Democratic solution for cartoons

When the controversial Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie was awarded the European Union Literary Award in 1996, of all places, Denmark Muslims were immensely infuriated by this added insult.


    The very idea of giving Rushdie a literary prize after his book Satanic Verses was like offering Hitler the Nobel Peace Prize after Auschwitz. And the very inability of Western intellectuals and leaders to understand this simple fact lies at the heart of the threatened "clash of civilisations".


    Indeed the commentators were quick to spot the Rushdie analogy when discussing the crisis which erupted with the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September.


    Iain Macwhirter of The Sunday Herald in Scotland argued that "the ritual over-reaction to criticism of Islam" was predictable in the light of the Rushdie affair, but "remains as incomprehensible to those steeped in European sensibilities as the West's apparent refusal to hold anything sacred appears to most Muslims."

    He added: "I am afraid that the forecasts of a clash of civilisations may be coming true. There are some issues on which it is impossible to compromise, and freedom of speech is one of them."


    "God will be the judge of those who are disrespectful to him or his prophets. It is not man's place to do so".


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    His colleague Muriel Gray expressed the view that Islamic fundamentalism "has successfully undermined the very linchpin of our freedom," while violence threatened by Muslim mobs had such "an effect that they have bought Islam immunity from criticism, not through respect, but through fear."


    These remarks, typical of the bulk of Western opinion makers on the cartoon controversy, completely miss the point. The issue has never been the freedom to criticise Islam. The Quran itself quotes criticism on Muhammad and other earlier prophets.

    What has created the antagonism is the apparent collective adoption of the offence by the whole Danish establishment.

    The Western libraries and media are teeming with criticisms of Islam, old and new.

    Right-wing politicians and even priests call Islam an evil religion almost on a daily basis. Rarely did Muslims demonstrate against such attacks and insults.


    Rushdie’s offence was not, as some have argued, to criticise Islam or write "a novel that contained another Islamic taboo, that of disrespecting the Quran".

    His crime was not that of breaking a taboo, just as the issue with the cartoons was not defying the Muslim taboo of not pictorially depicting the Prophet. The majority of Muslims are rational people who understand that other communities are not bound by their taboos.


    What Rushdie did was to mount a barrage of personal insults against the Prophet. Not satisfied with depicting him as a con artist, something he could have gotten away with, he goes a step further and portrays the Prophet’s wives as prostitutes.


    Is that, and the Danish cartoons, a serious criticism of religion? This gratuitous denigration of religious symbols is not only a direct attack on people’s identities, but the expression of active hate of the bitterest kind.


    Given the personal attachment of the bulk of Muslims to their Prophet, such gratuitous insults have a deep and wide impact in this age of the mass media.

    Those protesting on the streets are not fundamentalist fanatics but ordinary Muslims who have been personally hurt by the parodies.


    They are comparable to, and rank in the same category as, the notorious acts of desecrating the Quran and similar insults perpetrated against Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.


    One can ask people like Macwhirter: What is incomprehensible to you about mass anger against the practices of shackling prisoners in interrogation rooms, smearing their faces with fake menstrual blood, flushing pages of the Quran down the toilet in front of them or trampling them under foot in deliberate attempts to hurt and humiliate people? What is so incomprehensible about anger at such acts of barbarism?


    The question, therefore, is not one of freedom of speech or respect for religion. It is a question of respect for other people.

    The question, therefore, is not one of freedom of speech or respect for religion. It is a question of respect for other people.


    To indulge in such assaults on people’s cherished symbols could only be justified if we were to posit the existence of sadists who get a kick out of antagonising and humiliating other people. And even then, one should recommend rehabilitation for these people, rather than indulgence.


    Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, who was quick to condemn the burning of Danish flags and urge Muslim leaders to do the same, is certainly not a free speech fundamentalist in any case.


    And this makes the reluctance of the Danish government to distance itself sufficiently from the offence even less excusable.


    The prime minister refused to condemn the cartoons pleading respect for freedom of speech. But even for a free speech fanatic, like the Herald’s Gray, one does not have to respect the beliefs of extremists such as Nick Griffin and the BNP in order to defend their rights to express them. "We despise [these beliefs]. What we respect is Griffin’s right to be despicable."


    Rasmussen could have said publicly that what the Jylland-Posten did was despicable, while defending its right to be despicable.

    He did not do that, and like the many intellectuals who leapt to Rushdie’s defence nearly two decades ago, he decided to become an accomplice in the offence.


    What has created the antagonism is the apparent collective adoption of the offence by the whole Danish establishment.


    The very idea of giving Rushdie a literary prize after his book Satanic Verses was like offering Hitler the Nobel Peace Prize after Auschwitz.

    To add insult to insult, the Danes appealed to other Europeans to back them up by republishing the offending material, and they have all contributed to a hysteria of Islamophobic comments blaming Muslims for the crisis.


    The knee-jerk reaction surrounding the Rushdie controversy and the "Cartoon war" also involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of democracy.


    Democracy does indeed guarantee the right of every individual to express his or her beliefs and sentiments.


    This includes despicable hate mongers who will use freedom to spit their venom.


    However, democracy abhors absolutism of all kinds, and is based on compromise and accommodation. Democratic coexistence is about negotiated compromises rather than dogmatic adherence to abstract principles at no matter what cost.

    The Danish government has mistaken its sympathies with the hate-filled views of a fringe newspaper for commitment to absolute free speech, and led its country to the brink of disaster.


    There is no absolute right to anything in democracies, especially when a right comes into conflict with the rights of others. Democracies are based on a delicate balance between rights, outlooks and sensibilities.

    As in free markets, which are closely associated with them, these systems are based on complex and ever-shifting bargains. This approach could and should be adopted to resolve this crisis through dialogue and compromise.


    It is in the interest of Muslims not to make calls for restrictions on free speech as their main demand.


    Muslims should identify more with democratic principles and, in fact, call for even more free speech.


    Muslims, especially minorities living in Europe, are likely to be the first victims of new restrictions on freedom. They should, instead, make use of democracy to build coalitions which would isolate the hate mongers and extremists and cause them to be condemned by all.

    In calling for more, not less, freedom of expression, they should also try to reach a consensus on using that freedom in a more responsible and constructive manner.


    Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator of the Islam and Democracy Programme at the Centre for the Study for Democracy, University of Westminster, London.

    The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera



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