What is the Cartoon controversy?
by Chandra Muzaffar
The cartoons controversy is not about freedom of expression. It is about how a segment of European society views religion in general and Islam in particular.
Western ‘liberals’ who have chosen to defend the vilification of the Prophet Muhammad in caricatures that first appeared in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in September 2005 and which were subsequently reproduced in various dailies in a number of other countries, argue that their media are free to publish anything and do not impose restrictions upon themselves. This is not true at all. Elite and corporate interests, the dominant worldview prevalent in society, certain notions of the well-being of the majority and specific circumstances have always conditioned the freedom of the media.
Isn’t it because of elite interests that in a democracy like Italy where the majority of the people were opposed to the invasion of Iraq very few anti-war intellectuals were interviewed in the mainstream print and electronic media? Isn’t it because of a worldview that is skeptical of Islam that almost every newspaper editorial in France – the nation that gave birth to the ‘Rights of Man’ – bemoaned the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992 and endorsed obliquely the usurpation of power by the military junta? Isn’t it because of a specific circumstance – a deep seated collective guilt arising from the holocaust – that the European media hounds and harasses anyone who dares to raise even the slightest doubt about that terrible tragedy?
What this shows is that there are issues that the Western media deliberately suppress – in spite of their professed commitment to freedom of expression – because they do not dovetail with the media’s worldview or their interests.
Secularism in the West
It so happens that religion is one of those subjects that is at odds with the worldview of a lot of Western media practitioners. Often vehemently secular in outlook, sometimes contemptuous of matters of faith, they have no qualms about deriding the Sacred and the Transcendent. It is not surprising therefore that Christianity has been lambasted at some time or other in almost every major European newspaper and, on numerous occasions, Jesus Christ has been lampooned in films, cartoons and articles. This has caused grievous hurt to practicing Christians in the continent.
It is partly because of this attitude towards religion in general on the part of the media that Islam has also been targeted. But the vilification of Islam is also a consequence of other factors. With the dramatic growth of Muslim minorities in almost every European country in the last 20 years, the majority community has become more and more negative towards their presence, reflected in the rise of the phenomenon known as Islamophobia. While a degree of Muslim exclusivity has contributed towards this, it is the utter inability of the European to accord respect and equality to ‘the other’ in the socio-psychological sense which is the main problem. In an earlier period Jews had also been the victims of Europe’s discrimination and demonization.
Stereotyping of Islam & Muslims
There is perhaps a more important reason for the demonization of the religion. It is the baneful impact of 911 and the war on terror upon Muslims and their subtle stereotyping in the media as a people prone to violence. Though most Western political leaders are careful to distinguish the Muslim fringe that resorts to violence in pursuit of its political objectives from the rest of the community, television images and media commentaries have often reinforced the erroneous equation of the religion with terror. It explains why some of the offensive cartoons of the Prophet published in the Jyllands-Posten made that link.
Equating Islam and Muslims with violence and terror is not new. It has been going on for a thousand years. It began with distorted and perverted biographies of the Prophet in Latin in France and Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries and has continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the writings of men like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes.
In the past, Islam was equated with violence partly because of the anger and antagonism generated by both the Muslim conquest of large parts of Europe and the defeat of Christendom at the hands of Muslim defenders of Jerusalem at the end of the crusades. The power and glory of Islamic civilization between the eighth and fourteenth centuries – especially its pioneering role as the founder of modern science – when much of Europe was shrouded in the darkness of the middle ages also caused a great deal of envy and resentment which European folk literature expressed through negative stereotyping of Islam and Muslims. This stereotyping with the emphasis upon ‘Islamic violence’ reached its zenith during the colonial epoch when Western powers ruled the roost.
Oil & Zionism
It is not just the residue of this huge historical baggage that colors Western perceptions of the Muslim world today. It is significant that it was when certain Muslim states began to exercise control over their oil from the early seventies onwards, thus challenging the Western grip over this vital commodity, that pejorative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims became rife in the mainstream Western media. Similarly, as Zionist influence over the critical sectors of American society increased and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation intensified in the sixties, the American media accelerated its imaging of ‘Muslim terror.’ It is undeniably true that the politics of Israel and oil has been at the root of much of the stereotyping of the religion and its adherents in recent times.
Role of Media
Since the politics of Israel and oil is entrenched within a global hegemonic structure of power, it is doubtful that the mainstream Western media will cease to equate Islam with violence in the near future. For the media themselves are part of this hegemony. This is why one has to depend upon the alternative media and dissident civil society actors to present a balanced perspective on how the religion views violence and what the historical record has been on this score.
It is encouraging that there have always been non-Muslim writers in the past as in the present, from Wolfgang Goethe to Karen Armstrong, who have attempted to provide an honest picture of Islam to the public. It is bridge-builders of their kind who are crucial for inter-civilizational harmony between Islam and the West.
Unfortunately, most Muslims are not aware of the work of these bridge-builders. What they have been witnessing especially in the last few years are the stark consequences of global hegemony reflected in the slaughter of innocent Muslims in Palestine and Iraq; in the humiliation of occupation and subjugation; in the treachery of double standards; in the machinations of exclusion and marginalization. It explains to a great extent the explosion of violent fury in different parts of the Muslim world over the abusive caricaturing of the Prophet. It is anger that is driven by more than their boundless love for Muhammad.
Violent protest is not the way
However, what the cartoon protesters do not realize is that by resorting to violence they have unwittingly reinforced the worst prejudices of those detractors of Islam who are only too willing to link the religion to terror. Peaceful protest would have served the cause of Islam better. Such protest calls for a certain degree of restraint. It is true that in some of the protests Muslims have shown remarkable control over their emotions. But it should have been the norm.
After all, when the Prophet was hurled with abuse and taunted with insults – even when he was physically attacked – he displayed tremendous restraint. Surely, the least that those who are protesting in his name can do is to try to emulate his example.
Dr.Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). http://www.just-international.org/
Originally published on the JUST website and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.