The special pair of spectacles

Shahzad Aziz

Posted Mar 1, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The special pair of spectacles
(Muslims, cartoons and a case of bad eyesight)

Did you sigh, roll your eyes over and quietly mutter to yourself, ‘here we go again’? Did you? Did you want to say something further? I mean did you have this niggling, this frustrating urge within you to speak your mind, just this once, and ‘tell it as it is’. But you knew you couldn’t, you knew that in the politically correct world that we are now forced to live in, one ought to be very careful about citing any form of criticism of Muslims lest you be accused of being a racist? ‘Bloody Muslims’, even their presence, their very existence in the West is shackling our beloved freedom of speech.

If these lines strike a chord with you then you may not want to hear what I am about to say next. Having watched the Muslim world erupt into total lunacy with its widespread, anger fuelled riots over the publication of some silly cartoons, having been privy to this madness, this gross over-reaction to some petty drawings, the last thing you want to hear is some bloody Muslim have the nerve, the sheer audacity, to suggest that it is not the Muslim world but the West that has a deep underlying problem, that the ‘finger of blame’ points not to the East but to the West.

You see, the problem with the West is essentially this, a long time ago the following dictum, ‘the civilised West values freedom of speech, the uncivilized Muslim world does not’, became firmly lodged somewhere in some remote and difficult to reach part of its mind. It’s not exactly clear how this happened, several wise men have said that the effects of Western colonial history may have had something to do with it. The effect of this maxim being wedged in between some fold in its cerebrum is that it has created a very high tendency by the West to interpret and rationalise the social behaviour of Muslims in line with this dictum. One might argue that it is kind of equivalent to the West seeing the Muslim world through a special pair of rose tinted spectacles which unbeknown to its wearer, repeatedly relay to the Western observer an image of ‘a freedom loving West and a freedom hating Muslim world’, no matter what is being viewed. Until that wedged dictum is dislodged, until those special spectacles have been changed, the interesting question for us is how cerebrally trapped dictums and rose tinted glasses lead the West to interpret Muslim behaviour in such a way. The West’s response over Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons provides us with a good illustration to understanding this behavioural pattern.

The ideal of ‘free speech’ without qualification does not and has not ever existed in the West. The West has spent several centuries drafting a number of important qualifications and checks in respect of what is unarguably a much cherished principle. For example, one is free to say or do whatever, providing ones actions cause no material harm to others (for the sake of simplicity such a qualification maybe defined as Mill’s ‘harm principle’ after the 19th century British Parliamentarian, John Stuart Mill). Whilst there maybe debate as to where the boundaries of what we define as ‘harm’ lie, nevertheless, much laws have been enacted by Western societies to ensure that where an individual or group is caused material harm by the words/actions of another, such speech/expression is prohibited. You see, the first thing those special spectacles do is to remove, to hide, to paper-over such checks and balances. I mean they just vanish into thin air, so that when a Western observer looking through those special glasses looks at itself in the mirror all it sees looking back at him is this strikingly beautiful image called ‘freedom of expression’. No qualifications, no checks, no nothing, just ‘freedom of expression’, full stop. When the check-less, qualification-less West then turns its gaze from the mirror to the images the 24 hour news networks provide about the wide spread rioting by Muslims over the cartoons, such images are seen as ridiculous and even offensive because any demands by Muslims requesting the West to censor the cartoons is seen as an attempt to censor that stunning reflection in the mirror (‘how dare they try censor such beauty, my beauty’). Reality has been distorted. The reflection in the mirror lies, showing a much leaner image of something that has been pruned of its extra pounds, removed of its extra baggage, its well drafted and well crafted checks and qualifications have simply withered away. 

Let me ask you to take off those glasses for a moment, just for a moment and look at some different cartoons that we prepared for you earlier. The first set of cartoons you are being shown date back to the beginning of last century, they are getting on a bit, I accept that, but if you look carefully you will note that these cartoons originate from Nazi Germany and depict the most awful, the most horrendous stereotyping and maligning of Jewish people. Not so funny are they? Most Westerners today acknowledge that these cartoons played their part (however great or small) in contributing to the sickening climate of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. They weren’t the only anti-Semitic discourse ofcourse, there were many many others, but ‘we the people’ and ‘the historians’ concede today they did play a contributing part in helping to create, helping to ferment feelings of anti-Semitism by too many Germans towards too many Jews. With the end result being the harm Jews would suffer being much easier to rationalise and much easier for the Nazi mind to stomach, to moralise. Such cartoons would never be printed today in the Western mainstream media because the West, because ‘we the people’, acknowledge and recognize the ‘harm’ they can potentially do. Aha! That harm principle has suddenly re-appeared from its game of hide and seek. Once you take those glasses off the checks and qualifications on freedom of speech suddenly come into focus.

Now keep those glasses off, I want to show you another series of cartoons, these also date back to the first half of last century. These set of cartoons depict another discriminated and oppressed minority, ‘blacks’.  Yes that other traditionally persecuted minority. I see you nodding your head, you know what I am about to say next, that in the latter half of last century the West has slowly but wisely come to the similar realization that these harmless cartoons actually helped perpetuate some quite harmful stereotypes of black people and that they have no place in a modern civilised society. Especially in a society where racism towards blacks was one of its biggest social diseases. Such cartoons simply inflamed and aggravated that disease. These cartoons likewise caused harm and therefore, like those anti-Jewish cartoons, ‘we the people’ felt that the freedom to publish such cartoons in the freedom loving West, needed to be tempered by some freedom loving restraint.

Now before you put those glasses back on, have a look at those Danish cartoons again, look at the one with the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, can the arguments that were premised on the ‘harm principle’ to censor the anti-Semitic and anti-black cartoons because of the harm they caused be reasonably made against this anti-Muslim cartoon? Do not such cartoons pander to the worst and crude stereotyping of Muslims? Do they not suggest to the reader that in a world where Muslims appear to be responsible for one terrorist activity after another, that the source for the justification of terrorist activity comes from the founder of Islam? In a climate of Islamaphobia where Muslims are increasingly suffering discrimination in the West, cannot such messages serve as dangerous intellectual fodder to ferment quite harmful attitudes in the West towards Muslims? At this very moment, the British Parliament has passed through legislation that makes illegal those who ‘glorify’ terrorism. Why? Because it feels that in a climate where Westerners are at risk of harm from terrorist activities, those who glorify terrorism serve to provide dangerous intellectual fodder to ferment quite harmful attitudes by some Muslims towards the West and increase the risk of terrorist activity from them. How ironic, the image of freedom of speech without qualification very quickly vanishes from the mirror when it is the West who is the victim audience for someone’s free speech. Everything comes into focus then! 

Let me apply some checks on the Muslim response to these cartoons. Contrary to first impressions, I am not suggesting that the Muslim world is without criticism in its handling of the crises. On the contrary, if we feel that after the discrimination of Jews, of Catholics, of blacks by the all powerful West, it is now Muslims who are in the firing line, then there are much better ways than resorting to wide scale rioting and threatening slogans to alert the West to the dangers such apparently innocent cartoons can cause and to the inconsistencies within the West’s position on the issue. Nevertheless, rather than the West consistently asking the Muslim world to under-go some sort of collective soul searching every time a flashpoint between the two civilisations occurs, maybe the time has come for the West to look at itself in the mirror to make sure that the reflection, the image that presents itself to the outside Muslim world is actually its own reflection and not an idealised version of it. For Muslims living within the UK at least, the hypocrisy in the West’s approach reminds them of the words of the former English cricket captain Mike Gatting, who in his infamous argument with the Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana during England’s 1987 tour of Pakistan famously retorted, “one rule for one, one for another”.

Shahzad Aziz
Barrister and author of the forthcoming, Behind the Iron Veil: How the West became hated and other reflections from the Islamic lands (published by A. S. Noorden)