Cartoon Wars: The Challenge for Muslims in the West

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Posted Feb 7, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Cartoon Wars: The Challenge for Muslims in the West
By Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

The furore over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the acres of newsprint and hours of air time expended on them raise many complex issues.

I would like to focus on only one of them, because I believe it be of such pressing importance that it trumps all the others at this time.  This is the problem of emotionalism and violence in the name of Islam.

This does not mean that I do not believe that we must continue to debate the many questions raised by this episode.

We still need to answer the following questions, amongst many others:

What is the ideal balance between a “sacrosanct” freedom of expression and sensitive regard for the equally sacrosanct beliefs of others?  To what extent should we require influential people in civil society, whether in the state, a corporation or a newspaper, to use language and deploy images more responsibly than simply observing the bare minimum the law demands? 

Can such a balance ever be achieved, given the degree of generalised spiritual illiteracy and ignorance within secularised Western media, or, indeed, vociferous anti-Muslim bias in such media, whether secular or motivated by adherents of other religions?

To what extent has the episode been deliberately engineered by malicious people bent on fanning the flames of a wished-for Clash of Civilisations between Islam and the West, yet masquerading as brave defenders of a precious freedom?

Is there a connection between this episode and an underlying rage provoked by perceptions of injustice, double standards and hypocrisy in the treatment of Muslims by Western governments? 

I do not disregard the pressing importance of all these questions, some of which have been succinctly answered by Tariq Ramadan in an interview in Switzerland last week with Nathan Gardels, whose publication New Perspectives Quarterly is the organ of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Professor Ramadan makes it clear that this is not a legal issue, or an issue of rights. Free speech is a legally protected right in Europe and no one, he says, should contest this. There are, however, civic limits based on an understanding that free speech should be used wisely so as not to provoke sensitivities, particularly in hybrid, multicultural societies. He asks: Do I go around insulting people just because I’m free to do it? No. It is a matter of civic responsibility and wisdom not a question of legality or rights.

Others have questioned whether the issue is really one of civic responsibility, arguing instead that it is more a matter of Muslim immaturity.

As Chair of FAIR in the aftermath of 9/11 I spoke out against rising Islamophobia, so eloquently castigated by William Dalrymple in an article in The Independent at that time as “the brazen hostility, bordering on contempt, for the most cherished principles of Islamic life and thought, reaching an apoplexy of hate in the modern Western media who represent Islam as intolerant of diversity, monolithic and war-mongering.”

Such “scribes of the new racism”, he continued, perpetrate “idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and belief” and “ludicrously unbalanced, inaccurate and one-sided” images of Islam, even in our quality broadsheets. “Anti-Muslim racism”, he concludes,  “now seems in many ways to be replacing anti-Semitism as the principal Western expression of bigotry against ‘the other’.”

And yes, the publication of the cartoons can be seen as another example of crass stereotyping, a particularly blatant, stupid and useless provocation designed to inflame emotions rather than initiate a sensible and reasoned debate about free speech or integration.

And their re-publication is now nothing more than a deliberate power struggle, a test of wills to see who will get the upper hand. 

As Tariq Ramadan asks, how does one imagine that the average Muslim in Europe who opposes terrorism will react seeing the Prophet Mohammed depicted with a bomb in his turban? These cartoons are seen by average Muslims and not just radicals as a transgression against something deeply sacred to them.  What do we want, he says - to polarize our world or build bridges?

That said, this is my plea: the way to combat such provocations, the way to change hearts and minds and reframe perceptions about Islam and Muslims is to exemplify the finest elements of the Islamic tradition, not, please not, to play so witlessly into the hands of detractors by exhibiting the very behaviours which they ignorantly associate with all Muslims.

What could be better designed to confirm their biases and spread them ever more widely amongst the community at large than ugly, hostile, strident ranting and inflammatory banners threatening violence and even demanding execution? Nothing could be better calculated to offer the worst possible disservice to the Muslim community and to wider perceptions of Islam than this. “Look,” they will say, “didn’t we tell you that Muslims can never be integrated into Europe?”

Not in their wildest dreams could Muslim-bashers have hoped for more powerful verification of one of their more plausible arguments: that the word “Islamophobia” is simply a label manipulated by Muslims to repel just criticism of their own attitudes and behaviour.

A correspondent in America makes the point that lacking real leadership, a few hotheads, spewing self-defeating rhetoric can easily get Muslims onto the streets to defend the Prophet Muhammad, Islam or the Qur’an. Tales of Qur’ans being flushed down toilets created a similar reaction that led to little more than the deaths of Muslim rioters at the hands of Muslim police. In the imbroglio of these “cartoon wars”, it is rampaging Muslims, too, who have been shot and killed in Muslim countries.

Are these people so psychologically unaware that they do not realise that they are being baited? Do they not realise that in a desacralised Western society, religion is not sacred, but is centre stage as the primary target of provocative and defamatory attacks? It is a popular pastime to attack religion and to blame religion for all of the world’s ills, even though it is easy to show that religious violence has played a very minor role in the tally of deaths in the history of human conflict. The way to respond to ignorance is to try to enlighten it through superior knowledge and fierce critical intelligence, not the fires of emotionalism. 

The people who knowingly provoke Muslim rage are hugely entertained by religious people making fools of themselves, and it serves their cause well to have yet more evidence that religious people are all fanatics who are moved not by the tangible injustices and crimes represented by world poverty, social inequalities, political oppression, or the rape of the environment, but only by pride, competitive aggression and hurt feelings at the desecration of symbols which mean little or nothing to the majority of people in a secularised society.

The Prophets never fought against anyone out of such personal feelings. They fought to defend the true worth and dignity of the human being,  to establish justice and to save the weak and oppressed from tyranny. The Prophet Muhammad’s enemies used to throw garbage on him, and spit on him, and place the entrails of animals on his back when he would bow to pray, but he never struck out at them.

I am not at all suggesting that fanatical behaviour is merely immature, impolitic and ill-judged because it plays into the hands of detractors.

I mean that it is utterly wrong and a disgrace to Islam, no matter how much we may wish to pursue the valid questions that I raised at the beginning of this article.

At a recent meeting in Washington DC dedicated to providing authentic education about Islam and Muslims to the American people, a Muslim journalist expressed the opinion that the only thing that would force newspaper editors to moderate their language (whether verbal or visual) was the threat of punitive legal action.

I disagreed with him. Of course, legal action is a viable option if laws exist to deal with a particular case, but legal action is not “the only way”. The best and most lasting way to change hearts and minds is not to compel and coerce, but to persuade and enlighten others through the superiority of your arguments, the fineness of your speech and the beauty of your character – and, wherever possible, to find the convergence between the best of the tradition you represent and the best of whatever tradition or way of life is adhered to by others.

Tariq Ramadan puts this well: “Today’s most urgent task is to bring together women and men from all backgrounds, from all convictions and religions, in the name of the common universal principles of the dignity of human beings and of the critical spirit. To overcome the ideology of fear, to loosen the grip of the emotions, requires a demanding critical intelligence and a sense of the ethics of debate, of receptivity. Some will identify these qualities with belief and spirituality, others with their conscience alone. But each one will understand them as the necessary, imperative qualities of his or her humanity.”

One of the founding principles of Western civilisation is Plato’s affirmation that dialectic (the testing process of critical enquiry through open exchange of ideas) is immeasurably superior to rhetoric as a means of persuasion. It is because of this that in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages, the use of the word “rhetoric” almost invariably has negative connotations.

We might legitimately say, of course, that this principle is being abused by many people in the forefront of public life, including politicians and journalists, and that manipulative rhetoric, including the nakedly exploitative versions which flourish in a spiritually vacuous consumer society, is more deeply embedded in our culture than ever.

There is some truth in this, because fewer and fewer people are intellectually, emotionally and spiritually literate enough to understand the vocabulary which would enable them to fathom the depths to which they are conditioned and manipulated – and this applies no less to those religionists of any faith who are ignorant of the spiritual principles underlying their faith and incapable of civilised discussion or tolerant acceptance of diversity.

We can wag our fingers at the decline in the intelligence and refinement of public discourse, which many see as a symptom of wider civilisational decline, but the fact is that we live in a society which still at its best honours open dialogue as an indispensable process in the advancement of human knowledge and the betterment of human societies.

This very privilege rests not only on the legacy of the Greeks, but also on the legacy of Muslims themselves to Western civilisation. As Muhammad Asad eloquently explains in the Foreword to his monumental The Message of the Qur’an, it was the Qur’anic “insistence on consciousness and knowledge” which “engendered among its followers a spirit of intellectual curiosity and independent inquiry, ultimately resulting in that splendid era of learning and scientific research which distinguished the world of Islam at the height of its cultural vigour.” That same spirit penetrated the medieval Western mind, giving rise in due course to the Renaissance of learning in the West and ultimately, as Muhammad Asad writes, to “the age of science in which we are now living.”

Yes, that “age of science” has brought with it many negative consequences, just as the “age of freedom” presents us with many difficult choices which test qualities of leadership and character, and call on our innate ability to discriminate between what truly liberates the human spirit and what enslaves it through selfish libertarianism. 

Yet I have absolutely no doubt that if I had to choose between living under an authoritarian religious theocracy and a Western democracy, I would choose the latter without hesitation.

I would do so because I believe that many of the humane principles which should govern the conduct of civic society in the West (even if open to abuse) are actually more in tune with the spirit of authentic Qur’anic teachings than the oppressive human formulations imposed on citizens in the name of Islam in some Muslim lands.

A letter to the Washington Post claims that the demonstrations are “understandable”, because “Muslims are fed up with the double standards, the constant attacks on Islam and their virtual exclusion from mainstream debate.”

But it is in this “exclusion” where the challenge lies. Exclusion can be imposed by others through the double standards, hostility and discrimination which emanate from ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, or downright malice, but exclusion can also be self-imposed through the very same vices. The wisdom given to us in the Islamic revelation is not the exclusive, inward-looking and parochial property of Muslims, to be jealously defended and set apart from all other formulations, or retreated into as a sullen refuge for a victimised minority, but is a universal gift to all mankind.

Muslims need to offer this gift with an open hand for the benefit of the wider community. Islam has something precious to give to the West again. It once gave to the West an intellectual enlightenment.  It can now offer the greater prize of spiritual enlightenment, and by so doing it can restore to the West the connection between the intellect and the spirit which Western science, despite its achievements, lost sight of.  It can help to feed the unconscious spiritual hunger of so many people in our society.

This vital task can only be accomplished by a new breed of ambassadors who can find the points of convergence between the best of all traditions. It needs people of emotional maturity, psychological insight, social intelligence, communicative competence and inter-cultural sensitivity, many of whom will have a background not in those occupations traditionally valued by Muslims, such as engineering, medicine, computer science and law, but in the Humanities.  It needs people of aesthetic awareness and creativity who can bring to light the beauty of Islam. It needs articulate people who can express the essential, universal principles of the faith in nuanced language divested of cultural baggage.  It needs people able to enter into dialogue and to deploy critical intelligence for the advancement of human knowledge.

And it needs people with good manners.

It is only the provision of such well-rounded people through a new vision of education which will reframe perceptions of Islam and provide the counterbalance to the poverty of fanaticism. With God’s Grace, perhaps they can also help to restore a sense of the sacred to our culture, and by so doing awaken more widely in the hearts and minds of our citizens an aversion for the desecration of the sacred.

2423 words

© Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
7 February 2006