Cartoons, Confrontation and a Cry for Respect

Article excerpt


Is the issue of the Danish cartoons just another illustration of an unbridgeable divide between the secular west and the Muslim world? Is it similar to the recent challenge in France over headscarves, where secular state values were enforced on the immigrant Muslim community? Does the violent protest merely echo the undercurrent of tension seen in Holland with the murder of the controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, or the involvement of young British Muslim suicide bombers in the transport attacks last July? Are these issues of marginalisation and socioeconomic deprivation, and how closely linked are they with the challenges of immigration?

BY PUBLISHING THE CARTOONS depicting the prophet Mohammed in a mocking and irreverent way last September, the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, known for its anti-immigration stance, has significantly compounded an already sensitive and volatile situation. At risk are relations between Muslim communities and host countries in western Europe and between the Muslim world and the west in general.

With well-known tensions in Europe and the Islamic world, it is unlikely that the editors failed to realise that the cartoons would be offensive, or that there was a real risk of violence, given Muslim outrage over various religious and political issues. The best known previous case was the violent protests in Britain that followed the publication in 1988 of the novel The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, an immigrant author, and the ensuing Fatwa death sentence against him by Iran's then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

This time, the Danish Muslim community took offence at the depiction of the Prophet, which is in itself contrary to Islamic tradition, as well as at the context of the cartoons, including portraying the Prophet as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. Both aspects are important. An assault on the Prophet cuts across all political issues among Muslims, and the context was clearly viewed as inciting racial hatred towards an already besieged community.

There has been irreverent portrayal of the Prophet by Europeans since the Middle Ages. A fifteenth century fresco in Bologna's most important church showing the Prophet Mohammed being tormented in hell was apparently behind a suspected bombing in June 2002 by a group linked to Al Qaeda. Even in post-medieval Europe there is a tradition of denigrating Islam, from Prideaux's Vie de Mahomet published in 1699, through the writings of Voltaire to the works of modern day orientalists such as Maxim Rodinson's 1961 biography, Mohammed.

As the philosophical tide in Europe has shifted from the religious to the secular over the past three centuries, so these attacks by European intellectuals moved from accusations of Muslim idolatry to suggestions of backwardness. The defence of the cartoons is seen by many in Europe as a defence of the superior core values of western democracy.


The tension now seems to be between an avowedly secular Europe, where the sacred is relegated to a private role, and the Muslim community - part of which now forms an immigrant minority where the sacred is paramount for many.

Interestingly, although the United States is a secular country, the tension with the Muslim population seems less pronounced, partly because freedom from religious persecution is enshrined in the constitution, and partly because, unlike Europe, society at large is religious upwards of sixty percent attend a regular weekly service.

In contrast to Europe, there is a strong tradition in Muslim societies of popular opposition to any form of blasphemy. In Egypt in May 2000 there were protests during the annual book fair over the re-publication of A Banquet of Seaweed, a novel by Haydar Haydar: a book described by the learned religious authorities at Al-Azhar university in Cairo as full of phrases that scorned and insulted Islam. …