Old Europe, New World

S Sayyid
15 February 2006

The attitude of many of those responsible for publishing the hostile cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (praise be upon him) can perhaps be best understood by a Marxist analysis. I refer to the quip by (Groucho) Marx: "How dare she get insulted just because I insulted her?"

The supporters of the publication of the cartoons appear to be surprised that many Muslims found the cartoons offensive; at the same they claim these cartoons are part of an effort to throw back the forces of multiculturalism in favour of national (i.e. European) cultural restoration. The conflict between those who see in the publication a noble principle at stake and those who see just another episode of European racism disguised as high moral principle has itself become a metaphor for other conflicts that exceed the xenophobia of a tiny statelet.

The "cartoon war" is presented by some as the cultural front of the "war on terror". Along with orange jumpsuits, extraordinary rendition, and the American gulag the cartoons will indeed help define the global dirty war for many.

Also in openDemocracy 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 writers' views, including Fauzia Ahmad, Zaid Al-Ali, Patrice de Beer, KA Dilday, Sajjad Khan, Shaida Nabi, Roger Scruton, and Adam Szostkiewicz

Doug Ireland, "The right to caricature God…and his prophets"
(February 2006)

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)

Fred Halliday, "Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

There is another way of seeing these cartoons and the protests against them. One that does not start with their publication at the end of September 2005, or see it the affair as a singular incident, but rather as part of series of events beginning with the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, and including campaigns against the hijab and "Muslim arranged marriages".

Though they have local triggers and relate to specific contexts, these events bear a distinct family resemblance whose disparity is nonetheless marked by a number of overlapping features. They each serve to draw attention to a divide between "Islam" and the "west" and their respective value systems (e.g. freedom of expression vs reverence for faith).

This increasingly bloody-minded series of confrontations tends to begin as a conflict between a representation of Europeanness and some members of Europe's ethnically-marked Muslim communities. The figure of the Muslim is seen as a symptom of the crisis of Europeanness in an age which is increasingly post-European. The "failure" by Muslims to play the part of an ethnic minority is what transforms these conflicts: by transcending the national boundaries they make a mockery of the "national majority vs ethnic minority" divide which structures race relations in most western plutocracies.

Thus little Denmark had few qualms about insulting its 200,0000 Muslims, but once the confrontation was reframed and redefined from one between an ethnic minority and its national majority to one in which global political subjectivities are involved, it soon began to elicit more contrite responses from the Danish establishment.

Three lessons, one answer

Power is most effective when it remains invisible – just part of the natural landscape rather than a product of historical struggles at the behest of particular interests. The difficulty of keeping Muslim identities within the confines of nation-states with its division between citizens and "immigrants" is one of the factors why the call of a Muslim political identity has such a disturbing effect on the norms and institutions that organise the current world order.

It is possible to identify three kinds of responses to the persistent conflicts between old Europeanness and the emergence of a global Muslim political sensibility:

1. Attempts to restate European cultural supremacy by demanding that Muslims abandon their culture so as to integrate into Europeanness. This set of arguments denies that Muslims are a legitimate part of European society and defers the moment when Muslims can be fully integrated citizens of Europe.

2. The description of Muslim protests in Islamophobic terms. In other words, Muslim protests are denied the status of being political – they are seen as being motivated by misrepresentations, misunderstanding and/or "mad mullahs". Here the old colonial story of extremists leading astray by gentle untutored moderate masses comes into the fore… Muslims are urged to tame their anger and become "moderate".

3. The labelling of Muslim protests as fundamentalism rather than as reactions to the fundamentalism of Europeanness. Instead of focusing on the Muslim protests, for example, many in the British media have focused on the placards of some of the protesters instead. (One wonders how many of the same media organisations found provocative or in bad taste the giant placard held by returning sailors from the south Atlantic war with Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas islands in 1982: "Call off the rail strike or we will call in an airstrike"). This response replays a common sleight-of-hand by which the very presence of the ethnically-marked minorities within western plutocracies is passed off as itself the cause of racism.

While these responses do not exhaust the way conflict is played out, they work to maintain the hierarchy between Europeanness and non-Europeanness. This is why those who suggest that the cure for this crisis of European identity is that Muslims become better citizens, better members of the national majority, so that Europeanness can feel better about itself, miss the point: the very construction of national belongings is itself part of the problem.

The need of the hour is not for citizenship tests and other hoops through which Muslims and other ethnic minorities have to jump so that the national majority can pretend history has stood still and the world is still centred on Europe. Rather, it is for a recognition of the multicultural pluralism of the planet. It is the cultivation of the multicultural and not the reinforcement of the hierarchy between Europeanness and non-Europeanness that promises us all a better future.

S Sayyid teaches at the University of Leeds, England. He is the author of A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and Emergence of Islamism (Zed Press, 2002)

Also by S Sayyid on openDemocracy:

"9/11: what should we do now?" (October 2001):

"There are Muslims inside these countries who were born and bred inside Britain or America. But there are also Muslims outside. That confuses the notion of the nation-state. It raises the spectre of an alternative globalisation which is based around the world of Islam."

"A war against politics?" (November 2001) – with Barnor Hesse:

"Does terrorism, however we define it, travel from the West to the Rest, as well as from the Rest to the West? Can the same definition be sustained in both directions? Questions like these suggest that without explanatory antecedents, the 'war against terrorism' may simply ignite the very thing it is trying to extinguish."

"In search of British Muslim identity: responses to Young, Angry and Muslim" (October 2005):

"The assertion of a global Muslim identity cannot be explained by reference to culture, pathology, or theology. It is a political phenomenon and cannot be treated as a leftover from a medieval or colonial past."

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData