Blasphemous Cartoons: The Issue and the Response

Since the January protests over the publication of the caricatures of the Holy prophet the situation is deadlocked. Despite the expression of regret by some western leaders and the call for calm by some Muslim government and State heads, the conflict that erupted remains unresolved. Muslims worldwide reject the argument that freedom of expression grants the right to insult their Prophet. Many western non-Muslims, from among the media, politicians and activists, are unwilling to have any limits set to their freedom of expression. European publications have still not completely stopped publishing the cartoons. One newspaper even published the controversial cartoon as late as February 10. In the USA reportedly an online sale of T-shirts with caricatures of the Prophet had also begun.

While protests across four continents against the caricatures continue, the Muslim response has varied. The most publicized have been angry and often violent sporadic street protests calling for death, hangings, beheading, suicide bombings and another strike by Bin laden. Condemnable, neither civilized nor legal and against the teachings of Islam, embassies have been burnt and about 30 people have died. But this is anger, personal and political, but Yet no degree of outrage or anger can justify breaking the law of the land or behaving in an uncivilized manner. It is a hollow justification which dictates that the justification for my violence flows from an unjust action of another. No ends, motives and injustice cannot be the license to opt for any means-be it killings, suicide bombings etc. Islam abhors this. Forbids it.

Alongside these protests, the debate over this controversy continues unabated. Although many in the non-Muslim world may believe it’s about freedom of expression, it in fact covers numerous issues. At least six are noteworthy.

One, does the secular State never intervene in matters involving faith? Or does it and at what point? By refusing to meet the Imams in September the Danish Prime Minister opted to ignore the concerns of the Muslims representing 3.5 percent of Denmark’s 5.4 million population. According to the AFP report of February 6, Moroccan-born Dane Hamid El Mousti, Social Democrat bitterly complained that the Danish deputies from the far right stood up in parliament and said Islam was a religion of terror, that Muslims are swarming like rats, or worse, that the culture minister (Brian Mikkelsen of the Conservatives) speaks of Islam as a backward religion, from the Middle Ages." After all he got involved in the issue when the situation became violent. Then he wanted to ensure peace in his country and to end growing international global hostility towards Denmark. That he should have done earlier. Met the Imams and advised them to consult the courts. He should have been far more proactive had something anti-Semitic emerged in the papers.

Two, should the non-Muslims be forced to accept the Muslim way of life, should they be ‘forced’ to live by their values. Some compare the post-war period in which Europe’s intellectuals ignored the threat emanating from the hate and exclusivity-premised rise of Hitler and fascism with the rise of Islamic totalitarianism. They lament self-censorship in Europe from fear of Osama and of so-called "Islamic terrorism." They claim that we need to stand up against this new form of fascism. Such a thinking is premised on a parochial intellectual reductionism which paints incidents of terrorism with an Islamic or Muslim brush. Hence equating Islam and terrorism means that there would be a tendency among these intellectuals to view any issue raised from the context of Islam with terrorism and not evaluated on the merit of its argument. The reading of the global Muslim response to the caricature’s of the prophet illustrates this point. The other problem with such intellectual reductionism is that it misses out the 99percent of the billion plus world’s Muslims who may be distraught about the fall-out of Muslim encounter with the West, but have not participated or supported mindless killings of the innocent. Often volumes written in the Muslim world that vigorously debate the means deployed to contest the powers and the ruling elites, Muslims and non-Muslims, that undermine the political and economic interests of Muslim peoples.

Three, any demand by Muslims for respect and sensitivity towards what is sacred in Islam will always require reciprocity. If Muslims demand respect for what is sacred for them, they must reciprocate. Those of other faiths and from other countries demand their religious symbols, be it a Hindu goddess or the statute of Buddha, must not be defiled. The flags of their nations should not be insulted. After the Muslim anger against the Prophet’s caricatures, many non-Muslims complain against the Muslim press caricaturing the Jews, the sacred symbols of Hinduism, and burning of national flags.

Four, how do people with differing if no contending worldviews, co-exist in ‘shared spaces.’ Communication tools have removed the private niches that diverse groups had to themselves. Now because of cyberspace and satellite and dish television, no one has the comfort of a protected niche; a space to be defined and designed by their own world view. The Asian experience of sharing common spaces with culturally and religiously diverse groups has created a social culture of tolerance, the politics-driven intolerance notwithstanding. This Asian social experience of acknowledging and even celebrating diversity has contrasted with the European experience of relative homogeneity. Hence the life in the Grey zones of life is unknown to most Europeans and accordingly their reaction to ‘another’ worldview is hard and harsh. They confuse this with freedom of expression and forget that the freedom of expression does not give them the liberty to say whatever they want.

Five, it has thrown up the issue of Muslims and of social integration in most of Europe. The locals complain that the Muslims do not assimilate; that they don’t participate in mainstream socio-political activities. That may not be entirely correct. Muslims have integrated in-keeping with own social background and the degree of comfort and receptivity they have experienced in a Western environment. Assimilation requires a two-way effort at working at common grounds and at respecting the differences. If the Muslims, as immigrants or long term visitors have erred at bitterly criticizing the way of life of their original hosts, the hosts too have labeled the new citizens as them as "rats." A Moroccan-born Dane Hamid El Mousti, also recently argued that the debate over the caricatures was simply "the last straw". A politician for 16 years from the Danish Social Democrats party, Mousti has argued Danish Muslims reacted to "seeing their religion trampled on by the far-right".

Six, there is also a particular psychological state at work behind especially the printing of these cartoons- the psychological of siege. It is both anger and helplessness of many in the western world that has prompted this. Suicide bombings in Spain, England and in other places anger towards Muslims in the post 9/ll and rising period.

Although the West, compared to Muslim states, is economically, militarily, intellectually and politically is ascendant, it remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Hundreds of innocent people have died in these attacks. Meanwhile security efforts by governments can only reduce not eliminate the risk of terrorism. Hence for many in the West hitting out at the ‘terrorists where it hurts the most’ is a justifiable response. The way many angry Muslims ‘wronged’ over the last century by their own ruling elite, the State institutions and the ascendant Western powers, see violence as a means to redefining power and politics in the world’s troubled spots as they wish to see it.

And since in popular media terms Islamic and Muslim terrorism occupy the center-stage of Islam and the Muslim world, there is no significant consciousness of the genuine pain the cartoons have caused to the 99% of the Muslim people who are not engaged in any terrorism.

The overwhelming majority of the non-Muslim westerners have expressed their support for those who have published the caricature. The thrust of the support found in cyber space write-ups is that the Muslims are against freedom of expression, that they had been violent and disrespectful towards non-Muslims and hence their sacred symbols deserve no respect.

Islamophobia had to be fought at all levels before it becomes an unstoppable wave. This is not the forties when one power could unleash the tragedy of the holocaust. The battle in Palestine shows people have the will to fight back. Holocaust is not possible but the attitude that can give birth to the desire of the holocaust is there.

The hate in Central Europe and the on-line comments after the caricaturing of the prophet became evidently clear. Derogatory statements targeting Muslims and Islam are regularly made by some of Europe’s top leadership. And then the wave of torture, injustice and humiliation that Muslims, in the notorious prisons of Guantanamo Bay, Basra and Abu Gharaib, have suffered at the hands of the US and British force. These create the context for a blind and blanket hate of a people. It seeks to deliberately dehumanize the ‘other.’

Seven, the western governments, especially the Bush administration found it difficult to extricate itself from the politics of the Middle East in formulating a response to the caricatures. Not surprisingly its initial response of condemnation and reprimand of those who published the caricatures was subsequently replaced by a strong criticism of Iran and Syria. Washington no longer reprimanded the newspapers. Administration officials were unable to simultaneously articulate the two concerns, of the cartoons and the violent Muslim response in some cases.

The caricature controversy has thrown up a new challenge to the entire Muslim world. All Muslims are concerned how far will this European-led ‘freedom of expression’ go in defiling the Prophet of Islam. Many Europeans remain adamant that they will persist with this caricature.

Ultimately, the basic question for the Muslims is how is the action of the ‘other’ influenced. Certainly it is not influenced by attacking European embassies, by threatening physical harm or by protesting violently. Equally unwarranted is the demand being made by certain political parties that ties be severed with European countries and ambassadors must be sent back.

What is required is an effective strategy to prevent the defiling of the Prophet. Such a strategy should include peaceful protests, advocacy, engaging the European media and politicians in dialogue, use legal and diplomatic institutions and instruments to lay down the parameters for responsible exercise for freedom of expression. Such an effort would also rein in Muslim countries from showing disrespect to symbols and personalities the others hold sacred.

The government’s statements that "urge the people of Pakistan to express their concern in a peaceful way in accordance with the spirit of Islam" are inadequate. Similarly attempting to tackle ‘the gathering storm’ of public anger through mere administrative measures like arresting leaders and protestors is not sufficient. Above all people need reassurance that the government will do more than just make points about the right and wrong of the caricatures.

More specifically the government of Pakistan should convene an emergency summit of European and key OIC nations. This high level intervention must be made to ensure that immediately legislation should be collectively adopted that would serve as an effective deterrent against ridiculing the basic tenets of Islam. The heads of states of all the countries who published the blasphemous cartoons must apologize to all the Muslims of the world that such a hurtful act was allowed in their own country. Legal action should be taken against the publishers who published these cartoons.