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Cartoon Muhammads and the Academic Caricature By: Alexander H. Joffe
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 06, 2006

Cartoon Muhammads are all the rage. As threats and actual violence break out around the world over a Danish newspaper’s irreverent depictions of Muhammad, how have Middle East studies specialists responded? And as the Organization of the Islamic Conferences demands the UN act against blasphemy, gunman search house to house in Gaza for foreigners to abduct to avenge the slight, and tens of thousands take to the streets, how many academics are leaping to the defense of free expression?

Few have in fact bothered to weigh in, perhaps proving that discretion is the better part of valor. But those who have provide an interesting cross-section of attitudes. For Ruth Mas, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, the answer is obvious: “It's racism, pure and simple,” and the ensuing violence is merely Muslims “reacting (to) the racism, not to the blasphemy." This appears to be news to Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a member of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, who called for a boycott of Danish products on the basis of their supposed defamation of Islam, not “racism.”

Mas handily plays the Islamophobia card, warning that Europe is reliving the 1930s only with Muslims as victims rather than Jews, and concludes by complaining that the cartoons reflect a “sense of entitlement to insult people in the name of free speech.” On this of course she is precisely correct. For better and for worse free speech still includes the right to insult. In open societies no protections are given to those who wish to avoid being insulted save fingers stuffed in ears and the right to peacefully protest. That Christians and Jews (also known around many Muslim media outlets and mosques as the “sons of pigs and monkeys”) manage to restrain themselves from indulging in kidnapping, assault, flag-burning and mass protest after similar provocations is apparently irrelevant.


One partial exception to free speech protection, at least in the US, deals with “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” reckless or malicious speech that creates a clear and present danger by inciting imminent lawless action. On this theory Mas and others would presumably argue that non-Muslims have been incited by the cartoons, in fact the has opposite occurred. Tarek Fatah, a director of the Muslim Canadian Congress, sadly notes that “The protests in the Middle East have proven that the cartoonist was right… It's falling straight into that trap of being depicted as a violent people and proving the point that, yes, we are.”


For John Esposito of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding the matter is almost as simple. The cartoons and their responses show “a deep-seated belief that respect for Islam doesn't exist [in Europe, and] can be read as a deliberate attempt to provoke and test, not only religiously… It expresses the tensions toward immigrant communities. It says this is what democracy is about: nothing is sacred.”


Nothing in the almost forgotten back-story of the cartoons suggests that Muslim immigrant communities were a target of any sort, or that the cartoonists deliberately set out to defy the “sacred” and to “test” Muslims. But in one respect Esposito is precisely correct, in democracy, when still equipped with the means of free expression, nothing is sacred, neither god(s) nor men.


Mark LeVine of the University of California at Irvine feels much the same way as Esposito; “I think part of it is just to show who’s boss ... a way of saying to Muslims, ‘Look, you want to live here, this is what you're going to have to put up with.’” If by “put up with” LeVine means “free speech’” including satire, then we must agree. Again, there is nothing in the particular cartoons to suggest their goal is incitement against Muslims, or demonization of the faith. Viewers may wish to consider this and use their own judgment when comparing the Mohammad Image Archive with a collection of anti-Semitic cartoons from contemporary Arab media.


LeVine also makes it clear that really he does support free speech, just of the right sort: “I utterly support freedom of speech and I’m against any censorship, but then again, just because speech is free and permitted, doesn’t necessarily mean you should go around uttering it. You can also go around screaming 'nigger' at black people. It’s legal I suppose, why does that mean you should do it though?” Equating cartoon satire with racial slurs in this manner undermines LeVine’s otherwise rousing defense.


Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies at Temple University is exercised about the content of one or more of the cartoons, in which “Muhammad was portrayed as a terrorist.” But he also raised a deeper issue:  “It has a lot to do with the difference in belief about freedom…The essential difference is how freedom is understood. I believe that my freedom ends where the dignity and respect for all the prophets begins.” Deciding where freedom of expression ends and abstractions such as dignity and respect for literary figures called “prophets” begins is a tricky business, and Ayoub offers no guidance.


The most cogent academic analysis on the cartoon affair, however, has not come from the United States, but from Lebanon.


Professor Hilal Khashan, an expert on politics and Islam at the American University in Beirut, says he is not surprised by the anger generated by the cartoons. He notes that in almost all majority-Muslim countries the secular and the religious cannot be untangled. This leads to a natural confrontation with the European secularist view.


“The answer [for this anger] is very simple,” Khashan says. “Western societies are secular. Muslim societies are heavily religious. Muslim political socialization is extremely deep and religious inculcation is essential in the raising of Muslim kids. Religion in this part of the world remains central to life and belief systems are highly important. Even highly secular political orders in the Arab world never tried to mess with religion. They never contested Islam as a system of beliefs.”


In this era of globalization, Khashan continues, newspaper editors can no longer expect to be speaking to just a local audience, in this case Denmark. That can be both an advantage or present problems. “Since we live in a highly interactive world, characterized by rapid communication and access to information, it becomes extremely difficult to talk about targeting a specific audience,” he notes.


But nevertheless, Khashan says this uproar may have a silver lining if it encourages what he believes is desperately needed in the Muslim world: discussion about religious reform and Islam's role in society.


“Now there's an opportunity for Muslims to start a debate among themselves, and to be honest with you, no matter what the West tries to do to get Muslims to reform Islam, it won’t work. Muslims have to think about religion and they have to revisit it [themselves] and they have to come to terms with it. Muslims must take a stand and they must begin the process of their religious reform,” Khashan says.


Our favorite Saudi blogger The Religion Policeman has the matter precisely right:


It's not about the Prophet (PBUH) at all. It's all about us. Me, me, me! We are insulted. Why? Because we choose to be, it's our right. The cartoonists are mocking the present-day distortions of true Islam by the bigots and zealots and terrorists, and the bigots and zealots and terrorists don't like it. And they are telling the rest of the 1.3 billion that they feel insulted as well, even if they don't.


It is as rewarding to see clear thinking and devotion to free speech among Saudis and Lebanese as their absence is distressing among Western academics. The intellectual roots of capitulation are plain to see, a combination of political correctness and the enduring myth that Muslims are either so special, or potentially so violent, that the rest of us must carefully avoid giving any offense. If Western leaders grovel and toss aside freedom of expression in the name of (dramatically one-sided) “tolerance and respect” we need only look to our universities to see where they learned how.

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Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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