Monday, February 06, 2006

Danish Cartoons - Understanding the 'shock'.

The proportions taken by the reaction to the Danish caricatures of Prophet Muhammad and their reproductions in newspapers across Europe have baffled me:
the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus were torched by a furious mob last week, following violent protests in the Muslim from Gaza to Afghanistan to Jakarta and yesterday there were riots, cars burning and window smashing in the Christian quarter of Beirut after the Danish embassy was also set on fire (as a result the Lebanese interior minister gave his resignation).

As a 'good liberal' thinker, I am naturally shocked by the turn of event and at the same time, and as both a man of faith and a humanist, I naturally want to try to understand the pain that is undeniably felt by many Muslims.

The problem started with 12 cartoons published by the Danish, Jyllands-Posten newspaper in September. It is not a far-right paper, it describes itself as "liberal and independent" and it is Denmark’s most widely read daily.

Here are two of the caricatures that have sparked most controversy (sorry if these shocked our Muslim readers but we need to know what we are talking about):

It seems quite obvious that these caricatures are incredibly insensitive and understandably offensive to Muslims, especially in the present tense geopolitical context.

The most sacred figure of Islam after God – the Prophet himself is associated to a terrorist.

If you look at the picture below, the Prophet is clearly a terrorist, not just, I think, because he has a bomb in his turban but also because he looks really mean and fanatical – just look at his eyes. In my two-cent worth opinion, the worst part is that those caricatures are not even funny. They are just bad taste.

I think it is pointless however, for most of us, westerners – and most definitely for those of us who are European, and live in a secularised society - to think we can even relate to what it feels like for a religious Muslim to see his religion under attack. We are very much used by now to see Christianity and Christian symbols under attack and made fun of. This is particularly true in France. Some people get upset and excessive in their reaction, but overall most people don’t really give a darn. So the best way for Europeans to partly understand the hurt is to compare it to what they hold as ‘sacred’. For obvious historical reasons, most Europeans are deeply shocked whenever someone makes anti-Jewish humour and especially when they deny humorously or not the Holocaust. It is not because of some Jewish conspiracy as some Arab leaders often suggest and it is not because the Europeans are particularly fond of the Jews, it is because it is part of their recent history and more importantly part of their guilty conscience. This also extends to other genocides and to more obvious racist expressions.

In France for instance the law prevents you from denying the Holocaust (the so-called ‘Gayssot law’ which sanctions the public questioning of the reality of crimes against humanity). There would be an outcry and general condemnation if a major French newspaper such as Le Monde published a caricature of say Moses as an exploitative money lender and brought into question the Holocaust (see this interesting blog)

This is thus the closest we can come to the offense felt by many Muslims. Still, it does not explain everything.

The other major misunderstanding with regard to those caricatures is the very nature of our cultural and political background. Most Muslims live in non-democratic societies where there is strong state censorship, and controlled press. It may just be impossible for them to assume that whatever is published in the press is not allowed by the government and that those European governments cannot shut down any newspaper as they wish. That is probably why they do not believe the Danish PM when he says he cannot apologize for its free press, inviting the discontent to bring the paper before court. No doubt the misunderstanding is immense and serious.

But let’s not be naïve here and see the political side of the whole thing. What we just said precisely calls for major questions about the ‘spontaneity’ of the riots, the violent demonstrations or the burning embassies burning that we have see on television. This also means that most of the Muslims outside Europe – unless they have access to Internet, which most of them wouldn’t, I imagine – have not even seen those but have been told about them.

On their most interesting blog, ‘Aqoul makes a few disturbing points in their post rightly called: Why do the Syrians burn embassies but the Iranians don't?.

  • They note that the gunmen blocking/storming various offices (of European countries' missions or E.U. offices are not from Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the Islamist groups but from Al-Aqsa Brigades which are connected with Fatah.
  • Syria where the violence was the greatest is one of the most tightly controlled societies in the region. It is currently under "Western" pressure. Its ruling regime is afraid of "Western" attempts to end the "reign of the house of Asad", maybe even through (military) force.
  • No doubt that the rioting and rampage in Beirut, as the Guardian shows in details had some definite well-planned' spontaneity'. There too Syria is delighted in taking any opportunity to destabilize what they consider to be their own.

Interestingly, I haven’t heard of massive protest in Algeria, Morocco or the Emirates. Nothing in France – not even a little riot (people may be ‘rioted out) – only in London. As far as Egypt is concerned, well they're busy rioting about more local pressing matters.

Besides, if you look carefully at the pictures of the protests, they’re mostly medium close-ups - not wide shots. You can see a few dozens or a few hundreds of people at the most. No massive demonstrations with millions of people in the streets. If the images are shocking indeed, they also magnify the reaction, and the media are there too playing with fire by not putting their own images into perspective.

It is probably true that most Muslims are shocked but they are certainly not violently demonstrating. The newspaper has apologized and the Danish Muslims have accepted their apology. But this may be turn to be Pandora's box, those extremists who have taken advantage of the situation may see things go out of control.

NOTE: of the 34 pictures about the protests in the Herald Tribune's slide show, only one shows a wide-shot angle (it is in Pakistan) and it is that of what seems to be an peaceful demonstration. Images definitely need to be deciphered.


At 19:48, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is perfectly fair to compare the offensiveness of Holocaust denial with that of these cartoons. Both are extremely offensive to a large group of people. Both have happened recently. The response to the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust was appropriate. The response to the cartoons is ridiculous.

One thing that has been made clear is that a large number of Muslims do hate our freedoms.

At 20:06, Blogger Joker & Thief said...

I don't think 'they hate our freedoms'. I think they have been misled into believing certain things about us and that they don't know what our freedoms are about.(Maybe if the West had not supported the harsh non-democratic governments of their countries for years, they would understand better what our freedoms are really about!)
In any case, I find it really hard to figure out what "a large number of Muslims" means and what they REALLY believe since we tend to only hear and see the minority of extremists.


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