Issues the cartoon controversy raises

Since the January protests over the publication of the caricatures of the Prophet, the situation remains in a deadlock. Despite the expression of regret by some Western leaders and the call for calm by some Muslim government and state heads, the issue is far from over. Muslims worldwide reject the argument that freedom of expression grants the right to insult their Prophet. Many Western non-Muslims, are unwilling to have any limits set on their freedom of expression.

One newspaper published the controversial cartoon as late as February 10. In the US an on-line sale of T-shirts with caricatures of the Prophet also began. While Muslim protests across four continents against the caricatures continue, the response has been varied.

Embassies have been burnt and about 30 people have died. This is anger, personal and political. Yet no degree of outrage can justify breaking the law of the land. It is a hollow justification which dictates that the justification for my violence flows from an unjust action of another. Islam abhors and forbids it. Alongside these protests, the debate over the controversy continues. Although many in the non-Muslim world may believe it’s about freedom of expression, it in fact covers numerous issues.

One, does the secular state never intervene in matters involving faith? Was the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen right in not meeting with the Muslim delegates? According to an AFP report, Hamid El Mousti, a politician from the Danish Social Democrats party, bitterly complained that the Danish deputies from the far right stood up in parliament and said Islam was a religion of terror, or worse, that the culture minister (Brian Mikkelsen of the Conservatives) has spoken of Islam as a backward religion, from the Middle Ages. The same AFP report quoted a young woman from among the protesting Muslims saying, “They walk all over us all the time and then they are surprised when we react because of 12 little drawings.”

Two, should the non-Muslims be forced to accept the Muslim way of life? Some compare the post-war period in which Europe’s intellectuals ignored the threat emanating from the rise of Hitler and fascism with the rise of Islamic totalitarianism. They lament self-censorship in Europe from fear of Osama and the so-called “Islamic terrorism.” They claim that we need to stand up against this new form of fascism. Such thinking is premised on a parochial intellectual reductionism, which paints incidents of terrorism with an Islamic brush. 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 other problem with such intellectual reductionism is that it misses out the 99 per cent of the billion plus Muslims in the world who have not participated or supported the mindless killings of the innocent.

Three, any demand for respect will always require reciprocity. If Muslims demand respect for what is sacred for them, they must reciprocate. After the Muslim anger against the Prophet’s caricatures, many non-Muslims complained against the Muslim Press caricaturing the Jews and the sacred symbols of Hinduism.

Four, how do people with differing if not contending world views, co-exist in ‘shared spaces’? Communication tools have removed the private niches that diverse groups had to themselves. Now because of cyberspace and satellite television, no one has the comfort of a protected niche. The Asian experience of sharing common spaces with culturally and religiously diverse groups has created a social culture of tolerance. This Asian social experience of acknowledging and even celebrating diversity has contrasted with the European experience of relative homogeneity. Their reaction to ‘another’ world view is harsh. They confuse this with freedom of expression and forget that this does not give them the liberty to say whatever they want.

Five, it has thrown up the issue 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 their 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. Mousti has argued that Danish Muslims reacted upon “seeing their religion trampled on by the far-right”.

Six, there is also a particular psychology behind the printing of these cartoons- the psychology of siege. It is the anger and helplessness of many in the Western world that has prompted this. Suicide bombings in Spain, England and other places reveal the anger towards Muslims post 9/ll.

Although the West, compared to Muslim states, is economically, militarily, intellectually and politically on the ascent, it remains vulnerable to terrorist 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 and the Western powers, see violence as a means of redefining power and politics in the world’s troubled spots, only aids this. And since in popular media terms Islamic and Muslim terrorism occupy the centre-stage of the Muslim world, there is no significant consciousness of the genuine pain the cartoons have caused to 99 per cent 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.

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 was subsequently replaced by a strong criticism of Iran and Syria. Washington no longer reprimanded the newspapers. The caricature controversy has thrown up a new challenge to the entire Muslim world. All Muslims are concerned about how far the European-led freedom of expression will go in defiling the Prophet of Islam. Many Europeans remain adamant that they will persist with this caricature. The demand made by certain political parties that ties be severed with European countries and ambassadors be sent back is unwarranted. What is required is a dignified and effective strategy to prevent the defiling of the Prophet. Such a strategy would include peaceful protests, advocacy, engaging the European media and politicians in dialogue, using legal and diplomatic institutions 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.