||The cartoon brouhaha really illustrates the divisions within the Muslim community, not with the West.
Feb. 13, 2006 issue - The worldwide uproar over the cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, printed in a Danish newspaper and reprinted across Europe, has little to do with what's in the headlines. In fact, those obscure the realâ€”and criticalâ€”issues at stake. We read that the affair pits the strictures of Islam against Western freedom of expression. In fact, most Muslims are neither more nor less concerned about abuses of that freedom than Christians or Jews. Except for a small fringe of radicals who presume to speak for Islam, mainstream Muslims, especially in Europe, have reacted with impressive moderation to what they rightly see as an outrage. There have been no huge demonstrations on the Continent, no calls for boycotts, no sit-ins, no incitements to violence. There is, however, intense angerâ€”and it's important to understand it.
First: for European Muslims, the affair is not so much a matter of what is permissible in Islam as it is about discrimination. Representing the prophet's face, per se, antagonized them far less than his portrayal as a terrorist. As these modern Muslims see it, the Danish cartoonists in effect have contributed to a wave of Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing sweeping Europe. Islam, they believe, is increasingly a victim of double standards. Free expression is a right, to be sure. But Europe imposes many legal and social limits on expression. Anti-Semitic cartoons would almost everywhere be liable to legal prosecution. More and more European countries have passed laws banning homophobia or protecting minorities from degrading insult. Would cartoons mocking dwarfs or blind people be published in respectable European newspapers? No. Why, then, the social acceptance for mocking Muslims, which sometimes verges on racism?
Second: let us be clear. There is no "Muslim exception" when it comes to the abuse of religious symbols. Even in very secular France, the Roman Catholic Church last year won a suit banning a depiction of the Last Supper by a fashion designer who replaced the Apostles with lightly clad women. British Prime Minister Tony Blair last year proposed a new law extending protections against blasphemy to all religions, not just Christianity. He did not succeedâ€”but it's significant that he tried.
The important point is that, for mainstream European Muslims, last week's protests represent a call for equality and integration, not separation or special treatment. Moreover, this is very much an ongoing trend. Europe's Muslims have long allied with other faiths to defend common moral values. In France, to cite but one of many examples, the Catholic bishops, the Grand Rabbinate and Protestant churchmen quickly came together to denounce the cartoons and issued supportive communiques. Again, the issue is not Islam versus free speech. It's the common drive by Western religious leaders, Christian or otherwise, to win some protection against what they see as blasphemy and the denigration of belief. It comes down to respect. If the cartoons had portrayed the prophet doing good works, the proscription against representation would have been mutedâ€”if noted at all.
This does not excuse the violence that erupted throughout the Muslim world. Protest is also a freedom of expressionâ€”but not the use of force or the pressure of threats. And it is essential to recognize the provenance of these polemics, for they reflect a discernible political agenda.
Consider the Arab ambassadors in Copenhagen, who first thrust the affair into the international arena by calling on the Danish government to punish the publisher. It defies belief that such secular regimes as Syria would be so deeply outraged in their religious sensitivity. The condemnation, of course, sprang from more pragmatic interestsâ€”to be on the right side of religious fervor, to deprive their own internal enemies (largely militant Islamists) of a weapon and to maintain leverage over their own immigrant communities in Europe. The Islamic university of Al Azhar in Cairo routinely offers its services to train "moderate" imams for Europe who issue fatwas on specific issues concerning European Muslims. And it strongly opposes the London-based European Council of Fatwa, which believes Muslim minorities should adapt to their adoptive communities and live by new rulesâ€”Islam Lite, if you will.
Such meddling from the Arab "motherland" has grown more and more unpopular among European Muslims, however liberal or conservative. In fact, many Muslim leaders and intellectuals suggest that Europe is an opportunity for Islam to modernize, precisely because Muslims there enjoy freedoms unknown in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria or Saudi Arabia. That fact figures large in their response to the cartoon flap: they understand that the price to be paid for this freedom is to accept its use by others, however repellent its expression.
Of course, it's precisely this freedom that Arab governments are trying to suppressâ€”under the pretense of protecting Islam. In this context, it's interesting to note who among Europe's Muslims are leading the protests. Many supposedly fundamentalist groups have remained relatively quiet, while the crusade against the publishers has been taken up by such moderates as the chairman of the French Muslim Council, Dalil Boubakeur, who enjoys very close links with the Algerian government. Politics plays a bigger role than religion, in other words. By the same token, Arab authoritarians in Syria and Egypt are using the polemics to gain legitimacy, even as they repress opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Popular protests in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, are similarly politicized. It is not by chance that the outcry was strongest in three places where the European Union is most involved. Palestinians in Gaza found a good opportunity to slam the European reluctance to acknowledge the electoral victory of Hamas, not to mention loosen the purse strings on financial aid. In Pakistan, the same religious coalition that supports the Taliban and Al Qaeda seized upon the cartoon affair as an opportunity to attack Europe and NATO for progressively replacing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And Syria is taking revenge for Western pressure to leave Lebanon.
The worst lesson to draw from last week's brouhaha has already become the most commonâ€”that it represents a deep "clash of civilizations." Not true. Instead of demonstrating the unity of the Muslim world, the protests underscore its division: a recidivist old guard determined to protect its power and hidden interests versus the growing community of modernist Muslims. They consider themselves first and foremost to be Europeansâ€”and they quite simply do not want to be treated as immigrants, or insulted.
Roy, the author of 'Globalized Islam,' is a professor at the School for Advanced Studies of the Social Sciences in Paris