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The Question of the Cartoons… Freedom of Expression or Cultural Racism? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Three features must be distinguished between in the context of the topic of the moment that is the despicable mockery of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) and the ensuing debate between the Muslim world and Europe.

The first of those features is concerned with the image of Islam and the honored Prophet from the Western imagination and consciousness, which was formed as it was known during the Crusades. Thus, the image was characterized by an intended misrepresentation and insulting of the Prophet. This image was revived by the early works of the Orientalist Western schools during the times of colonialism and wide scale missionary work. It would be suffice here to point to the works of Edward Said such as ‘Orientalism’, 1978, ‘Covering Islam,’ 1990 and ‘Culture and Imperialism, 1993, in order to understand this complex relation between “knowledge” and “power” or to use Said’s terminology, “Culture” and “Imperialism”.

What I want to emphasize here however is that despite that the true positive picture of the Prophet Mohamed only appeared in the West in association to enlightenment, modernization, and rationalization; this positive picture was never infiltrated to the collective imagination or to the specialized institutions of Orientalist studies. For example, the prominent German poet, Goethe, dedicated a great poem to the Prophet that was loaded with love and glorification. Thomas Carlyle regarded him as the greatest of the great in human history.

Therefore, we should not generalize or jump to the conclusion that all Western writers and intellectuals are hostile towards the Prophet and Islam. We should rather strive to entrench, strengthen, and revive the positive image to which the Western philosophers of the enlightenment who saw aspects of tolerance, freedom and reason in our religion and saw liberation, mercy and justice in our Prophet, related. There is a dire need for a new explanation of the Prophet’s life to be directed at the Western mind and to be researched thoroughly along the modern methodologies.

The second feature is related to the reaction of Muslim communities towards those cartoons. The angry response and protests have represented a natural reaction of a nation that has had its most sacred symbol defamed. It is well known that the Christian street was shaken up a few years ago due to the featuring of a movie that insulted Jesus resulting in the torching of some movie theatres by angry protesters. Thus, this anger is understood and it could not be expected that Muslims would remain silent about the matter. However, the wave of anger was not void of dangerous transgressions that clashed with the essence of the Prophet’s message himself concerning the ways to defend belief with wisdom. To defend the Prophet by blazing churches, attacking tourists and diplomats is completely detached from the Prophet’s guidance.

We should carefully restrain ourselves in the face of the array of articles that appear nowadays in the Western press, which emphasize the “terrorist” nature of Islam by using what has become to be known as “inter-civilization wars.” This phrase has often sprung up in Western political literature over the last few years. However, it has become an axiom for the majority of Western analysts who perceive the response of Arabs as a radical rejection of modernism, and seek to explain it as evidence of the inability of Arabs and Muslims to understand modernity and its values, the most important of which are freedom of expression and consciousness.

Some of us may become quickly pulled into this war and consider it a war between two equal opponents in the cultural realm. This is wrong and harmful to our case. The issue in reality is not about the clash of two antagonistic models of civilizations but is rather related to a certain pattern of racialist thought that is based on an exclusivist background. This racism uses religion as a tool of mobilization and conflict, albeit through defaming it (which is not incriminated in the Western legislative system) rather than invoking it.

It is noteworthy that the so-called moderates among us, who defended the rights of the European newspapers to publish the cartoons, based their argument on the assumption that what should be rejected is the singling out a specific race or nationality to defame. However, when it comes to a universal religion then defamation is not considered as such but rather “freedom of expression.” However, everyone knows that Islam represents the axial element of the Muslim identity. This renders their defense of the European newspapers’ right as weak. In addition, some of the cartoons depicted certain Muslims in specific countries and who belong to specific ethnicities, during a sensitive and troublesome stage in history between the West and Islam. Therefore, these cartoons could not be regarded as freedom of expression. They rather seek to provoke hatred and conflict in a reality ready for ignition at any moment.

The third feature is related to freedom of the media in Western countries. There is undoubtedly freedom of media however; it suffers from severe imbalances that have been highlighted by many researchers of media studies. The paradox is that along with the progress and multiplication of both means of expression and means of occupation, what was once described as “the despotism of communication”. This term denotes the media’s manipulation and control of the news, and the exchange of information. In the USA for example, America Online, which bought Netscape also owns the Times newspaper, and the Warner Bros.

In France, the arms trader Serge Dassault who is close to the extreme right, has become dominant over a wide media empire that includes the Hersant group which issues Le Figaro newspaper, and the Vivendi group that prints over 15 publications. This phenomenon is common in a number of Western countries. Media has turned into a power that dominates and in which the task of broadcasting impartial information has become the least important role.

The prominent French sociologist Pierre Bordeaux has illustrated in his recent works the dangers of the media domination and the reshaping of public consciousness and imagination. He considered that humanity might reach a point in which it will be forced to re-wage the 18th century revolutions to get rid of the dangerous control of the media. Paradoxically, whilst there are laws that prohibit the doubting of a historical account that has become sacred, (naturally, I do not doubt it), there are no laws that may protect sacred religious symbols. This takes place under the pretense of defending freedom of expression, which at times is employed for the sake of the dissemination of hatred and racism.