Matters of Faith: Satanic cartoonery
Is it a clash of civilizations or the rumbling of a more complicated culture war that crosses civilizational borders?
At issue is a series of satirical cartoons first published last September in a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Muhammad in a variety of unflattering guises, including one in which the prophet's turban is made to look unmistakably like a bomb. Another has him telling his followers that the supply of virgins for suicide martyrs is running low. Accompanying the cartoons was an article criticizing the rising tyranny of self-censorship throughout the western world.
If the editors of Jyllands-Posten were hoping for a civil discussion of the question of free speech, they were quickly disappointed. Protests from Muslim communities throughout Europe and then from the Muslim world steadily mounted. While the editors twice apologized, two Arab states withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen and Muslim religious leaders called for a boycott on Danish goods.
But champions of free speech have not backed down. Fanning the flames, several leading European papers reprinted the inflammatory images, including, last week, France Soir in Paris and Die Welt in Berlin. The latter noted in an editorial that Muslims were conspicuously hypocritical about religious insults, citing a recent Syrian television documentary that depicted rabbis as cannibalsa slur that drew no criticism from Muslim scholars.
Reactions to the cartoon scandal do not simply fall on two sides of an increasingly blurred line between the Islamic and western worlds.
Just this week, Tony Blair and his Labor government tried unsuccessfully to enact a law that would have made it a crime to use abusive or insulting words, and not just threatening ones, about any religious group. The watering-down of the bill by a motley assortment of opponents, including many in Blair's own party, was hailed as a victory for free speech. Still, concerns about the abuses of that freedom, particularly when religion and race are concerned, have been voiced by many prominent non-Muslims in the West. Former President Bill Clinton, for one, directed strong words against the cartoons, calling them "totally outrageous. "
And what about Muslim scholars and leaders living in the West? Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born philosopher who is now teaching at Oxford and serving on one of Blair's commissions on terrorism, says that hard truths need to be told both to hard-core free-speech advocates and to true-believing Muslims. The former need to recognize that Muslims view the depiction of any of their prophets as an affront to their faith. They also have to realize that Muslims come out of cultures unaccustomed to the ridiculing of their religion, even though Ramadan admits that more and more ridiculing of other religions has been happening in the Muslim world.
"On the other side," Ramadan says, "Muslims should know that for the last three centuries in Europe, since the Enlightenment and Voltaire, there has been an acceptance of the cynical and ironic treatment of religious issues and people. Muslims living here must take a critical distance and realize this is not just against Islam but is part of this culture. "
High-minded sentiments. But Ramadan acknowledges that the current polarized climate makes it unlikely that either side will soon be making any concessions.