A post-Satanic journey

Ehsan Masood
7 February 2006

It is an email subject-line I will never forget. "See: insulting photos of our beloved Prophet." The body of the message began: "To all Muslims, please see this website for the horrible photos."

This was one of many emails sent out over the past ten days inviting people to complain to the media and government agencies in Denmark following the publication in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten of twelve cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The irony was not lost on me: as a Muslim I am not supposed to see images of the prophet, yet here was an email that amounted to an invitation to do so.

I have never deliberately looked at an image of Mohammed, nor at any of the first few generations of Muslim leaders. The reasons (as explained to me in childhood), included that an image might lead to mindless hero-worship, perhaps even idolatory, when what was more important to take home was the message and the values of the faith I was born into. Besides, so the argument went, who needs pictures when you have an abundance of literature on the lives, politics, likes and dislikes of the first converts to Islam, down to the smallest details, all contained in everything from children's books to multi-volume biographies.

To my eternal embarrassment, I even missed out on The Message, a popular (though initially controversial) biopic on the story of Islam, which was made in 1976 by Syria-born Moustapha Akkad. Akkad, who would later produce the Halloween films, died in November 2005 , a victim of the suicide-bomb attacks in Jordan. The Message was made following much careful negotiation with Muslim authorities, including al-Azhar University in Cairo. In the film, the prophet, his wives and children are neither seen nor heard. Instead, the central character and narrative voice of the film is Mohammed's uncle, Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn.

Also in openDemocracy on the "cartoon crisis" wracking 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, Sajjad Khan, Patrice de Beer, Roger Scruton, and Adam Szostkiewicz

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

Needless to say, I never bothered to buy or read The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie's 1988 novelistic riff on themes drawn from Islam's history, which caricatured the prophet to such an extent that most Muslims felt that a red line had been crossed. The response to Rushdie's book has become part of the modern world's cultural history – bans on its publication in India and South Africa, followed by a notorious book-burning demonstration in England's northern city of Bradford, then (on 14 February 1989) by a fatwa against the novelist and all those associated with its circulation declared by Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

It seems that for most Muslims, this red line has been crossed again in 2005-06 with the Jyllands-Posten affair in Denmark. A linkage between the two events seems compelling.

In 1988, a work of literature is published in Britain that lampoons the prophet. A British government, media and many in the world of academia, arts and letters feel unable to acknowledge Muslim concerns. They believe that free speech is under threat, and cannot understand why people are upset. Some groups of Britain's Muslims, failing to make headway in the domestic arena, burn books in front of TV cameras and then seek to internationalise the issue by bringing it to the attention of leaders in Muslim countries, including Iran. There are demonstrations in many of these countries – which cost the lives of protestors in Islamabad and Kashmir; calls are made to have the book more widely banned, and pulped; and Ayatollah Khomeini sentences Rushdie to death.

In 2005, a series of cartoons are published that caricature the prophet. Across the next few months, a government and media refuses to acknowledge that this might be problematic and defends rights to free speech. Unable to get a fair hearing at home, some of Denmark's Muslim leaders travel to Muslim countries and bring the cartoons to the attention of authorities abroad. Swift action follows. Muslim ambassadors are recalled from Copenhagen, there is talk of a trade boycott, demonstrations take place, embassies are torched and people killed.

Yet there are at least two important differences between Britain in 1989, and Britain and Denmark in 2006.

First, here in Britain, across the worlds of politics and the media, there seems to be a consensus that Jyllands-Posten made an error in publishing the cartoons; and that, by republishing the illustrations, the editors of other newspapers in Europe helped to make the situation as explosive as it has become now.

Second, Britain's Muslim leaders (some of whom wanted Rushdie's book banned) today believe that Denmark's Muslims should not have sought to internationalise the cartoons controversy, and that Muslim governments have over-reacted. They include Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the founders of the Muslim Parliament, as well as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an organisation that emerged out of the Rushdie crisis. Both these organisations today believe in the right to publish material (such as cartoons) that some people may find offensive. Though in common with the government, and the media (from the right-wing Sun to the liberal-left Guardian), they also argue that there is no need to offend your own citizens, just because the right exists to do so.

This must surely represent more than a chink of good news amid what is otherwise a gloomy scenario. At the same time it also represents a ray of hope for the future. The hope being that the only way out of this crisis is for more and more meaningful engagement between people from Muslim countries and those outside, particularly in Europe.

As the fires rage, it is easy to be despondent, but reality has to prevail once the smoke clears. Denmark's Muslims must go beyond the ritual of "dialogue" with their government and media and begin to work together, as partners and as equals. At the same time, do the heads of state of Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia really want to isolate themselves and their people from a small Scandinavian country and its people? I doubt it. For all the rhetoric, a unilateral trade boycott is illegal under WTO rules (which they all aspire to) and I have yet to hear of any moves from Muslim countries to sever relations with Danida, Denmark's official development agency, which is also one of the world's largest aid donors as measured as a proportion of per-capita incomes.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (August 2005)

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

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The relationship test

Anyone who makes a living from the media or academia knows that the freedom to think, to speak and write without fear of prosecution is critical to open societies, to justice, representative government, equal rights for minorities, the progression of knowledge and innovation.

All journalists also know that there are limits to what we do, and where they lie. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is often in the news, but no editor of a Murdoch-owned newspaper anywhere in the world could ever publish a story that was critical of its owner, the owner's business interests, or members of his family. In the same way the Economist would never publish a leading article in support of anti-capitalist demonstrators, just as Saudi Arabia's Arab News would find it hard to publish an article entitled "Why Islam is not the religion for me".

There are other ways in which people working in the media exercise care. On balance, for example, we try not to poke fun at people because they are poor, marginalised in other ways, if they have a name that the majority will not recognise, if they don't have good language skills, if they pray to a different God (or to no God), or because they have a different skin colour.

As a writer, do I have the right in law to caricature other people if the net result is merely to cause offence? Absolutely. But will I exercise that right knowing that these "other people" are also likely to be my friends and neighbours, my parents' neighbours, my children's friends, people I have known for decades? The answer is self-evident. No.

In Britain, clarity over these limits – both their "external", commercial and political, aspects and their "internal" dimensions - has developed and sharpened over the past sixteen years. Both present continuing challenges of principle and practice. But a cause and consequence of the latter shift is that there has been a conscious and deliberate deepening of relations, a building of trust and a forging of friendships between Muslims, the media, the state, civil society and ordinary citizens. There is clearly a long way to go, but we have also come a long way since 1989 when the mood on all sides was one of anger, mistrust, betrayal, and a lack of confidence that relations could ever improve.

I like to think that this goes to the heart of the reason why Jyllands-Posten chose to go ahead with the original dozen cartoons, why the paper was backed by others in continental Europe, but not in Britain – and why this singular difference holds out hope for the future, in Denmark and elsewhere.

Any foreign correspondent will tell you that something happens to people who make an effort to mix with those of different backgrounds: they, we, stop using loaded categories in speech and in writing. Instead of talking about "immigrants", "foreigners", or "others", those we encounter become familiarised: as simply people, fellow humans, with the same rights, but also the same responsibilities. Behind the headlines and the flames, this is part of the long, slow – and still difficult – path from Salman Rushdie to Jyllands-Posten, and beyond.

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