Muslim Minorities in
the Real Target of the Cartoons
As people die and embassies burn, diplomats and religious leaders alike struggle
to contain the damage caused by caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)
published in a Danish newspaper. The mayhem has caught political observers off
guard. But they should not have been surprised.
The protests have taken on a momentum of their own and have prompted even those
who are normally circumspect on political issues to call for calm. These include
the Pope and the King of Saudi Arabia. Even
Iran, which initially encouraged the protests, seems to have had second
thoughts. The foreign minister of Iran has lately called for restraint.
In the hands of a great leader, the energy of the protests could have been
channeled into a positive mass movement. There is no such leader on the horizon.
Instead, the energy of the historical moment is dissipated in loss of life and
Historians may well record the cartoons and the mass reaction as a watershed in
the centuries old dialectic between Islam and
Europe. There are several elements in the current interaction.
Some argue that this is an illustration of the clash of civilizations. This is
fuzzy logic. It would be more precise to argue that it is a clash of a godless
Europe with both Christianity and Islam.
Islam and Christianity have been in close embrace for fourteen centuries, in
conflict and cooperation, negotiating, learning from each other and jostling for
abandoned Christianity and chose secularism. What is new today is that
technology has forced Islam and a godless West – and other faith-based
civilizations - into shared space where they are forced to confront their own
internal contractions. The cartoons and the protests are a manifestation of this
internal dialectic within each civilization.
The Europeans paint this issue as one of freedom of speech. This is sheer
hypocrisy. The same editors who published caricatures of the Prophet rejected
similar caricatures of Jesus (peace be upon him). And just this week a court in
sentenced the British historian David Irving to a jail sentence for questioning
Others make the claim that it was satire. Since when did gross insult become
satire? The cartoons were downright racist and designed to inflame. The reasons
for this mischief have to be sought elsewhere.
For two hundred years, until the Second World War,
Europe had colonized much of
and Africa where the natives were treated with contempt, fit to serve the white
man as servants. Power carried with it an aura of superiority. The legacy of
colonialism has sunk deep into the European psyche. Many Europeans still believe
they can treat Asians and Africans with the same contempt they did a hundred
years ago. Old habits die hard.
The world has changed. Power and wealth are shifting back to Asia. The emergence
as a global power is grudgingly acknowledged by the West. The emergence of India
as a major international player is resisted. Witness, for instance, the hue and
and Spain over a recent attempt by an Indian businessman to take over a major
European steel company. The role of
in world affairs is shrinking. It will continue to decrease as the new century
rolls on. A shrinking
gasping for breath, is waging a rearguard action to preserve notions of its
superiority that are absurd in the 21st century. European secular ideals, which
at one time ruled the world, are under challenge from traditional cultures that
were thought of as inferior until recently. The European mind has yet to learn
to accommodate itself to the changing realities.
The target of the cartoons is not the Muslim nations who are a sorry bunch
toiling under crushing burdens of illiteracy, poverty and massive debt. Vast
areas in the Muslim world have become marginalized slums in the new global
order. Some are occupied outright. It is more likely that the real target is the
growing Muslim presence in
has added five million Muslims to the population of France. Turks are a major
presence in Germany. Indians and Pakistanis are three million strong in the
Conversion is alive and active. All told, there are fifteen million Muslims in
Europe. And this number does not include those in the European portion of
The growing Islamic presence is a challenge to secular
Europe. The immigrants, and the native converts, take their religion seriously.
Unlike their Christian compatriots, the Muslims have not yet accepted the
supremacy of a godless culture. Not knowing how to accommodate the new faith, an
reacts with a Xenophobia not witnessed on European soil since the 1930s.
There are elements of political mischief as well. The editors, and those behind
them, knew there would be a reaction to the cartoons. Why was there this
unnecessary needling of Muslim religious sensibilities at a time when there is a
burning rage in the Islamic world? As if to reinforce the provocation from
Denmark, several newspapers in
republished the caricatures. The widespread protests and the loss of life and
property accompanying them is exactly the fuel that feeds the Islamophobia of
right wing political parties. The process works almost mechanically in three
steps. First, you deliberately provoke. The other side reacts. You use the
reaction as additional fuel to whip up distrust of the reacting party. Then the
process repeats. Look for snapshots of the mass hysteria to be repeated on
television news for years to come. There has been a sustained buildup of
anti-Muslim propaganda in
Europe over the last twenty years. The demonizing of Muslims, of their faith,
their religious figures and their sacred books remind one of the demonizing of
in the early 1930s. Once a climate of Xenophobia has been created, and a
potential adversary has been dehumanized, it becomes easier to isolate,
marginalize and perhaps even expel him. Must the history of the 1930s be
repeated all over again?
The conduct of Muslims is also hypocritical. While the cartoons were
sacrilegious, no less sacrilegious is the destruction of landmarks associated
with the Prophet in
and Madina. This writer had the privilege of visiting Saudi Arabia
several times, the first in 1977, and the last in the year 2000. It was
astonishing how many landmarks had vanished in the intervening years. Yet, where
are the Muslim voices of protest against these acts of destruction? There was
never a time in history when the followers of a tradition, be it secular or
religious, systematically destroyed their own history and culture as the Muslims
themselves have done in recent years. If this process continues, the Prophet
Muhammed (pbuh) may well be relegated to a legend like some other Prophets,
rather than a figure who appeared in the full blaze of history.
On the face of it, the protests were against vilification of the Prophet. Yet,
how many Muslim jamaats forbid their members to send darud when the name of the
Prophet is called? How many forbid the celebration of meeladun nabi, the way it
used to be done in bygone years? How many love him the way he deserves to be
loved? Some Muslims have brought down the Prophet to that of a mere mortal who
delivered a message and then disappeared. Gone is the mystery and the
transcendence of Noor e Muhammadi. It is easy to vent your anger by destroying
the property belonging to others. It is much more difficult to take stock of
your own shortcomings and channel your anger to improve yourselves.
Let the cartoon episode mark a watershed in the modern history of Islam when the
Muslims woke up and rededicated themselves to the love of the Prophet. Let us
react to provocations and insults with acts of Ehsan within a paradigm of
sublime love that the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) personified. It was divine love
that sanctified the name of the Prophet.