Cartoon row evokes memory of 'Satanic Verses' murder

Posted in Japan | 22-Feb-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Crisscross

Tokyo Mosque

While the continuing violence over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons is widely seen in Japan as just a fire on the other side of the river, it has evoked memories of the "Satanic Verses" murder among many people.

Hitoshi Igarashi, Tsukuba University assistant professor of literature and translator of the novel by Salman Rushdie, was found murdered on the morning of July 12, 1991, near his office on the university campus in Ibaraki Prefecture, 69 kilometers north of Tokyo. He was stabbed in the abdomen and his neck was slashed. He was 44 years old when he was killed. The case is still unsolved.

"The Satanic Verses" was first published in 1988. Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's political and spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ruled that the book is blasphemous against Islam and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the death of Rushdie and all those involved in the book's publication with knowledge of its content. The Japanese translation was published in 1990. Several days after Igarashi's murder, an anti-Tehran Islamic group issued a statement claiming the Iranian government had dispatched an assassination squad to kill him. The Iranian Embassy in Tokyo strongly denied the allegation. To the indignation of the Japanese public, some Muslims in Japan applauded the murder and declared that even if the murder was not committed by a Muslim, God made sure that Igarashi got what he deserved.

In Japan, the Muhammad cartoon issue has attracted wide media and public attention, but not as much as most other countries. That is primarily because the country has a very tiny Muslim population. There are about 1.3 billion Muslims around the world, or one-firth of the world’s total population. An estimated 15 million or more Muslims live in Europe. But in Japan, which has about 127 million people, the Muslim population is almost negligible in terms of percentage. Although there is no official data, one unofficial estimate puts the number at about 200,000, of which 50,000 are Japanese.

The Foreign Ministry was also quick to take a precautionary measure. It has requested the Japanese media to refrain from reprinting the cartoons in question. The ministry's top spokesman issued a statement on Feb 6 expressing concern about the "difficult situation" over the publication of caricatures in newspapers and magazines published in Denmark and other Western European countries.

"Japan fully understands the distress felt by the Muslims at the publication of the caricatures. However, violence and vandalism are not acceptable for any reason. We urge all parties concerned to reduce tension and to refrain from any action or statement that might aggravate the situation," he said in the statement. Arab envoys stationed in Tokyo have lauded the Japanese government’s response to the cartoon dispute.

To be sure, the Muhammad cartoon row has not sparked violence in Japan. But for many Japanese people, violence and the freedom of speech-versus-blasphemy controversy in other parts of the world have served as a vivid reminder of the killing of Igarashi at a time when their memories of the case are fading with the passage of time. Coincidentally, this coming July, the statute of limitations on the case is to expire. The victim's wife, Masako, is still calling for Japanese people to think about the "shade of meaning" of the case. She says she hopes that the case will not "fade with time."

Most Japanese are exceptionally tolerant when it comes to religious beliefs. They do not think it strange to be involved in several religions simultaneously. The birth and marriage ceremonies of most Japanese are Shinto, while funerals are Buddhist. Most Japanese celebrate Christmas, and only a week later they visit shrines and temples for "hatsumode," the first prayer of the New Year. The post-World War II constitution guarantees religious freedom. Therefore, there is no state religion.

A survey conducted last summer by the largest Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun showed that three-fourths of Japanese people do not believe in any particular religion and a majority of Japanese people, 60%, do not think religion is important. The survey also showed how self-serving Japanese people's attitude toward religion is. Asked whether they have ever felt they want to fling themselves on God, 54% answered yes and 44% no. Of the Japanese who do not believe in any particular religion, 47% answered yes to the same question.

Islam became a familiar term in Japan after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many books about Islam have sold well in recent years. But many Japanese still do not know more than just the stereotype features of the religion and customs, such as praying on one's knees several times a day, not eating pork meat and the Ramadan fast.

Indifference or ignorance sows the seeds of trouble. A few years ago, Ajinomoto, the Japanese food-seasoning giant, got burned when it drew the wrath of Muslims in Indonesia — which has the world’s largest Muslim population — for using pig enzymes in its flavor enhancer products. Some experts point out that Japanese people need to face up squarely with Islam as the nation's population has begun to shrink and the number of foreigners, including Muslims, living in Japan is expected to grow in a way that makes up for a decline in the number of Japanese.

To be sure, most Muslims in the world have denounced terrorism. Islamic Center- Japan in Tokyo also posts an announcement on the top page of its website saying that it "strongly condemns a series of London bombings on Thursday July 7, 2005, in which scores of innocent lives were lost." But the spate of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, like Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, seems to have generated a widespread feeling among many Japanese that Islam is something scary.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy.

Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.