Cartoons and the clash of 'freedoms'
The post-September 11 era, as with the preceding ones, has its own collection of heroes and villains. What seems to be notably different about the era after the terror attacks in 2001 is that no subject, and nothing, is sacred in the West, especially when it comes to Muslims and Islam. The escalating controversy about publishing a series of cartoons - first in some Scandinavian papers, and then in a number of newspapers from other countries of the European Union - of the Prophet Mohammed is the most recent example of that development.
In Austria, it is against the law to make any statements denying the occurrence of the Holocaust. But one can say anything about Islam and get away with it. Aren't Muslims right when they take the position that there is an open season against their religion, and that the exercise of freedom of expression is used only as a "civilized" excuse for insulting them?
Muslims are reminded of another controversy that brewed in 1988, but has not totally gone away even today. Salman Rushdie, a novelist of Muslim-Indian origin, became a highly visible figure in the West after writing The Satanic Verses, in which he attempted to defile Islam. That novel might have become lost in the slew of diatribes that are spewed against one of world's great religions, if not for the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa (edict) that called for Rushdie's death. Only then did Rushdie became, in Western eyes, a champion of freedom of expression. In Muslim countries, on the contrary, he instantly became an embodiment of Satan.
Now the world's attention is focused on a number of European newspapers that published insulting cartoons of the Prophet of Islam. Certain Danish and Norwegian newspapers got tired of being serene places and, wittingly or unwittingly, triggered a controversy of global proportions. The ensuing brouhaha became a reason for even more newspapers to show "solidarity" and republish those cartoons. A number of Muslim leaders and countries, by voicing their opinions or by taking diplomatic actions, have already demonstrated how seriously they envisage this development.
In the West, freedom of expression is considered sacred. For a number of people, that freedom might even be regarded as absolute, thereby allowing an individual to insult even someone's faith. Two issues must be clearly understood regarding this controversy. First, for Muslims, nothing and no one is above Islam. No one should be allowed to be disrespectful about anything remotely associated with Islam. Having an open discussion regarding the Islamic faith is perfectly acceptable. Insulting Islam is not. That old adage about disagreeing without being disagreeable (or offensive) is fully applicable here. Second, not many understand in the West that a requirement of the completion of the faith for Muslims is to love and respect the Prophet of their religion. That might also be an alien notion, especially among secular Westerners for whom freedom of expression has remained an integral part of their secular puritanism.
On this issue, the long-standing chasm between the West and the world of Islam is not only getting wider, but might also be heading toward a "civilizational war" that Samuel Huntington wrongly described as occurring in the early 1990s in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States clearly widened that chasm. Osama bin Laden emerged as a new hero and villain, respectively, in the Muslim world and in the West. But he caused the death of thousands of innocent people. Why should he be admired for that? One has to look at why bin Laden became popular not from the point of view of the September 11 attacks, but in the context of a larger struggle that is taking place inside the world of Islam. That is a region where the dominance of the United States and the West has been taken for granted by the extant regimes. That is an area where there is little hope about the prospects of political change and economic progress. That is also a region where the rot of authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption has been so entrenched that one cannot realistically aspire to be free, prosperous, or advanced in the realm of technological progress.
The West appears content about the state of backwardness, obscurantism and darkness that currently prevails in Muslim countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. There emerges bin Laden, who voices anger over the state of affairs in the world of Islam. People don't necessarily buy into his murderous philosophy of transnational terrorism, but they sympathize with his criticism of what is wrong with the world of Islam and why it remains backward. They even sympathize with his depiction of the West (mostly the US) as the chief villain for supporting the highly corrupt and inept political order from Morocco to Malaysia.
At the same time, Muslims know that bin Laden has no solution to what ails their polities and societies. But no other Muslim leader is emerging with other panaceas. In the meantime, their wait for other heroes continues, heroes who may have better ideas than bin Laden, and heroes who would show them their path to glory.
Freedom of speech is indeed a noble idea. To state that it should have no limits (or that it should be absolute) may be a useful academic exercise, but one should also keep in mind that such an exercise of freedom could also lead to the same kind of deleterious consequences as when one screams "fire" in a packed theater. Thus it is not enough to couch the whole argument about drawing caricatures of the Prophet under the rubric of freedom of speech, and thereby dismiss (or even be derisive about) the religious sensitivities of millions of Muslims. Why is it that the golden rule related to the insanity (or illegality) of yelling "fire" in a packed theater is not being applied here? That, in the final analysis, is the question the Western zealots of freedom of speech should answer.
The West appears stubborn against compromising on the freedom of expression. The hypocrisy in the West is that this freedom is not as absolute as it is pretended to be in some quarters. Nothing about human affairs can be absolute. Muslims are equally uncompromising about allowing anyone to be disrespectful of their religion and their Prophet.
So where do we go from here? In a world that is more of a global village than it has ever been before, there have to be compromises. Muslims make a point of not insulting Christians about their faith. As a quid pro quo, a similar courtesy is warranted toward their religion. The global village is like a packed theater. Good judgment is a requirement before one yells "fire", even in the name freedom of expression.
Ehsan Ahrari is a CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.