Caricatures: Clash of Civilizations, Clash of Ignorance

If one were to look for an example of the popular “clash of civilizations” paradigm, one would do no better than the controversy over the caricatures of Muhammad that appeared in the Danish conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September. It’s easy to see how right-wing parties in the West can capitalize on the affair, with the argument that Muslims, as a group, simply cannot understand the West’s notions of free speech. Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine how right-wing parties in the East can make the most of this story, telling Muslim youth that the West hates them and has no respect for their beliefs. The demagogues on either side will quickly find an attentive ear.

However, the “clash of civilization” concept doesn’t fully explain this situation, for several reasons. First, the illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad, although arguably blasphemous, are not unique. The Danish cartoonists are in the company of many other artists who have crossed the no-icon line, among them Muslims themselves. There are drawings of the Prophet in medieval Persian miniatures, for instance, showing him on the Night Journey known as the Mi’raj.

Second, there have been other depictions in modern times that did not lead to this kind of controversy. A few years ago, an episode of South Park showed the Prophet Muhammad, along with Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Joseph Smith, Lao Tsu, and Moses as members of a superhero team, the “Super Best Friends,” who are called upon to defeat the Blaintologists, a new cult started by the magician David Blaine. As far as I know, there were no reactions to the South Park episode. It could be that the imams don’t watch Comedy Central. Or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t mind that the Prophet was depicted, so long as he got to be a superhero, equal to all the other prophet-heroes.

Third, the reactions on each side have been far from uniform. In the Arab press, for instance, editorials in Al-Safir and Al-Ittihad chided the protestors for focusing on the cartoons rather than on the more immediate harm done to the Prophet in the name of Islam by terrorists like Bin Laden. Annahar Al-Maghribiya and Shihane, which are published out of Morocco and Jordan, reprinted the cartoons, in one case in order to denounce them, and in the other in order to debunk the idea that there had been any offense. In the West, editorials in the Guardian and the Boston Globe called for greater respect toward other people’s beliefs. With the exception of the Philadelphia Inquirer, most American newspapers have so far abstained from reprinting the cartoons.

Let’s face it: The virulent reaction to the cartoons isn’t just because of blasphemy; it’s because the drawings are utterly offensive to Muslims, suggesting that the Prophet is a terrorist, and because they were specifically commissioned by a conservative newspaper with the intent to provoke. (Those who still doubt that intent would do well to read this article.) Ironically, the few protestors who have resorted to violence have confirmed the very stereotype they were trying to dispel.

What’s interesting is that everyone, from all sides of the spectrum, wants to defend rights–the right to free speech, the right to protest, or the right to boycott. So, let’s talk about rights. Yes, the artists had a right to draw the cartoons, and Jyllands-Posten had a right to print them. And yes, the cartoons are offensive and hateful, and Muslims have a right to speak up against them.

But what about responsibilities? Several newspapers in Europe, among them Die Welt, La Stampa, El Mundo, and France-Soir, chose to defend Jyllands-Posten by reprinting the cartoons. Yet there is a difference between defending free speech, and promoting hate speech. Reprinting the cartoons does the latter, without doing much for the former. Imagine for a moment if the cartoons had depicted a greedy rabbi counting his bags of gold coins. Would the European press be so keen on reprinting such an abhorrent characterization? Reprinting the cartoons sends a message to Muslims that the editors approve of the hate. It also smacks of condescension; perhaps the newspapers wanted to teach Muslims a lesson about free speech. Instead, they have ignited anger, and played right into the hands of those who are seeking recruits for their fanatical ideologies.

Meanwhile, several factions in the Muslim world have been quick to call for a boycott of Danish products, as if Danish manufacturers were in cahoots with cartoonists. But, of all people, Muslims should know better than to condemn an entire group of people for the sins of the few. The threats against citizens of Denmark and Norway and the burning of their embassies are completely despicable. And the appeals to the Danish government display a lack of understanding of the function of the press in democratic societies. The cartoonists’ work is their own, and any grievances should be addressed to them, not misdirected at the Danish government, Danish products, or the Danish people.

The case of the Muhammad cartoons will long be remembered as a test of freedom of expression, in both East and West. When the few Syrian readers who never get a chance to protest their government are allowed to express their feelings about a perceived offense, the results are bound to be extreme. And when the few people in Europe who feel threatened by their immigrant communities find an issue to rally around, they’re likely to turn freedom of expression into an excuse to inflame rather than inform. That may well lead to a clash of civilizations, in which the rest of us will be collateral damage.

Related posts:
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Fire: Meet Dry Gunpowder
Cartoon Shmartoon


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