On September 30, 2005 a series of cartoons were printed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that clearly included portrayals of Muhammad as a terrorist leader. During the past few weeks tens of thousands have demonstrated across the Middle East and Asia in protest at these caricatures as they take them to be a clear insult to Islam and Muslims at large. Over the course of the first week of February (2006) the Danish embassies in Damascus and Tehran were sacked, and the Danish embassy in Beirut was burned. While Jyllands-Posten has officially apologized, the decision by other European newspapers to reprint these images in a show of solidarity hardly worked to ease tensions.
More recently on February 9, 2006, hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims demonstrated in Beirut, and a couple of days later Denmark temporarily closed off diplomatic missions in Indonesia, Syria, and Iran. Finally, to demonstrate "the hypocrisy of the West", Iran's Hamshahri newspaper launched a competition asking people to submit cartoons about the Holocaust.
Reading the headlines and watching eye-catching yet hastily edited news reports, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed by an increasingly growing gulf between 'the West' and 'Islam'. The sheer fury and speed with which protests erupted across predominatly Muslim nations, and the seemingly utter lack of patience with such reaction in the European press, gives the impression that beneath the quagmire there brews a fundamental divide — one reaching to the core of what distinguishes the societies of Europe from the so-called world of Islam, and the Middle East in particular. The issue is immediately portrayed as an exercise in freedom of speech vs. Islam's inability to accommodate to secular standards of expression. So sensitive have the fault lines in this quarrel become by now, that any attempt at tempering press freedoms with religious toleration is blasted as giving in to religious tyranny, while any attempt at explaining the reverence afforded to the official right to free speech in Europe is written off as betrayal towards Islam. These developments, having been labeled "a global crisis", have worked to fortify the epic notion of a "Clash of Civilizations". Indeed, when Samuel Huntington elaborates on this thesis — originally put forth by Bernard Lewis — he attributes the confrontation between Islamists and the West to no less than "fourteen hundred years of history" (1996: 209). The stage thus seems to be set for a long confrontation between two massive clusters of culture — the modern West vs. Islam.
Yet a quick survey of the political context underlying this "global crisis" will reveal that it is in fact such grand narratives as 'civilizations clashing' that are the real caricatures.
Before I elaborate on the politics informing these events in particular, however, I think it is necessary to briefly unpack convenient labels such as "the Muslim world" and "the modern West". This is not to downplay cultural differences between Middle Eastern societies and those of say Europe, nor to imply that generalizations along national or religious lines are void of value. However, what renders a lot of recent commentary on this cartoon fiasco (in either camp) as hasty and shallow is a denial of differences within and between these societies. All of a sudden, it is forgotten that within Europe there are serious differences on how to manage press freedoms, or accommodate immigrant populations — from avid liberal populism, to the ultra-nationalist line of the popular French politician Jean-Marie La Pen who called for all Algerian immigrants to be rounded-up and shipped back to Algeria following the riots last year.
Similarly, it is forgotten that the so called "Muslim world", stretching from Indonesian shores in the Pacific to those of Morocco overlooking the Atlantic, is now estimated to include 1.6 billion people and is highly divided in terms of denominations, ethnicities, classes, gender, etc. If Iraq, for example, is threatened by disintegration it is not for lack of Islamic conviction, but precisely because of it! To be more specific, the domestic political interests of the Shiite and Sunni blocks are divided intensely enough to inspire extremism and the violence that comes with it. Furthermore, while thousands of Muslims were out in force in Indonesia and Malaysia over the past week, it needs be remembered that religious conviction among the rising middle class of these nations has been steadily giving way to what has come to be known as "life-style" Islam: whereby religious custom is treated as a personal affair and largely regarded as part of a cultural heritage that is put on display for purposes of national identity — in short, its divine imperatives are neutralized (Kahn 2001: 653-654).
Finally, with regard to differences in Islamic societies, there are volumes of scholarly work on the diverse history of conflicting schools of thought, and the ways in which local cultural norms have informed Islamic practices in different parts of the world. Thus to hypothesize about 'the essential Muslim mind', as Orientalist discourse is wont to do, is to engage in reductive stereotyping.
As for "the modern West", it is necessary to acknowledge that Weberian sociological theory was wrong to assume that religious inclinations would eventually diminish at the hands of rational bureaucracy. This is significant because this issue over Mohammed's cartoons has been couched in terms of 'Western secularism' vs. 'Eastern religiosity'. Yet by a lot of today's sociological accounts, American politics and social policy are highly informed by religious convictions. After all, the phrase "fundamentalism" actually originates from a trans-denominational Protestant movement that began to emerge in America in the late 1800's to early 1900's (Nancy Ammerman). It was, and continues to be, a literal reading of the bible that opposes the accommodation of Christian doctrine to modern scientific theory and political philosophy. So we find school curriculums, for example, being contested in American courts as Darwinian evolutionism is challenged by theories of "intelligent design". Staying with America, the 1970's saw the so-called "bible belt" politically awakened in part in response to the civil, feminist, and gay rights movements, and thus evangelicalism has been a force American politicians have had to contend with ever since. Finally, it is worth noting that when Gallup first asked Americans in 1976 whether they considered themselves to be "born again," 35% said that they did. This figure has been steadily rising throughout the last quarter of the 20th century, such that between 1993 and 2003 it held fairly steady in the low- to mid-40% range.
All this has merely been meant to detract from the rigidity with which such concepts as the 'West' and 'Islam' are held to be uniform entities. Indeed, they are not.
So how does one explain what lies behind the enormous outpouring of rage by people across the Middle East, and Asia? No doubt the history of national humiliations at the hands of colonial Europe in its heyday, and the political manipulations and invasions suffered at the hands of the super powers during their cold war rivalries have a lot to do with it.
Yet it may even be more concrete than that. On February 9th an article by Amir Taheri appeared in the National Post entitled "Nothing 'Spontaneous' About It." He notes several points influencing the strategic political maneuvering behind key developments in this story. For one thing, it turns out that Denmark is shortly due to take over the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council. The impending issues of Iran's nuclear program and Syria's involvement in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri (Lebanon's late Premier) may end up on the table under Denmark's watch. Perhaps the idea is that by isolating Denmark as an enemy of Islam it would be all the more easier for Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad to persuade their constituents that the proceedings are just another affront against so-called Muslim interests. In any case, what is clear is that the insult to Islam was not enough in itself to arouse action on the part of Islamic political organizations. Thus when Hamas was approached by the Danish Muslim activists, who were on a mission to gain the support of some national body or another in the predominately Muslim countries, they turned them down as they were too busy with the Palestinian elections and were looking to win over the more secular Fatah voters. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood also turned them away as it too was involved in campaigning for the elections in Egypt. While Taheri does not mention the protests in Pakistan it is fair to suggest that following the recent US missile attack in January on suspected al-Qaeda targets (which left 18 people dead) this afforded radical Islamists with an opportunity to vent further rage and thereby force Musharraf into an increasingly awkward position. Depending on how critical Musharraf will be toward Denmark, the Islamists might be able to better portray him as unrepresentative of Islam in its time of need. Such are the cynical politics at play here.
On the other hand, Jyllands-Posten's insistence on the inalienable right to free speech, turns out to be less than consistent. According to the BBC, in April 2003 a Danish cartoonist named Christoffer Zieler offered some cartoons of Jesus Christ to Jyllands-Posten. An editor contacted Mr. Zieler with the following remarks: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them." Jyllands-Posten is Denmark's largest daily paper, and taken to be on the right of the political spectrum. This selective defense of free speech seems to be in line with its political sympathies.
Clearly then, the issue we are dealing with has less to do with definitions of culture, and more to do with the political maneuverings of governments and religious extremists. As these events continue to unfold it is becoming increasingly clear that once again we are faced with a "double-bind" such that both ends of the political spectrum are taking advantage of this fallout to further justify their impatience for compromise. The interests of the political right in North America and Europe, and those of the hard-line Middle Eastern regimes or Islamic fundamentalists are what gets the headlines and further perpetuate the idea that the issue is endemic to what distinguishes these 'civilizations' per se.
To take for granted these caricatures of the immensely rich complexities of civilization is to give in to this double-bind. As the late Edward Said pointed out: "When one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and end points of analysis, research, public policy... the result is usually to polarize the distinction — the Oriental becomes more Oriental and the Westerner more Western — and limit the human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies" (Said 1979: 46).
(1) Huntington, P. Samuel. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Touchstone; New York.
(2) Kahn, S. Joel. 2001. "Anthropology and Modernity". In Current Anthropology Vol. 42, No. 5: 651-678.
(3) Nancy Ammerman. 1987. Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World. Rutgers University Press; New Brunswick.
(4) Said, Edward. 1994 (1979). Orientalism. Vintage Books; New York.