Weaponising humour as assault

How did a "religion of peace" subscribed to by millions of ordinary, decent believers, become an ideology of hatred for an angry minority?

Prasenjit Chowdhury Kolkata

The convulsion following the string of cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has not only bifurcated the world between pan-Islamism and Islamophobia, but has raised many a question. Does the right to free speech also come to encompass the right of purposeful and at times malicious assault? Is the rise of Islamism conditioned (or not) by the refusal of Muslim civilisation to accept the social dynamics of capitalism and its attendant vices? While some said that it was just a prelude to the Islamisation of Europe, some said it was an act of fatal transgression arising out of a paranoid xenophobia for anything that Islam stands for. Is the "secular" west going to buckle under pressure from societies with a "medieval" mindset where what is most at stake is the freedom of expression, perhaps the most precious of freedoms the west has attained? The debate has snowballed into faultlines such as civilisation versus barbarism and darkness versus enlightenment.

Is the rise of jihadi Islam with its attraction to disenfranchised groups in the west, and conversion to it by individuals seeking action and redemption, powered by a venal antagonism for America, due to a gap left by the failure of radical leftism? While some say the cartoonist who depicted Mohammad with a bomb for a turban is clearly the prophet as his vision is coming true with every violent protest (and more importantly, anyone who feels his religion is threatened by a cartoon must have chinks in his armour of faith), still others fume at the paradox at how cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban touted as "press freedom" contrast with cartoons of hook-nosed, money grabbing Jews riled as "anti-Semitism". The rub is, both portrayals are crude. While the west and its media would brook a caricature of Christ, as it often does, it must not turn its back on the Holocaust and it does not tolerate any insult on the infliction of the most horrendous crime on humanity. Freedom of speech often bungles on the no-go areas, often as a matter of perverse relish.

For those who think that the suppression of the blasphemous cartoons is akin to the death of Europe's secular civilisation, it bears recall that Islam has been subject to rigorous scrutiny, often by some of its remarkable adherents. In a brilliant series of three articles published between January and March 1999 in Dawn, Pakistan's most respected daily, the late Eqbal Ahmad, writing for a Muslim audience, analysed what he called the roots of the religious right, coming down very harshly on the mutilations of Islam by absolutists and fanatical tyrants whose obsession with regulating personal behaviour promotes "an Islamic order reduced to a penal code, stripped of its humanism, aesthetics, intellectual quests, and spiritual devotion." And this "entails an absolute assertion of one, generally de-contextualised, aspect of religion and a total disregard of another. The phenomenon distorts religion, debases tradition, and twists the political process wherever it unfolds."

As a timely instance of this debasement, Ahmad proceeds first to present the rich, complex, pluralist meaning of the word "jihad" and then goes on to show that in the word's current confinement to indiscriminate war against presumed enemies, it is impossible "to recognise the Islamic religion, society, culture, history or politics — as lived and experienced by Muslims through the ages." The modern Islamists, Ahmad concludes, are "concerned with power, not with the soul; with the mobilisation of people for political purposes rather than with sharing and alleviating their sufferings and aspirations. Theirs is a very limited and time-bound political agenda." In a speech during the Edinburgh Book Festival last year, Salman Rushdie was at pains to talk about how, when he was younger, Islam had been a pacifist religion. "It's not a religion of peace at the moment as it used to be. The jihadists have come in instead." "Islam is going backwards very fast", he rued.

On the flip side of things, an article by Martin Burcharth, a Dane, titled "Denmark's problem with the Muslims" published in the New York Times came down heavily on his own country known as a nation with a long tradition of tolerance towards others — as it rescued Danish Jews from deportation to Nazi concentration camps in 1943. "We Danes have grown increasingly xenophobic over the years. The publication of the cartoons had little to do with generating a debate about self-censorship and freedom of expression. It can be seen only in the context of a climate of pervasive hostility toward anything Muslim in Denmark".  In August last year, Danish authorities withdrew for three months the broadcasting license of a Copenhagen radio station after it called for the extermination of Muslims. Those were real threats and the government protected Muslims — the same government later condemned for not punishing the newspaper that published the cartoons.

According to Burcharth, there are more than 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, a country with a population of 5.4 million. A few decades ago, Denmark had no Muslims at all. Not surprisingly, Islam has come to be viewed by many as a threat to the survival of Danish culture. "For 20 years Muslims have been denied [permission] to build mosques in Copenhagen. And there are no Muslim cemeteries in Denmark, so the bodies of Muslims have to be flown back to their home countries for proper burial."
The reverse argument against Burcharth is that the Jyllands-Posten solicited the cartoons only after finding that Muslim "pervasive hostility" was cowering artists into respecting their communal taboos under threat of violence — or death. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch politician forced to go into hiding after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, argues in course of the Danish cartoon scandal, that if Europe doesn't stand up to extremists, a culture of self-censorship of criticism of Islam that pervades in Holland will spread in Europe. She is one of the most sharp-tongued critics of political Islam — and a target of radical fanatics. Her provocative film Submission led to the assassination of director Theo van Gogh in November 2004. And if anyone seeks to know more on the rise of contemporary political Islam, and their "perverse hostility", there is a brilliant study by distinguished political scientist Mahmood Mamdani titled Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror to know that fair criticism exists with reasonable bounds for tolerance.

"It's the core of our culture", Berlin's Die Welt's editor-in-chief told the British Guardian, "that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire." Fair enough, but the principle should be based on a parity of culture of tolerance — of laughter and ridicule. The cartoons on the Prophet Mohammed are definitely repulsive but so are the cartoons of the Arab European League. Two of its cartoons involve familiar Holocaust denial; one has an undeserving Peter Jackson turn down Steven Spielberg's new "Holocaust script" with the excuse, "I don't think I have that much of imagination Steven, sorry". The most shocking shows a post-coital Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank — killed by the Nazis when she was fifteen — and crowing, "Write this one in your diary, Anne!" Such exercises, like the depiction of Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban or making snide remarks about heaven having run out of virgins, hit the raw nerves as the no-frills genre of the cartoon conveys the message starkly and without qualification: this is a terrorist and sexist religion. Do we really need to
pit Mohammed against the Holocaust or Christ, seeking to wage a crusade on our taste, passing for a tit-for-tat freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is a nice thing but there are more serious things to consider. How a "religion of peace" subscribed to by millions of ordinary, decent believers, can become an ideology of hatred for an angry minority? Why are Europe and the west at war with Islam? Islam must not be regarded as "other", argues Jack Goody, in his wide-ranging survey Islam in Europe, as it is really intrinsic to the religious tradition of Western monotheism found in Judaism and Christianity. Instead of regarding Islam as an alien sociocultural tradition, Europeans should recognise it as an integral part of their past. Classical liberalism posits liberal freedom with a responsibility of moral self-restraint. Even John Stuart Mill warned that a free society would be threatened if its "restraining discipline" were relaxed. License poses a threat to freedom since it observes no obligation to others. Freedom-loving west must take note of the canons of liberalism while remaining wary of libertarianism.

 

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