Nothing happens in a vacuum. Since we are historical beings, we cannot be detached from our hermeneutical tradition and historical condition.

Only by reference to these contexts are our actions understandable. Any explanation of the cartoons crisis that does not take into account the explosive climates of the post-September 11th world and the rise of the right wing in Europe and the United States is bound to remain superficial.

Islam, which had lain forgotten during the cold war and the obsession with the communist threat, has now come to the fore, penetrating into the heart of the public domain.

It is no coincidence that the cartoons were published in Denmark in a right-wing paper under a right-wing government then reprinted in countries notorious for their hostility to their Muslim minorities and opposition to the cultural and racial diversity of today’s European societies.   

That reactions to the cartoons have been so passionate should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following developments in the Muslim world closely. To Muslims, the caricatures vividly brought back the scenes of Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes in Jenin, the invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Baghdad, terrors of Abu Ghraib and humiliations of Guantanamo Bay.

Cultural arrogance was added to political aggressiveness. Muslims have grown used to the torrent of terrifying images that associate them and their faith with the most horrifying of practices, from violence and cruelty to fanaticism and oppression. When it comes to Islam, all boundaries and limits could be dispensed with. The unacceptable becomes perfectly acceptable, proper and respectable.

The truth is that today racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and hatred of the other hide behind the sublime façade of free speech, the defence of “our” values and protection of “our” society from “foreign” aggression.

Let us not be deceived about this rhetoric of liberalism and free speech. The Danish cartoons have nothing to do with freedom of expression and everything to do with hatred of the other in a Europe grappling with its growing Muslim minorities, still unable to accept them.

Muhammad, who had been depicted in medieval legends as a bloodthirsty warrior with a sword in one hand and a Quran in another, is now made to brandish bombs and guns. Little seems to have changed about Western consciousness of Islam.

The collective medieval Christian memory has been recycled, purged of eschatology and incorporated into a modern secularised rhetoric that goes unquestioned today.

The medieval world abounded with hostile stories, folktales, poems and sermons of Muhammad where the imagination was given free reign.

About Muhammad, or “Mathomus” all could be said since, as the 11th-century chronicler Guilbert of Nogent had put it: “One may safely say ill of a man whose malignity transcends and surpasses whatever evil can be said about him” (Dei Gesta per Francos, 1011).

Guilbert’s Muhammad, like that of most medieval authors, bears little resemblance to the historical Muhammad, or his journey.

Just as in the Danish caricatures, he appears as a scoundrel who used licentiousness and the promise of paradise with its many beautiful virgins to lure men into following him. His career was devoid of virtue. His vast empire was built on slaughter and bloodshed.

In the popular Chansons de Geste, written from the 11th to the 14th century at the height of crusading fervour, reflecting sentiments and beliefs that were widely accepted, Muhammad and his followers, the "Saracens" are described in the most grotesque of terms.

Creatures of Satan, they are painted with huge noses and ears, blacker than ink with only their teeth showing white, eyes like burning coals, teeth that can bite like a serpent, some with horns like the antlers of stags.

Humans inherit their prejudices as they do their language. Europe has inherited an enormous body of stereotypes of the Muslim elaborated in the course of many centuries of confrontation with Muslim civilisation.

Islam could not be regarded with the same detached curiosity as the far away cultures or beliefs of China or India. Islam was always a major factor of European history.

As the historian Richard Southern put it, Islam was Latin Christendom’s greatest problem, a mighty military and cultural challenge, dazzling in its power, wealth, learning and civilisation.

In the heart of Europe, its poor northerly neighbour, it generated an array of emotions that ranged from fascination to fear and resentment.

When in the 11th century European writers began to form a notion of what it meant to be European, they found themselves faced with a powerful Islam, which they were neither able nor willing to understand.

Islam was integral to the European notion of the self. The encounter with the Muslim other was fundamental to the formulation of the Western world view, particularly in the centuries that began in the Crusades and culminated in the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire.

By forcing the continent to find ways of concerted action, Islam encouraged Europe towards a stronger sense of “self” and a stronger sense of the "other". In more ways than one, Islam was Europe’s midwife.

In the tense post September 11th climate, with its pre-emptive strikes, growing military interventions and increasingly powerful right-wing parties, the medieval arsenal of fantasies and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims has been brought back to life. Gone are the devils and Antichrists of medieval legends and polemics.

But their bleak outlook on Islam and the Muslim lingers on unchanged. It survives in an essentialist self-enclosed discourse centred on a mythical pure self permanently pitted against an imaginary dehumanised, demonised Muslim other. 

In the past as in the present, religion, culture and the politics of fear are placed at the service of the great games of dominance and mastery.

Make no mistake about it: This is a political conflict that speaks in the language of culture and religion. The conflict is not between "we" and "they", not between cultures and civilisations, but within the same cultural and political front.

The battle must be fought, a battle against intolerance, hatred, myth of cultural superiority and will to hegemony over the other.  

Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.

The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera. Ghannoushi is currently writing a book on Western Representations of Islam Past and Present.