Academic journal article Global Media Journal

The Danish Cartoon Controversy: Globalized Spaces and Universalizing Impulses

Academic journal article Global Media Journal

The Danish Cartoon Controversy: Globalized Spaces and Universalizing Impulses

Article excerpt

This paper is occasioned by a conversation that I had with my (Anglo) American neighbor during the Danish cartoon crisis. As an Arab American, I am for him both an encyclopedia and a sounding board for all things Middle Eastern and Muslim. "Wanna see some drawings of the prophet Muhammed?" he quipped. After I politely demurred he asked, "what are you people doing over there rioting over a stupid cartoon?" What bothered me was not so much his argument that "Muslims are behaving like children" as the unexamined idea that it was only Muslims that were acting. Europeans (and by cultural extension Americans) by this measure simply are, their perceptions, identities, meanings, and actions are fixed and thus should be held universally.

At the time of his question, the cartoon crisis, in which derogatory cartoons commissioned by a Danish newspaper editor and were reprinted across Europe, had begun taking on quite serious dimensions. Riots were springing up across many Muslim countries and American and European intellectuals were debating the crisis in terms of free speech and secularism. Open hostility had already broken out between the 'two' sides. Muslims questioned why the Europeans were persisting in what they perceived not as free speech but as hate speech and Europeans and other nations that consider themselves Western were taken aback by the vociferousness, immediacy and geographical breadth of Muslim responses.

In what follows I outline the cartoon crisis and explain why I think it's particularly relevant to reflections on globalized moments and spaces, discuss Castells' (2004) ideas on spaces of place and flows, and offer examples of European/Western discursive of identity by recourse to the conflation (and demonization) of all Muslims into improper, radical, dangerous Muslims.

This argument is in a way an academic response to his question. However, I want to address it by inverting it. Instead of asking (the admittedly important) question of why Muslims reacted they way the did, I ask the more subtle question of: what does the cartoon crisis tell us about how Western cultures are reacting to manifestations of a different kind of space, a space that can be at once local and global?

I argue that reactions to the cartoon crisis can be seen as reactions to a new kind of globalized space that disturbingly blurs older concepts of space based on physical proximity. These reactions, both from West and East, unfolded in new global electronic places (the television, the Internet, telephones) that, together with the political, cultural, and economic narratives that play out on and through them, threaten long-understood conceptions of Western identity. This is particularly traumatic to those who consider themselves Westerners as the construction of a superior and universalizing Western identity had long been girded by a spatial differentiation between East and West. I argue that the primary way that Europeans and other Westerners reacted to challenge of this new space was to try and articulate essentialized definitions of Western and Eastern civilizations in an effort to emphasize the universality of Western conceptions of the globalized world.

This global space is different than prior conceptualizations of globality. It is more than a continuation of global patterns of trade, communication, and hegemonic domination that have been affecting people and culture throughout history. Instead, it is a space in which the binary between self and other is complicated by the fact that the imagined other is no longer on the other side of the planet but more present in discussion. It is complicated by the fact that the other can talk back more immediately, if not directly through the physical presence brought about by global economic and political migration, then through mediated communication. New communication technologies, especially the Internet, mobile telephones and satellite television, significantly redefine the sense of space in which a person, a nation, a society, or a culture can imagine themselves. …

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