Professor Paul Zeleza, February 11, 2006.

Cartoons as Weapons of Mass Provocation

Over the past couple of weeks an international crisis has erupted fueled by cartoons caricaturing and condemning the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist figure first published in a Danish newspaper last September and subsequently reprinted with indignant insensitivity in some western countries. There have been mass demonstrations in several countries around the world, trade boycotts, withdrawals of ambassadors, travel advisories, dismissals and resignations of journalists, and sporadic outbreaks of violence that have resulted in several deaths, the burning of Danish flags and embassies, and soured the already strained communal relations within Europe and between the West and the Muslim world more generally. To some this is a harbinger of the much-trumpeted clash of civilizations, a sign of the deep chasm between the West and Islam, between a tolerant modernity and a fanatical medievalism, or between a malicious secular culture and a maligned spiritual community. The outrage and controversy over the cartoons do point to widespread anger and anguish in the Muslim world and intolerance and indifference in the western world. But the conflict is not a clash of civilizations, rather the calculated incitement behind the publication of the inflammatory cartoons and the isolated violent overreactions in some quarters represent a clash of fundamentalisms over contemporary politics, not universal principles.

The religious dimensions of the conflict have encouraged many to see it as a contestation of implacably opposed values, a battle of rights-the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion, the right to offend and the right to be offended-and the moral equivalences of provocations and responses. This forced discourse of binaries is false. Publishers of the notorious, and to Muslims sacrilegious, cartoons and their rightwing defenders invoke freedom of speech as their unassailable defense, as an absolute value, the bedrock of western democracy under threat from 'radical Islamists' and other purveyors of the backward and bankrupt ideologies of political correctness. Even some of their liberal and leftwing critics concede the sanctity of this value, and only blame the publishers for their poor judgment, for bad taste. In reality, the issue is neither about freedom of speech nor indiscretion. It is about political provocation, the assertion of the supremacy of white Europe at home and abroad, the attempt to put Europe's numerous 'others' in their place, especially Muslims historically so close to Europe and now so intimately a part of Europe, whose growing presence challenges European fantasies of cultural purity and whose ancestral lands continue to be ravaged by Euro-American imperialism that mock claims of civilizational superiority.

Freedom of speech is an important value, but in this crisis its value is largely ideological, deliberately deployed as a weapon of cultural aggression. There can be little question that by attacking the Prophet Muhammad the cartoons were intended to inflict the most egregious offense to Muslims, to inflame not to inform. Claims that caricatures of the sacred are normal and even healthy in a secular society not only flout against Islamic prohibition of iconic representations, but ignores the fact that there are secular taboos against which journalists in the western mainstream media dare not cross at the risk of breaching the law or popular conventions. Indeed, we are told the Danish newspaper that published the scurrilous anti-Islamic cartoons turned down cartoons lampooning Jesus Christ because readers would find them offensive. And the embattled editor of the paper was reprimanded and sent on indefinite leave when he announced his intention, in an act of misplaced bravado, to republish anti-Holocaust cartoons promised by a rightwing Iranian newspaper, Hamshari, in a gratuitous effort to test western commitment to freedom of speech.

In many cases the discourse of rights tends to suspend the rights concerned from the historical, material and institutional contexts through which they are expressed, enacted, and enjoyed. No less important to remember is the fact that the western mainstream media is a business-a huge business-subject more to the imperatives profit-making than advancing informed public discourse, more attuned to the interests of the powerful and pandering to popular prejudices than to the voices of the disenfranchised and disaffected who tend to be concentrated among racial, ethnic or religious minorities and the poor. Freedom of expression in the West would indeed be a good thing if it actually existed for all regardless of corporate status, class position, national location, ethnic or racial identity, and ideological orientation.

Nowhere in the western world is the right to the freedom of expression absolute in principle, let alone in practice. It is a relative right contingent on other rights, circumscribed by context. Rights entail responsibilities: the two are interwoven in threads of mutuality that are neither eternal nor universal but constantly negotiated in ongoing and often painful conversations within and between societies. The mainstream western media routinely avoids publishing or showing overtly racist, anti-Semitic, or pornographic materials. In fact, in many of these countries there are laws against hate speech, anti-Semitism, and child pornography, as well as libel and defamation. The laws and conventions that seek to protect groups are reactions to the sordid past of racism and genocide, the barbarities of slavery, colonization, and the holocaust that are as much a part of the western heritage as all the stylized positive values the West claims exclusively for itself, and which still cast ominous shadows over the western world.

Given these realities, the publication of these obnoxious Orientalist cartoons appears to most Muslims as hypocritical. It is a reflection of the rising tide of racism and xenophobia in Europe. It is the face of a new anti-Semitism, this time directed not against Jews, but against Muslims, who in the European imaginary are often racialized as Arabs. The cartoons draw on a long and hideous history of anti-Jewish cartoons that facilitated the dehumanization of Jews that preceded the Holocaust. The connections between the old and new breed of European anti-Semitism is usually not drawn by the defenders of the Danish paper's right to publish the Islamophobic cartoons. Nor do those who seek to respond by recycling fascist cartoons against Jews and the Holocaust seem to appreciate their collusion with a new form of European anti-Semitism that targets them. There can be little doubt that the publication and republication of the cartoons has occurred in a context of growing anti-Muslim religious and racial bigotry in Denmark and across Europe.

It started as a localized crisis in a country becoming increasingly unsure of its national identity and intolerant of its minorities that cruelly exposed the national myth of Nordic tolerance and egalitarianism. The decision by the rightwing paper, Jyllands-Posten, to publish the cartoons resonated with the increasingly conservative political climate in which a strongly anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic party, the Danish People's Party, is part of the parliamentary coalition of the center-right government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen that has passed draconian laws relating to the marriage, citizenship, religious and language rights of immigrants. The initial reaction in Denmark is quite revealing. The Prime Minister refused to meet the European Committee for Honoring the Prophet representing 27 Danish Muslim organizations and a group of diplomats from 11 Islamic countries protesting the publication of the cartoons, and many Danes expressed incomprehension at what the fuss was all about as Danish Muslims took to the streets. It is only when the furor of protests broke out in the Middle East and elsewhere that the gravity of the crisis hit the Danish government. Suddenly, Denmark was faced with its worst postwar crisis, its image in the Muslim world in tatters. The Prime Minister and the newspaper offered belated apologies for causing offense but not for the original decision to publish.

By then, the cartoons had been published in several mostly rightwing papers in various European countries ostensibly in solidarity with the Danish paper and the Danish people in their justifiable efforts to protect freedom of expression and European values that were ostensibly under assault from 'Islamic radicalism'. Interestingly, the mainstream British media largely refrained from joining the jingoist chorus, so did the mainstream American media, another intriguing expression of the special relationship, perhaps reflecting their greater multicultural sensitivities, so some commentators claimed, or the fear of bearing the brunt of Arab and Muslim fury already inflamed by their wanton invasion of Iraq. Underlying this apparent cultural solidarity over the cartoons is the rising tide of anti-Islamic prejudice in many European countries, especially those enamored by the myths of national racial homogeneity or republican universalism.

Solidarity in the escalating crisis cut both ways. Many Muslims in Europe and in other parts of the world found common cause: the cartoons seemed to reinforce the collective vilification of their religion so central to their identity that had been escalating since the end of the Cold War and particularly following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, DC. In effect, the cartoon controversy brought together two crises: the profound feelings of fear and insecurity among marginalized European Muslims and the simmering sense of anger and vulnerability among Muslims in the Middle East who had witnessed the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter under blatantly false pretenses, and were hearing ominous threats against Iran. In fact, the memories of western aggression in the Middle East went much deeper to the humiliation of the colonial invasion, occupation and pillage, and in recent decades the enduring tragedy of the Palestinians. It is not surprising, therefore, that the epicenter of Muslim outrage over the abusive cartoons has been in the Middle East, which has historically been at the receiving end of western terror.

The circuits and networks of transnational communication, both old and new, facilitated the fusion of the two crises. It was after the representatives of the Danish Muslim groups were refused audience by the Danish Prime Minister that the former began lobbying, first among diplomats from Arab governments, then after the latter too were snubbed, directly to governments and organizations in the Muslim world. They made the rounds of North African and Middle Eastern capitals with a 43-page dossier of the cartoons and other documents, and before long the outrage began to build steam, fanned by the region's new spirited media, and sanctified by key bodies such as the fifty seven-member Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The turning point came when Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark, a move that was soon followed by Libya and Iran.

The besieged Muslim diaspora in Denmark and Europe was reaching out to the Islamic homelands seeking support and solace. This is of course not new-diasporas have always sought the protective mantle of homelands. But historically it is the European diasporas that could rely on their homelands to send gunboats to protect them from the restive natives. In fact, the annals of colonization in Asia and Africa are replete with wars of salvation for beleaguered settlers, although they were often characterized as crusades to save benighted 'primitive' souls, to spread civilization. Now, diasporas from the global South can more easily summon their homelands for support, although the structure of global power is still such that conventional military options are inconceivable. Clearly, the revolution in telecommunications and travel, which has compressed the spatial and temporal distances between home and abroad, offers these diasporas unprecedented opportunities to be transnational, to connect with each other across countries and continents, to retain ties with their old and new homelands in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago. This is what accounts for the rapidity and intensity of many global protests today, including the outbreak of the demonstrations over the cartoons. Cyberspace is the new medium of mass mobilization, a powerful mechanism to organize and express protest. The waves of demonstrations over the cartoons were driven as much by emails, blogs, cell phones and text messages as they were by satellite television, radio, coffeehouse talk, and street rumors.

As in all such conflicts, the manipulative machinations of governments are not hard to find. All governments whose populations are involved have sought to cynically exploit the conflict to their own immediate advantage, to appear resolute in the face of foreign agitation, to defend the values that their societies supposedly cherish. Authoritarian and unpopular Middle Eastern governments have sought to burnish their Islamic credentials and to contain the spread of political Islam and democratization pressures, both poignantly captured by the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections. Militarist and hypocritical western governments have tried to use the crisis to reinforce the case for the 'war on terror' and isolate the radical Islamic states and movement in the region that have put up the most resistance to their imperial project. This suggests that the forces most invested in the conflict over the cartoons are militants on both sides, the unrepentant ideologues of western imperialism and political Islam, who should be seen as political fundamentalists, and are committed to the clash of civilizations that the vast majority of westerners, many of whom are Muslim, and Muslims, many of whom are westerners, are fundamentally opposed to.

In so far as Islam and the West are not bounded mutually exclusive cultural and historical geographies, but social spaces where various peoples and cultures are mixed together, the conflict over the cartoons cannot be seen in grand civilizational or purely religious terms. Even if protagonists on both sides might prefer to talk in the calcified language of ancient hatreds, this is a quintessentially contemporary protest over specifically current conditions-the challenges of forging common citizenship and fostering cosmopolitan values in an increasingly globalized or transnational world. It is about how European Muslims and non-Muslims can live together in peace and equality, and by extension how the western world and the Muslim world can co-exist amicably. The two worlds have more ties that bind than separate them, going all the way back to their very foundations. Modern Europe is inconceivable without the contributions of Islam, and the modern Muslim world is inconceivable without the West, for better or worse. The webs of mutuality are so deep that even the fundamentalisms on both sides reproduce each other. Lest we forget contemporary political Islam is an utterly modern phenomenon, created out of forces constituted and reproduced through the historic and ongoing intersections of the mixed worlds of the West and Islam. Western imperialism bred political Islam, and political Islam provides a convenient scapegoat for contemporary western imperialism. In short, the histories of the two phenomena are tragically interconnected.

It is encouraging that the vast majority of Muslim leaders and organizations have encouraged peaceful and dignified protests, although the Western media ever so selective, sensational, and stereotypical has focused on the few incidents of violence in order to justify the fact that their denunciation of the violence has been louder than the initial publication of the cartoons themselves that provoked the protests in the first place. The challenge for Muslims when confronted with the cultural assaults represented by the cartoons is to find ways of defending their religious faith and their political rights both in the West and in the Muslim world that advance the cause of human freedom and decency as well as open-ended inter-cultural and inter-religious conversation and civility based on the fact that ultimately we all share a common humanity in all our splendid diversities. For people in the West committed to similar values they must resist the easy temptation to support arrogance and aggression in their own countries and elsewhere hiding behind the veils of freedom of speech.