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Dissecting the Danish Cartoon Controversy (Continued) By: Salim Mansur
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 26, 2006

Elsewhere the beast within Islam grew bolder and more invigorated as the artificial façade of a mongrel European order resting on decrepit foundations of pre-modern culture began to peel off. The effort to keep the beast in Islam caged, as I noted from Ibn Khaldun’s writings, is part of a long history of civil war among Muslims.  This civil war remained mostly unknown and distant to non-Muslims; occasionally Europeans, and then Americans, heard far away rumblings of battles that made little sense to them.  In more recent times news about hanging of an elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan, or the tumultuous revolt of a people overthrowing a monarch, Mohammed Shah Pahlavi of Iran, or the public assassination of a military-president, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, raised concerns in the West and intellectuals or worldly-wise journalists got together to make sense of such events in London, Paris, and New York. But still these events and the civil war within Islam, despite infrequent attention, remained remote to the Western public.

The West during these years was preoccupied with the Cold War against its Bolshevik-Communist nemesis in the Soviet Union.  When reversals as in Vietnam or the shock of oil-price quadrupling resulting from the Middle East conflict occurred, these were explained away as peripheral costs of the Cold War.  Then the Cold War ended luckily without a nuclear Armageddon, and the West, particularly the United States with the restoration of Democrats in the White House, took holiday from history after the mighty Cold War exertions of the previous four decades.   As Bill Clinton and his party-goers, like the French Bourbons of whom was said they never learned much nor forgot much, indulged themselves during the final decade of the last century in frivolous escapades, the beast within Islam smashed through its retaining walls and went on rampage beyond Islam’s domain.  The attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 brought the long simmering Islam’s civil war into America’s heartland, and into Europe.  This civil war whose primary victims have been Muslims is no longer merely a matter of local or regional interest for it is the first global war – some might call it the first post-modern war, whatever that means – of the 21st century.


The origin of the civil war in Islam is located in the conflicting claims over authority in the immediate years following the demise of the prophet in the year 632.  Usurped power, and the demand placed on religion with acquiescing religious leaders in the service of power, shaped the characteristics of Islam as civilization.  Bedouin disposition of raging against civilization was also instrumental in the shaping of Islam.  The modern faces of this disposition, or the beast set loose, are those of Osama Bin Laden and his coterie of terrorists in the al Qaeda network; the mob in the streets of the Muslim world serves the beast as retainers; and Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders such as Tariq Ramadan and Sheikh al-Qaradawi serve the beast as apologists and propagandists.


Ibn Khaldun did not indulge in romanticism, unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s depiction of the savage as noble, when describing Bedouins and their culture as anti-civilization. Bedouins are crafty as they must be to survive in the hostile environment of the desert.  In modern times the founding ruler of the Saudi dynasty, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (1880-1953), displayed amply the craftiness of Bedouin chiefs to acquire and maintain power in Arabia that is constantly prone to challenge by competing Bedouin tribes.   The intriguing aspect of modern-day Bedouins, exemplified by the House of Saud, has been their capacity to straddle the increasing tension between the modern world of science and democracy and their own disposition against modernity which defines contemporary civilization. 


Osama Bin Laden being true to his Bedouin heritage has over-ridden this tension by seizing products of the modern world and turning them into his weapons against civilization.  But the al Qaeda chief could have been captured or slain, as the Ottoman rulers did with the marauding bands of Bedouins, if the rulers of the Muslim world were committed in destroying the beast that has brought ruin to Islam.  The bewildering fact is, however, that so many of Muslim rulers and their people sympathize with the beast and share its rage against the modern world and its dominant powers, particularly the United States.  In delving into this rage for explanation the curious fact surfaces – in retrospect not surprising – the extent to which Muslim sympathy for the beast draws support from the internal opposition within the West to secular-liberal democracy and the West’s economic success in terms of capitalism. 


A civilization that loses it inner plasticity, the Algerian writer Malek Bennabi noted, has lost “its aptitude to progress and to renew itself,” and hence, “little by little the Muslim world came to a stop like a motor that had consumed its last litre of petrol.”[1]  The place of creative thinking in such society, which requires openness and tolerance for criticism, gets substituted by politics of resentment and grievances.  In a seminal essay published by the Atlantic Monthly in September 1990, Bernard Lewis explained ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ resulting from a mood of hostility and rejection “due to a feeling of humiliation – a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.”


This mood is infectious, addictive and, ultimately, provides a crutch for a people unable and unwilling to be creative and taking responsibility for their history instead of blaming others.  In a long list of intellectuals and writers who fed this mood, even as the beast roamed and plotted among sympathetic crowds, there were two Palestinian-Americans, Edward Said (1935-2003) and Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (1921-1986) who proved to be specially gifted in packaging the politics of resentment. 


Edward Said was a professor of contemporary literature at Columbia University in New York, and he devoted his talents to give respectability to this mood with his polemics against the West and its perfidy at the expense of Islam by indulging Jews, supporting Zionism and defending Israel.  His book Orientalism, much celebrated among third world students and intellectuals with their Western sympathizers, is a polemics masquerading as scholarship providing Arabs and Muslims a stick with which to beat the imperialist West for the impoverishment of the Orient, particularly the Middle East, and the systematic exploitation of its resources.  Said blamed Western scholars, in particular those of Anglo-American background, specializing in the study of the Orient of enclosing and representing the Orient and its people, Arabs and Muslims specifically, in an essentialist manner by dehumanizing them and in depicting them as the “other” of the civilized Europeans.  In such representation Said found, “On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab-Orientals; the former are (in no particular order) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things.”[2]  The study of the Orient, of acquiring knowledge about it and representing it amounted to a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[3] The relationship between the Occident and Orient, Said theorized, is “a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.”[4]  He then concluded, “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”[5]  In a reverse reductionism Said explained the West to Arabs and Muslims, representing the tremendously diverse Occident with its writers, historians, painters variously involved in learning and knowing other cultures in an essentialist manner, no different than what he accused the West in portraying the Orient negatively.  Danish cartoons simply confirmed to Arabs and Muslims across the vast realm of Islam, from Morocco to Indonesia, the inherent racism of Europe as Said had shown by deconstructing the Orientalist discourse as racist.


Ismail Raji al-Faruqi was a professor of Islamic Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, and he devoted his considerable energy to popularizing his idea of “Islamization” as cure-all for Muslims and Islam.  In 1982 al-Faruqi published his manifesto called Islamization of Knowledge.  He began as follows:


The world-ummah of Islam stands presently at the lowest rung of the ladder of nations.  In this century, no other nation has been subjected to comparable defeat or humiliation. Muslims were defeated, massacred, robbed of their land and wealth, of their life and hope.  They were double-crossed, colonized and exploited; proselytized and forcefully or bribefully converted to other faiths.  And they were secularized, westernized and de-Islamized by internal and external agents of their enemies.  All this happened in practically every country and corner of the Muslim world.  Victims of injustice and aggression on every count, the Muslims were nonetheless vilified and denigrated in the representations of all nations.  They enjoy the worst possible ‘image’ in the world today.  In the mass media of the world, the ‘Muslim’ is stereotyped as aggressive, destructive, lawless, terrorist, uncivilized, fanatic, fundamentalist, archaic and anachronistic.  He is the object of hatred and contempt on the part of all non-Muslims, whether developed or underdeveloped, capitalist or Marxist, Eastern or Western, civilized or savage.  The Muslim world itself is known only for its inner strife and division, its turbulence and self-contradictions, its wars and threat to world peace, its excessive wealth and excessive poverty, its famine and cholera epidemics. In the minds of people everywhere the Muslim world is the ‘sick man’ of the world; and the whole world is led to think that at the root of all these evils stands the religion of Islam.  The fact that the ummah counts over a billion, that its territories are the vastest and the richest, that its potential in human, material and geo-political resources is the greatest, and finally that its faith – Islam – is an integral, beneficial, world-affirming and realistic religion, makes the defeat, the humiliation and the misrepresentation of Muslims all the more intolerable.[6]


Such thinking over-flowing with self-pity found a captive audience in the streets and capitals of the Muslim world, for Said and al-Faruqi had taken Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which Jean-Paul Sartre celebrated by noting “the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself through his voice”[7] – and Islamized its sentiment.   Fanon’s heated polemics excused the violence and its excesses of the colonized against the colonizers, for his wretched of the earth could do no wrong in righting all the wrongs done by the Europeans to him and his people.  In Iran Muslim intellectuals turned radical, such as Ali Shariati (1933-1977), were greatly influenced by Fanon.  This mood found its fulsome expression when Ayatollah Khomeini as the father of the Islamic Republic of Iran approved the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taking American diplomats as hostages, and thereby repudiated all accepted norms and protocols of international politics and diplomacy.  It is the same mood of repudiation that exults in burning flags and effigies of Western countries and their leaders, or torching their embassies.  The beast within Islam, the Bedouin psychology that once found thrill in bringing ruin to Muslim civilization, now set loose finds itself invigorated by this mood among a large segment of Muslims and is encouraged to strike with impunity countries most representative of contemporary global civilization that so many Muslims find unbearable.


This mood brimming with humiliation, suffused with resentment and burdened with grievances, should be recognized for what it is, a symptom of Islam broken down.  It is not a mood that is inherent in Muslims as a people, or a mood that is an attribute in some manner to the religion of Islam.  On the contrary, Muslims like any people of any other faith-traditions have a great sense of hilarity in their literature, art, poetry and music.  Amir Taheri, the Iranian political writer and columnist, notes,


The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists… Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion,” at times to the point of irreverence… those familiar with Islam’s literature know of Ubaid Zakani’s “Mush va Gorbeh” (Mouse and Cat), a match for Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion.  Sa’adi’s eloquent soliloquy on behalf of Satan mocks the “dry pious ones.”  And Attar portrays a hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard.  Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.[8]


It is true, however, that this self-pitying mood has had a dampening effect within the Muslim world, and Muslim fundamentalists have succeeded through violence and support from unelected leaders, for example military dictators in Pakistan, in intimidating Muslims to comply with their literal-minded, bigoted and witless interpretations of the Quran and the sharia, the legal norms constructed by religious scholars in the first three centuries of Islam.


In his Atlantic Monthly essay Bernard Lewis introduced the phrase “a clash of civilizations” in explaining the quarrels of Muslims against the West.  Samuel Huntington borrowed Lewis’s phrase and used it as a title and theme for his 1993 Foreign Affairs essay, and later his book.   Lewis wrote,


It should now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them.  This is no less than a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.  It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.[9]


Lewis cautioned the West against being provoked, but the beast set out to deliberately provoke.  Then the provocations of September 11, 2001 amounting to acts of war required response adequate to the challenge the beast had mounted.  It is in the context of the war on terror or, more appropriately, Islamist terror, we need to assess the implication of the Danish cartoon controversy.  The war on Islamist terror is not a clash of civilizations, rather it is a war against a mood striving for some ideological coherence that needs to be purged, and the beast exploiting this mood killed or caged.


Islam as civilization crashed a long time ago as Malek Bennabi noted, the fuel driving it exhausted.   The question for Muslims is how they will reconcile themselves with civilization based on secular-liberal democratic values and modern science in the 21st century recognizing, as they must, mixing religion and politics means remaining confined within authoritarian politics tending towards totalitarianism and a corrupted religion.  For the West, the question is how to prevent the detritus of Islam still extant and its rampaging beast still breathing fire from undermining the values of freedom and democracy at the centre of West’s modern history.    


Through the Cold War decades we heard from a body of opinion in the West that shared in the goals of its communist adversary in the Soviet Union.  This body of opinion is skeptical of democracy, and opposes freedom as the fundamental liberal value.  Jean-Francois Revel, the French public intellectual and author of The Totalitarian Temptation, explained, “The totalitarian phenomenon is not to be understood without making allowance for the thesis that some important part of every society consists of people who actively want tyranny: either to exercise it themselves or – much more mysteriously – to submit to it.  Democracy will therefore always remain at risk.”[10]  This body of opinion takes refuge in the ideology of multiculturalism, romanticizes culture and history of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, seeks support for its anti-capitalist ideology in the politics of resentment and grievances, and readily denigrates the culture which served as the cradle for enlightenment, modern science and democracy.  The Danish cartoon controversy showed this body of opinion being in sympathy with the Muslim outrage arguing for abridgement of the freedom of expression in open society, a right protected by constitution in liberal-democracies, as a demonstration of solidarity with people at odds with modern civilization.  This body of opinion ironically has a greater capacity to do harm to liberal-democracy and the open society than any outrage of Muslims orchestrated to extract concessions from non-Muslims.  It has an enervating effect on those in Europe and America on whose conviction and strength rests the defense of modern civilization.  It feeds upon an excess of white guilt about past sins and, as Shelby Steele recently observed, “this guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems – even the tyrannies they live under – were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the White West.”[11]   This is the paradox of our time, and for liberals the perennial dilemma to contend with while remaining true to liberal ideals.




[1] Malek Bennabi, Islam in History and Society (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Berita Publishing, 1991), p. 10.


[2] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 49.


[3] Ibid., p. 3.


[4] Ibid., p. 5.


[5] Ibid., p. 204.


[6] Cited in Ziauddin Sardar, Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (London: Granta Books, 2004), 202.


[7] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Preface” in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1968), p. 10.


[8] Amir Taheri, “Bonfire of the Pieties,” in The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2006.


[9] B. Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in The Atlantic Monthly (September 1990), p. 60.


[10] Revel quoted from his essay in National Review (2000) in the obituary notice for Jean-Francois Revel in The Wall Street Journal, “online edition”, May 3, 2006.


[11] Shelby Steele, “White Guilt and the Western Past,” in The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2006.


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Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

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