Leading PostsMarch April 2006

Behind the Cartoons

Mohammed A. Bamyeh

First, learning: An international crisis of the kind unleashed due to the insulting cartoons of the prophet always invites us to think more clearly and to learn the right lessons. For it carries within it the seeds of great errors: the error of confusing one event or anomaly with a pattern in the culture or history, of confusing a pure accident with the essence or whole logic of an enduring struggle. In our focus on the violence accompanying it, we forget that by and large the vast majority of protests and protestors have in fact been peaceful. In our focus on the most highly visible spectacles and vitriolic speeches and threats, we forget that for several months, until it arrived at newsrooms, the modus operandi of opposition movement to the publication of the cartoons had been characterized by patient, deliberative, clear-headed organizing.

Second, inevitability: there is nothing that should lead us to expect that a crisis of this kind was inevitable. Had we been living in different, more sane, less enervating times, with a smaller sense of threat, fewer sources of aggravation and more effective venues through which to express grievances, there would have been much less of a reason for an insult to Muhammad in a far away place to cause an international crisis. Had the Danish prime minister had the good sense to at least meet with the local Muslim leaders at the beginning, as they had asked, the issue may have ended then and there. Those leaders went overseas with their cause only because they found no receptive ear in Denmark itself, and thus wanted to receive international pressure to resolve what was for them a local problem. Further, the fire of the crisis would not have found so much additional kindling to feed its insatiable appetite, had we not have this global consciousness prefigured by awareness of profound, unresolved injustices: an open wound in Palestine, an occupation that has, among other factors, destroyed a once prosperous and proud Iraqi society, and unaccountable governments everywhere in the Muslim world.

We could also ask questions on not simple what happened, but what did not. Why, for example, did we not see even more violence? Many Europeans have used this crisis to question, once again, whether Muslim immigrants really fit in Europe, completely ignoring the fact that in Europe itself the protests of the community, to the extent they happened, were in fact peaceful and constructive. Is there a problem with Muslims in Europe, or is there a bigger problem, perhaps, in European policies of integration and European multicultural politics generally?

With some exceptions, notably Britain, Europe has generally not yet adjusted fully to the fact that it has become in effect a constellation of multicultural societies. The French model provided elements of the basic approach elsewhere in the continent: “Islam must adjust itself to the Republic, not the Republic to Islam.” This prototypical formula posited a non-existent problem as a problem, for no one was really asking any European society to adjust to Islam. The problem was that immigrants as a category were treated as a source of perpetual social trouble rather than as equal citizens, and that Islam was treated as an alien whole, rather than as a highly varied practice.

This suspicion of Islam and Muslims meant that it was up to Muslims in Europe to prove that they have become “European,” and this demand took sometimes an extreme form of provocation, of which these cartoons are but the latest example. A forerunner to the cartoons crisis was the case of the Dutch provocateur director Theo van Gogh, who did not shy from publicly using profanities to describe Muslims, and who in one film screened passages of the Qur’an against the bodies of naked women. The murder of van Gogh by a Dutch Muslim from a Moroccan descent in November of 2004 touched off a grave crisis in the Netherlands and Europe, and many politicians and public commentators used it as an occasion to argue that Muslims in Europe were introducing intolerance into otherwise tolerant, liberal democracy.

Little mention was made of the fact that van Gogh was murdered by one man, not by a whole “community,” or of the principle that criminality should be punished as it happens and accordingly to law, equally, rather than become interpreted in terms of supposedly essential attributes of other peoples’ cultures. Before these cartoons, the Danish press had for years been demonizing the Muslim community. It was filled with lurid tales of a culture based on forced marriage, honor killings, domestic abuse, homophobia and the subjugation of women. Criminal acts by any Muslim immigrant quickly became interpreted in terms of culture. For example, when an immigrant killed his daughter, the press immediately explained the matter as an honor killing, and thus as a cultural symptom, rather than as an act of criminality like all others—in this case, it eventually turned out that the man in question was mentally unstable. He was certainly not expressing "his culture" in killing his daughter, but the matter was made to appear so in the Danish press.

In both cases the intention was not simply practice “free speech”—one, after all, always makes choices as to what one speaks about, even in conditions of absolute freedom. (We now know, for example, that three years before the same Danish newspaper rejected cartoons depicting Jesus negatively, precisely on the ground that they could cause an outcry).In the cases of van Gogh’s film and Rose’s cartoons, the intention was to provoke through offence. However, clearly van Gogh did not expect to be murdered for his provocations, in the same way that Flemming Rose, the editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, did not expect such an uncontrollable international furor to result from his decision to solicit and publish the Muhammad cartoons.

Thus in both case the offenders succeeded far more than they had anticipated. The social climate in Europe after both cases was characterized by a sense of great “surprise” at the intensity of the reaction. This surprise furnished not simply anti-Muslim vitriol, but also something more positive: an incentive for serious communication and education about Islam and Muslims. It is reported that bookstores in Denmark have run out of copies of the Qur’an—just as bookstores in the US were raided for copies of the same book after September 11. Yet one can read the entire Qur’an and learn nothing about the background of what happened after the cartoons globally. More relevant would be to read about the material conditions and political grievances in Muslim societies today. Those conditions and grievances, which often have little to do with Islam itself as a religion, are what produce a volatile environment in which isolated incidents and otherwise forgettable insults may lead to uncontrollable crises.

We do live now in a truly interconnected global society. The fact that an issue of this nature has generated such a global agitation verifies the fact. It testifies, among other things, to the power of the Internet as a tool of organizing, but also to the possibilities of global grass-roots movement concerned with common issues. Here we have a good example of a global society working out its common issues through its own initiatives.

It should naturally be expected that in such a movement there will be a certain uncontrollable element. Not only is there no central leadership for such a global movement, it is also in its nature to cause various local grievances to add to the energy of the movement precisely as all grievances converge upon a common cause. Distress about the oppression of the Palestinians, the destruction of Iraq, or imperialist threats and arrogance generally, become added on to the protest, since these older and festering malignancies place the cartoons into a larger, supposedly connected narrative of grand clash on a world scale. Similarly, discontent with unaccountable, unresponsive, illegitimate or ineffective governance locally becomes added to the sum total of grievances. The cartoons then summarize, stand in, or become a symbol for all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the umma.

The issue thus is not simply that offensive cartoons appeared in a far away newspaper that few had ever heard of. They are offensive and are intended to provoke, but there is more. It is that "more"–our own other grievances, weaknesses and vulnerabilities–that we need to address and resolve. We do have problems to worry about other than the cartoons, even though these have given everyone, in Europe as well as in the Muslims World, an opportunity to think not only about how to better communicate, but also how to begin to address real issues, rather than remain fixated on symbols of real issues.

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