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Modernity and Muslim Protest
by Farish A Noor

Dr. Farish Ahmad Noor is an Academic Researcher in Berlin. He was once Secretary-General of JUST (The International Movement for a Just World (JUST))

Thus far much has been said and written about the global Muslim response to the controversy surrounding the caricatural cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper last year. Western observers in particular seem to be shocked by the extent of Muslim anger worldwide, and the level of organisation that has gone into the demonstrations that have erupted from Europe to Southeast Asia. Those who read this as an instance of the ‘revenge of God’ or a sudden display of emotional piety are missing the point: The demonstrations, global in scope and highly orchestrated in their execution, shows precisely how modern, developed and globalized the Muslim world has become. This was, in fact, a demonstration of a parallel form of globalisation at work: albeit one that is not capital-driven but rather based on a set of firmly shared values.

For decades, if not centuries, Occidental scholars have been asking the same questions: Are Muslims modern? Can Islam be reconciled with modernity? Etc. It appeared as if these innane questions were being asked in some ahistorical vacuum, oblivious of the fact that Muslims have been among the first to embrace the tools of modernity from the beginning: the printing press, modern transport, modern notions of identity, citizenship, the nation-state; modern commerce and now internet and virtual communication technology and modes of representation. The images of the cartoons were transmitted world-wide via a network of interlinked Islamist websites and portals, they were discussed and criticized in Islamist chatrooms in cyberspace, and the protests against them were likewise organized and co-ordinated in cyberspace. How modern can Muslims get?

What we have seen therefore is clear evidence of a globalized Muslim world on the march. Islamist NGOs, parties, movements, civil society groups, media outlets and politicians have mobilized Muslims and got them on the streets to demonstrate the will of the Muslim masses, and more importantly, the power of the Muslim dollar. The boycott of Danish goods has shown that the Muslim dollar has clout - Muslims are rich, by the way - and that the Muslim dollar can make or break Western economies when it wants to.

But beyond the spectacular aspect of these demonstrations and their equally spectacular results (leading to Western leaders cringing and begging for forgiveness on Arab-Muslim TV channels) we have lost sight of the issue itself and the real underlying problems that perhaps could have done with a little more academic interrogation.

The cartoons themselves could be read not as caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (for indeed we do not know what the Prophet actually looked like) but were really caricatures of the everyday ‘Muhammad’ of the contemporary Arab-Muslim world. The cartoons were racist, offensive, abusive in more ways than one, but they really revealed the darker side of the Western liberal conscience and how some segments of Western society - including those who proudly claim to be Western liberals - really see Arabs and Muslims today. The stereotype image of the Arab as gun-carrying murderous fanatic was and is more an invention of the paranoid Western liberal mind, blind to its own racism, than anything else. This is perhaps one of the reasons that the cartoons caused so much pain to so many Arabs, who already have to labour with the painful realities of a Palestine under occupation and an Iraq brought to its knees by the American war machine.

The other aspect of the demonstrations that ought to be studied seriously is how well developed the global Islamist mediatic machine has grown. Over the decades, Islamist groups have learned the power of the media. Orchestrated media-directed protests such as we have seen show just how well integrated this parallel Muslim universe has grown, and the response time between the spark that ignites the crisis and the reaction to the crisis has grown ever shorter. Within 72 hours of the cartoon controversy re-emerging, a Muslim response was seen and heard from London to Indonesia.  This demonstrates the extent to which this has become such a well-developed, smooth-running global machine.

But the phenomenon of media-orchestrated protests, mediated and reproduced via the media, also faces the real threat of becoming ritualistic, predictable and thus easy to manipulate. Indeed, one cannot help but feel that this entire crisis is being manipulated by conservative elements on both sides, who wish to see the Muslim and Western worlds grow further apart.

The danger then, is this: Without the help of circuit-breaking mechanisms in the form of level-headed commentators and dialogue agents who can prevent such crises from spinning totally out of control, we now face the real prospect of future incidents - both real and imagined - being spun by media-savvy demagogues who want to create controversies for the sake of publicity. Absent in this whole incident were the voices of reason who were capable of calming the nerves of everybody. Educated Muslim intellectuals ought to have stepped into the arena and cautioned the angry young men of the Muslim street from doing stupid things. One such case was the idiotic reaction of the British Muslim youth Umar Khayyam, who dressed as a suicide bomber during the demonstrations in London last week. The demonstration was also marred by the presence of placards bearing provocative slogans like ‘Kill those who insult Islam’ - a slogan designed not to defend the image of Islam and the Prophet, but which rather had the effect of helping to demonize Muslims further.

Now we are left with the final tricky question: If this culture of global mediated protest continues without any introspection, what may happen in the future? Will Muslims react to every such incident in such an unreflective way? What might happen, for instance, if some poor innocent driver were to accidentally back his car into a mosque in London? Would this be seen as an ‘attack on Islam’ and would there be another round of protests, demonstrations and boycotts against British goods?

Muslims have every right to protest against the injustices meted out against them. But let these injustices be real ones, not imagined. And as Muslims make their case and take their stand, they can and must be polite, rational and firm - never blindly reactionary. For that would merely confirm every negative stereotype of Muslims that they have been fighting against for all these years.


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