The cartoon jihad

Hazem Saghieh
3 March 2006

Muslim and Arab anger over the Danish cartoons is directed at the wrong target, says Hazem Saghieh.

It is understandable that Muslims should feel angry and offended because of the caricatures published in the Danish press, and subsequently in other European newspapers. When a community's prophet is targeted, there is a natural feeling that the community itself has been singled out. And given that one of the pictures associated the Arab prophet with terrorism, by putting a bomb on his head, the sense that all Muslims have been stigmatised becomes comprehensible.

One could see in this a kind of racism, as indeed several contributors to openDemocracy's symposium did (Shaida Nabi, Fauzia Ahmad and S Sayyid among them). The point can be made by way of contrast: it is almost inconceivable that a modern European publication would represent Moses as a usurer, or slaughtering a Christian child and sucking its blood, partly because Christian anti-Semitism associates these phantasmic themes with Jews. If Moses were depicted in this way, it would mean reviving racist accusations against all the adherents of his religion.

The impression of an indiscriminate stigma being applied is reinforced by the growing climate of hostility towards Muslims and Islam in the west. This is partly the result of 11 September 2001 and its aftermath. But it is also the product of the international rise of religious and ethnic identities. When the Danish caricatures are considered alongside the acquittal of Nick Griffin from race-hate charges (even though the British National Party leader insulted Muslims and their religion in the coarsest terms), it is unsurprising that many Muslims in Britain alone feel pummelled by prejudice.

Among Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy:
-"Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (June 2004)
-"Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (February 2005)
-"How to make Israel secure" (August 2005)
- (with Saleh Bechir) "The 'Muslim community': a European invention" (October 2005)

Yet one reason why Moses would not be depicted as we have suggested is precisely because anti-semitism and its symbols have such a long history in Europe. The continent's relationship with Islam is relatively recent by comparison, and Islam's place in European literature and iconography more recent still. If the ugly events in Denmark and the Islamic world have a positive outcome, it may be their effect in creating greater sensitivity on this score.

However, the most important point is that both Moses and Christ can be satirised in western society, if not as representatives of certain communities then as historical and personal characters. One only has to think of Monty Python's Life of Brian about Jesus Christ, or Mel Brooks's movie History of the World regarding Moses.

Here lies the real problem, one that it is hard for people in the modern, secular west to see. Very few people who objected to the Danish cartoons did so on the grounds that they were a racist offence against Muslims; many more complained that the person of the Prophet Mohammed had been insulted. By so doing they gave their priority to Islam and not to Muslims.

The friction between the atheistic, or at least the secular, west and the devout Muslim world has various catalysts. Some are political; others have to do with issues of immigration and labour; the "literalist" interpretation of Islam, which has not yet undergone any serious religious reformation, is a further complicating factor.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the "cartoon war" in Europe and the Muslim world:
- Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (February 2006)
-"Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" (February 2006) – a compendium of twenty writers' views
- Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification? " (February 2006)
- Ehsan Masood, "A post-Satanic journey" (February 2006)
- Sarah Lindon, "Words on images: the cartoon controversy" >(February 2006)
- S Sayyid, "Old Europe, New World" (February 2006)
- Farhang Jahanpour, "Cartoons, caricatures, and civilisation" (February 2006)
- Ulf Hedetoft, "Denmark's cartoon blowback" (March 2006)

Among the protestors against the Danish caricatures, some reproached the west for its unbelief and indeed its insolence towards religion. Taken to its extreme, these attitudes would turn the Muslims into inspectors not only of freedom of speech in Europe, but also of its secular and perhaps atheistic path.

This is a position which is not in Arab or Muslim interests to occupy. Neither is it in the interests of their image, which many are seeking to improve abroad. Needless to say, comparisons with the Jewish holocaust are inaccurate, because keeping the latter beyond revision is based not on the victims' religion but on their humanity. The fact that Europeans committed this crime creates a profound sense of guilt and accentuates the human dimension of the tragedy.

In short, anger unleashed for purely religious reasons will never be comprehensible to Europeans, who find it normal to poke fun at their own prophets. Indeed, all that will happen is that Muslims are seen as the opponents of freedom and individual expression, and Muslim immigrants will be suspected of harbouring values incompatible with a critical and pluralistic society. When demonstrators in London ask for "beheading" the cartoonists or remind their citizens of 7/7, they only prove their outsidedness to the national social fabric. And when their fellow-Muslims in Beirut and Damascus burn embassies, they present themselves as a dangerous and absolute other.

Naturally, western racists have seen this situation as an opportunity to use the ideas of the Enlightenment to denounce Muslims and their religion. Yet many progressive intellectuals – as much the heirs of secular, anti-clerical movements as anti-racists – find themselves in the position of opposing Muslims and their anger.

When the sensitivities and petty irritations of the policies of Arab countries are added to this, the situation becomes even worse. For example, in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the Palestine parliamentary elections, it was the (supposedly secular) Fatah movement's representatives who sought to outdo (Islamist) Hamas by burning the Danish flag. In Lebanon, the Shi'a Hizbollah has outdone Sunni factions by reminding people of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. That fatwa was itself an attempt by Shi'a Iran to outdo Sunni Asian Muslim immigrants in the United Kingdom, and became part of the still unresolved struggle over who is entitled to "speak for" the country's (and indeed the world's) Muslims.

All this has introduced an element of vulgarity and banality to the anger of Muslims and Arabs, an anger which might have won them many allies if only it had been directed against racism and its incompatibility with citizenship obligations and norms. Let's just remember that the Africans and African-Americans gave the world two great icons (Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela) because they placed their political tragedies in the context of universal, human standards.

By contrast, the "cartoon war" in the middle east exposes the petty agendas of regional Arab and Muslim politics, including the Iranian-Syrian tendency to orchestrate popular reactions in order to serve their own ends. This makes it even more likely that anger sparked by a religious motive degenerates to the factional and sectarian, a trend reinforced by violent and aggressive behaviour.
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