It’s becoming very clear that the Danish cartoon controversy is not a simple matter of Western respect for freedom of speech colliding with the sensitivities (or oversensitivities) of some Muslims.
Take a look at this article in today’s New York Times, which shows how the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (both of which rely on U.S. military and financial support in order to maintain their power) helped transform the Danish cartoons from a controversy in one small European country into a cause for rioting in the Middle East. Why would they do this?
Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at the American University in Beirut, said that for Arab governments resentful of the Western push for democracy, the protests presented an opportunity to undercut the appeal of the West to Arab citizens. The freedom pushed by the West, they seemed to say, brought with it disrespect for Islam.
He said the demonstrations “started as a visceral reaction — of course they were offended — and then you had regimes taking advantage saying, ‘Look, this is the democracy they’re talking about.’ “
The protests also allowed governments to outflank a growing challenge from Islamic opposition movements by defending Islam.
So: The Bush administration tells Americans not to fret about the U.S. propping up undemocratic regimes in the Arab world because a) the U.S. needs to prop them up in order to ensure regional stability and maintain the flow of cheap oil to the West and b) the U.S. is pushing these regimes to become more democratic. But then these governments, trying to triangulate between the Western push for democracy on the one hand, and the push from radical Islamists for a medieval theocracy on the other, are using the cartoons to bash democracy and seem more radical than the radical Islamists. Which provides yet another indication of how well Bush’s push for democracy in the Middle East is going.
The Times article zooms in on the role our friends the Saudi’s have played in all of this:
On Jan. 26, in a key move, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark, and Libya followed suit. Saudi clerics began sounding the call for a boycott, and within a day, most Danish products were pulled off supermarket shelves.
“The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists,” said Mr. Said, the Cairo political scientist…
The issue of the cartoons came at a critical time in the Muslim world because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and a sense that Muslims were under siege. Strong showings by Islamists in elections in Egypt and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections had given new momentum to Islamic movements in the region, and many economies, especially those in the Persian Gulf, realized their economic power as it pertained to Denmark.
“The cartoons were a fuse that lit a bigger fire,” said Rami Khouri, editor at large at the English-language Daily Star of Beirut. “It is this deepening sense of vulnerability combined with a sense that the Islamists were on a roll that made it happen.”
Meanwhile, we in the West are debating free speech vs. censorship. Which is a worhty debate, but one that no doubt leaves Bush, the Saudis, and the Egyptians quite happy, since it takes the focus off the failed policies that have created in the Middle East a mass of alienated, frustrated people whose passions are so easy to manipulate all it takes is a cartoon.
Over at Slate, there is a very good piece by Reza Aslan that further explains how the freedom of speech debate misses the deeper point. It also looks at why these cartoons have pushed some Muslims’ buttons so hard.
The fact is that Muslim anger over the caricatures derives not merely from their depiction of Mohammed. That may have upset more conservative Muslims, but it alone would not have engendered such a violent and widespread response. Rather, most Muslims have objected so strongly because these cartoons promote stereotypes of Muslims that are prevalent throughout Europe: Mohammed dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse; Mohammed standing menacingly in front of two cowering, veiled women, unsheathing a long, curved sword; Mohammed on a cloud in heaven complaining that Paradise has run out of virgins. It is difficult to see how these drawings could have any purpose other than to offend. One cartoon goes so far as to brazenly call the prophet “daft and dumb.”
So, while in Europe and the United States the row over the cartoons has been painted as a conflict between secular democratic freedoms and arcane religious dogma, the controversy is really about neither. Instead, it’s another manifestation of the ongoing ethnic and religious tensions that have been simmering beneath the surface of European society for decades, like last year’s Paris riots and the murder two years ago of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
In the minds of many Muslims in Europe, the cartoons were intentionally inflammatory, published to further humiliate an ethnic and religious minority that has been socially and economically repressed for decades.
This is similar to a point I made in a post on the Slog yesterday (that post has now been made into a short essay on The Stranger’s homepage, which you can see here).
Aslan further explains how this issue is now being exploited by radicals and certain political leaders in the Middle East:
Extremist groups and some political leaders in the Arab and Muslim world are eager to exploit any opportunity to propagate their belief that Islam is under attack by the “West” and thus rally Muslims to their murderous cause…
Of course, the sad irony is that the Muslims who have resorted to violence in response to this offense are merely reaffirming the stereotypes advanced by the cartoons. Likewise, the Europeans who point to the Muslim reaction as proof that, in the words of the popular Dutch blogger Mike Tidmus, “Islam probably has no place in Europe,” have reaffirmed the stereotype of Europeans as aggressively anti-Islamic. It is this common attitude among Europeans that has led to the marginalization of Muslim communities there, which in turn has fed the isolationism and destructive behavior of European Muslims, which has then reinforced European prejudices against Islam. It is a Gordian knot that has become almost impossible to untangle.
And that is why as a Muslim American I am enraged by the publication of these cartoons. Not because they offend my prophet or my religion, but because they fly in the face of the tireless efforts of so many civic and religious leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord; because they play into the hands of those who preach extremism; because they are fodder for the clash-of-civilizations mentality that pits East against West. For all of that I blame Jyllands-Posten. We in the West want Muslim leaders to condemn the racial and religious prejudices that are so widespread in the Muslim world. Let us lead by example.