed the suicide bomber to the world history and nothing else.) I categorically condemn the violence and the despicable threats of future bombings in London as any kind of response worth mentioning, but to take the issue of religious sensitivity and dismiss a religion (as O’Connell does in his opening paragraph) with an "I told you so" attitude exposes the very intolerance we’re supposed to be fighting.

There are no shortage of actors exploiting this entire situation, either. The Syrians have found a perfect excuse to divert attention from their own troubles with the United Nations over the assassination of Lebanese former prime minister Tawfiq Hariri. Likewise, the Iranians are going to run as far as they can with this, using the controversy to embolden their position about nuclear development as a point of Islamic honor, and Teheran will point to the caricatures as proof that the West is hostile to Muslims and disrespectful of Islam. Unfortunately, we have to deal with these cheap machinations for what they are: ploys, and not indicative of a perceived fundamental flaw in Islamic culture and society.

By the same token, freedom of expression is something that many conservative societies (some within Europe itself) are unfamiliar with. The free exchange of ideas should not be broadcast as a method to be insensitive or hurtful, even when presenting ideas that might cause discomfort, and that is one of the culture shocks that traditional communities often face when confronted with the cultural juggernaut of the West. There is no simple solution here, because the events have already presented themselves and quickly spiraled out of control. But at a time of heightened sensitivity among Muslims and their uneasy assimilation (if at all) into European societies, it becomes imperative upon us in the majority to do what we can to create a dialogue and not provide the basis for a screaming match.