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Cartoons, caricatures and civilisations

Farhang Jahanpour
23 February 2006

The controversy over the publication of twelve caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten and reprinted in a number of other European newspapers shows no sign of abating. About three dozen people have now been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Nigeria and elsewhere during violent protests. There have even been demonstrations in secular Turkey and by Muslims residing in the west. How is one to interpret such universal reaction to some childish cartoons?

In the perceived clash of two powerful arguments – freedom of expression and respect for the religious sensibilities of others – it would be a mistake for "the west" to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude towards Islamic anger at the insulting images of their prophet. There may be much wrong with Islam and Islamic societies, but balanced and rational critique is a much more effective response than venting anger by hurling insults at what Muslims hold dear.

Also in openDemocracy on the "cartoon war" in Europe and the Muslim world (Febraury 2006):

Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity"

"Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" – a compendium of views from twenty writers

Doug Ireland, "The right to caricature God…and his prophets"

Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification? "

Ehsan Masood, "A post-Satanic journey"

Sarah Lindon, "Words on images: the cartoon controversy"

Fred Halliday, "Blasphemy and power"

S Sayyid, "Old Europe, New World"

Sakia Sassen, "Free speech in the frontier-zone"

Daphna Vardi, "Jews and cartoons: why the connection? "

Kalypso Nicolaïdis "Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition"

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Europe's own story can suggest why. Historically, it was not long ago that Puritans destroyed all the images in the churches, during the Reformation which advocated freedom of expression and conscience, and emancipation from the Catholic Church. Even today the breaking of religious taboos often results in violence – for example, in 1988, when the film 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was shown in Paris, someone set fire to the cinema killing a young man. And in ten European countries denying the holocaust is regarded a crime punishable by jail terms.

Many Muslim leaders have called on their compatriots to put an end to violent demonstrations, arguing that they will lead to "isolation from the global dialogue". In reality, the controversy is not so much a sign of anger about the cartoons – which were published five months ago without much reaction among Muslims – but the tip of a political iceberg that needs to be dealt with if similar clashes are not to be repeated in the future. So what are the appropriate channels for Muslim – and indeed European – anger, for those who feel besieged in the modern world to regain their rights and voices?

When Islam led the world in science and learning, it was self-confident and tolerant. By contrast, the present anger demonstrates a loss of self-confidence. In its heyday, Islam encouraged science, philosophy, literature, and arts, as well as theology. It is truly sobering to think that over nine hundred years ago, Omar Khayyam, one of the greatest agnostics the world has ever seen, could write and preach what many Muslims dare not repeat now. In the courts of the Abbasids, followers of all religions and of none took part in open debates, of which some even denied the existence of God. The most scholarly of all Shi'a imams, Imam Ja'far Sadiq, was famous for having open discussions in his lectures with atheists who referred to many alleged contradictions in the Koran.

In the ninth century, we see the beginning of the rise of the Mu'tazilites, a group of speculative theologians who believed in a contingent conception of human rationality and free will, and stressed the importance of reason and indeed the primacy of reason vis-à-vis revelation. Very early in the history of Islam, nearly all classical works from Greeks and Neo-Platonic philosophers, as well as ancient Iranian, Indian, Aramaic and Assyrian texts were translated into Arabic.

The fusion of classical learning with Islamic theology gave rise to bold philosophical speculation. The history of Islam has seen many innovative and influential philosophers and theologians like Abu Hamid Ghazzali (Algazel), Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), the rationalist Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Suhrwardi with his pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Ishraqi or Illuminationist philosophy, and Mulla Sadra with his transcendental philosophy. Above all, Islam has given rise to one of the deepest and most beautiful mystical literatures in the world, and it is interesting to see that translations of the works of Mowlana Jalalu'd-Din Rumi have become bestsellers in America.

The Persian-Arab culture produced the evocative and sensuous tales of One Thousand and One Nights that had a profound influence upon western literature and entertained and delighted many generations. Under the Safavid Empire in Iran, the Mughal Empire in India and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, there was a much greater degree of religious tolerance than existed in contemporaneous European states. Up to the end of the seventeenth century, there was not such a big economic, social, artistic or intellectual gap between Islamic and western countries. Many scholars have pointed out that the brilliant works in architecture, philosophy, and the visual arts created during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Isfahan, Istanbul, Delhi and Agra were in every way equal to the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance (see Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 1975).

Yet during the past few centuries, the rise of theology has suppressed science, philosophy, literature and arts. The dominance of the Shari'a, or religious law, and the suppression of independent inquiry at the beginning of the sixteenth century marked the start of the decline of Islamic countries. Religion has since been reduced to the Shari'a as formulated by some medieval clerics. In many Islamic countries narrow-minded mullahs, imams and ayatollahs are denouncing enlightenment, freedom of expression, religious minorities, women's rights, secularism and liberalism, while reform-minded clerics are under house arrest or in exile. The time has come for Muslims to regain their scientific and intellectual heritage and to forsake the narrowly defined interpretation of Islam imposed on them by ossified clerics.

The so-called Muslim rage and Islamic fundamentalism that we hear so much about are late twentieth century phenomena, violent reactions to two centuries of western domination of many Islamic countries, and to modernity and change. One may find some justifications for those reactions at root, but resort to violence cannot be condoned or justified and it will not produce a remedy to the real or perceived challenges that the Islamic world is facing.

Today, many people in developing countries, including those in the Islamic world, are making their own painful journey to modernity. As they grapple with a modern world dominated by a much more powerful west, some Muslims are reacting in ugly and violent ways that are very similar to the religious wars in Europe and the civil wars in Britain or the United States. Many scholars have argued that in the west, notions of democracy and human rights emerged out of religious disputes and the gradual realisation of the need for tolerance and pluralism (see Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century, Cambridge University Press, 1991). Meanwhile there is already healthy academic debate going on in the universities about Islam, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

If Muslims could revive the great Islamic civilisation, others would not find a reason to insult them, nor would they take offence at any cheap insult. It would represent a great opportunity for them to rid themselves of both foreign and domestic oppression.

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