The origins of the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed do not lie in an attempt to offer contemporary comment, let alone satire, but the desire to illustrate a childrens’ book. While such pictures would have been distasteful to many Muslims – hence why no illustrator could be found – the cartoons are in an entirely different league of offence. They are all unfriendly to Islam and Muslims and the most notorious implicate the prophet with terrorism. If the message was meant to be that non-Muslims have the right to draw Mohammed, it has come out very differently: that the prophet of Islam was a terrorist.
Moreover, the cartoons are not just about one individual but about Muslims per se – just as a cartoon portraying Moses as a crooked financier would not be about one man but a comment on Jews. And just as the latter would be racist, so are the cartoons in question.
That does not in itself mean such cartoons should be banned. One relies on the sensitivity and responsibility of individuals and institutions to refrain from what is legal but unacceptable. Where these qualities are missing one relies on public debate and censure to provide standards and restraints. Hence, where matters are not or cannot easily be regulated by law one relies on protest as well as empathy. This is how most racist speech and images and other free expressions (e.g., the use of golliwogs as commercial brands or British television’s Black and White Minstrel Show) have been censured – rather than censored – away.
Sometimes legal intervention is also necessary. For example, when there is a serious risk of incitement to hatred; or when the “fighting talk” is likely to inflame passions and risk public order; or when it is likely to reinforce prejudice and lead to acts of discrimination or victimisation.
In recognition of this, the British parliament passed a bill on 31 January 2006 to protect against incitement to religious hatred. Yet it was only passed after members of both houses of parliament – supported by much of the liberal intelligentsia – forced the government to accept amendments that weakened its initial proposals. A key sticking-point for the critics – that incitement must require the intention to stir up hatred – reveals a blind-spot in liberal thinking that the Danish cartoon case amplifies.
If the intention of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was not to cause offence, there clearly was a purpose of trying to achieve some kind of victory over Muslims, to bring Muslims into line – especially as it has recently emerged that the same paper refused to print cartoons ridiculing Jesus because they risked giving offence to some Christians (see Gwladys Fouché, “Danish paper rejected Jesus cartoons”, Guardian, 6 February 2006).
The Danish editor cannot plead ignorance of what the effects on Muslims would be, for the whole exercise was premised on the view that a collective effort involving twelve cartoonists was necessary to withstand Muslim opposition. As for the republication of the cartoons across continental Europe, this was deliberately done to teach Muslims a lesson.
A hole in the mind
But the cartoons themselves are a trigger rather than the main issue, for everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims – “views” them (whether literally or imaginatively) in a wider domestic and international context that is already deeply contested. From the Muslim side, the underlying causes of their current anger are a deep sense that they are not respected, that they and their most cherished feelings are “fair game”. Inferior protective legislation, socio-economic marginality, cultural disdain, draconian security surveillance, the occupation of Palestine, the international “war on terror” all converge on this point. The cartoons cannot be compared to some of these situations, but they do distil the experience of inferiority and of being bossed around. A handful of humiliating images become a focal point for something much bigger than themselves.
This at least helps to explain if not condone some of the violent protests in several Muslim cities, and the language of some of the initial protestors in places like Copenhagen and London. Such behaviour is wholly unacceptable and does great damage to the cause of the protestors and to the standing of Muslims in general. Yet while violent protests do not win Muslims many friends, they are not the principal reason for a lack of sympathy for Muslims. Much more real estate has been burnt and more lives lost and endangered in protests in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles; in cases like that protest has been understood by many commentators and politicians as legitimate rage to be addressed by positive socio-economic policies.
Two factors are critical to the lack of sympathy for Muslims in Europe. First, there is a lack of recognition that the way that Muslims are treated is a form of racism – after all it is less than fifteen years ago that Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality and most British anti-racists denied that the vilification of Muslims was a form of racism. Most of continental Europe has hardly begun to have that debate. The suggestion that Muslims are not the subject of racism because they are a religious group is a nonsense when one considers that the victimisation of another religious group, the Jews, is paradigmatic of many peoples’ understanding of racism, especially on the continent.
The second reason is the idea – prevalent amongst anti-racists, the progressive intelligentsia and beyond – that religious people are not worthy of protection; more than that, they should be subject to not just intellectual criticism but mockery and ridicule.
The idea is that religion represents Europe’s pre-enlightenment dark age of superstition and clerical authoritarianism and so has to be constantly kept at bay. Look at how Richard Dawkins in the recent Channel 4 series, The Root of all Evil, traduces faith by identifying all religious people with the worst cases.
This understanding of religion is deep in the culture of the centre-left intelligentsia and is what is being appealed to in the current sloganeering around “freedom of expression”. That’s why, when Muslims counter by citing what Europeans regard as acceptable limits to freedom of speech (e.g., the imprisonment of holocaust deniers), it cuts little ice; for no one actually disagrees with limits to freedom of expression as such, it is just that some will not limit it in the field of religion. In this, liberals are no less following a creed, indeed are no less fundamentalist, than some of those who they want to be free to abuse.
Marginal or equal?
Satirising clericalism may have been emancipatory but vilifying the marginal and exhorting integration is a contradiction. For radical secularism – no less than aspects of the “this is our country, you Muslims will have to put up with our ways” rightwing nationalism – is an obstacle to Muslims becoming included in Europe and coming to have a sense of being part of Europe.
Europe is having to choose which is more important, the right to ridicule Muslims or the integration of Muslims. If the Danish cartoons have not been reprinted in Britain it is because we came to this fork in the road with the Satanic Verses affair. While we could not be said to have made a decisive choice there is greater understanding in Britain about anti-Muslim racism and about the vilification-integration contradiction than in some other European countries.
This is not to say that Muslim sensibilities must be treated as fixed. They too will rightly change and adapt to new contexts. The point is that this cannot be a one-way process. Civic integration and international interdependence – let alone anything as ambitious as a dialogue of civilisations – means that there has to be mutual learning and movement on both/all sides, not just the hurling of absolutes at each other. This is not just a matter of compromise but of multicultural inclusion: Muslim sensibilities, concerns and agendas should be knitted into society just as is the case when other marginalised groups or classes are accepted as democratic equals.
The current temper of the controversy in Britain – in particular the non-publication of the cartoons – is a sign of some progress since the Satanic Verses affair. But we have only just begun on a long journey and the task of carrying our European Union partners with us makes it more uphill. The important thing is not to lose focus. If the goal is multicultural integration, then we must curb anti-Muslim racism and exercise restraint in the uses of freedom directed against religious people – who, after all, are a minority in Europe. Whilst in the United States, the Christian right stand in the way of civic integration, the secularist intelligentsia needs to consider whether it is not playing the same role on our continent.