February 06, 2006
Muslim Reaction to the Cartoons
One significant belief of Islam precludes any drawing or image of the prophet Muhammad. When newspapers in Denmark published a series of cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad - including one of the Prophet wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb -- and then were reprinted in other European papers, it set off a bomb of reaction that is continuing to reverberate around the world. The reaction to the cartoons, among most Muslims, has been one of outrage; among some, of actual violence.
Could it be that the highly publicized Muslim reactions to the cartoons are proving the point many are making about Islam, democracy, and freedom? Some might even say they are proving the point of the cartoons themselves.
The point which critics of Islam make is that because there is no separation of church and state anywhere in the Muslim world, there is, therefore, a fatal conflict between the religion of Islam and the adoption of democratic, pluralistic ideals and practices. This may be an arguable point, but it is a troubling one we all grapple with when we witness Islamic governments trying to develop semblances of democratic processes (in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Palestinian territories) while being held strictly to Islamic interpretations of law. Holding elections, alone, does not a democracy make.
The violent reactions also reveal a male-dominated response that is a microcosm of one of the largest problems besetting the Moslem world -- tens of millions of unemployed, underemployed, uneducated, and undereducated males in religious societies which define the male's hegemony as complete and unchallenged. These young men (and most of them are young) live in or come from nation-states where Islam is the religion of the state, where government laws and government actions are defined only insofar as they adhere to religious law, and where men dominate in every sphere of society. A poisonous form of Islamist fundamentalism has taken hold in many of these societies, a fundamentalism which is drowning out more moderate Muslims.
In what is, perhaps, one of the most telling pictures of the reaction to the cartoons, a young Muslim man at a London demonstration holds a sign that says: "Freedom Go to Hell." That one sign just might encapsulate the problem. There he is, living in a pluralistic, liberal democracy and he condemns freedom. Is it perhaps that his idea of freedom is different from ours? Another sign says: "Europe You Will Pay, Your 3/11 is On Its Way." Insult our religion, and you will die.
It is good that spokesmen for Islamic organizations are speaking out against these kinds of radical statements, but just how deep do these sentiments actually go among Muslims in general? There is, in fact, a deep well of resentment against the West, reflected clearly in the shallow sympathy for 9/11 and 3/11.
America's so-called war on terror has contributed substantially to this Muslim view. It has hardened opinions in the Muslim world against us. To many of them, the war on terror consists of a war on Muslims, exclusively fought in Muslim countries. Significant portions of the Arab media characterize America's response as a crusade, further contributing to this viewpoint.
It should be noted, however, that the Muslim reaction to secularism and liberalism long pre-dates 9/11 and the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, attacks on secularism and liberalism within the Muslim world itself have been persistent -- Salman Rushdie condemned for his novel The Satanic Verses; Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz almost killed for allegedly insulting Islam in one of his novels; and Farag Fouda, another Egyptian writer, assassinated for his warnings about the Taliban and Al-Queda. There are many, many examples of Muslims speaking out against Islamic fundamentalism and being assassinated or repressed.
Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East is on the rise. The oppression of Islam by Western ideals and armies (and cartoons) is fueling this surge of reaction, in Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Syria, and other parts of the Muslim world. In the New York Times on February 4, Michael Slackman writes: "...with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bashing the United States and Europe, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and claiming that the Holocaust is a myth, many people from taxi drivers in Morocco to street sweepers in Cairo are saying that they like the man and his vision."
Maybe the most telling question about this entire controversy was asked by Jihad Momami, the Jordanian editor who was arrested for violating Jordanian law (which is consistent with Islamic law) by publishing one of the cartoons in his weekly paper Shihan:
"Muslims of the world be reasonable...What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures, or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?"
Fundamentalist Islam is framing this battle with the West and, so far, winning. For all the protestations of George Bush to the contrary, our interventions, our "freedom," our democracy, our cartoons -- these are daggers to the heart of fundamentalist Islam.
You can read here a Declaration of the Rights of Women in Islamic Societies.
If you want to read more about secularism among Islamic writers, here's an essay Ghassan F. Abdullah.