Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Calm in the Storm

Editorializing in Australia's The Age, Maher Mughrabi injects a rare moment of civility and reason into the Danish cartoon controversy:
In the 1890s, a Frenchman called Edouard Drumont ran a newspaper full of crude caricatures of Jews and articles that railed against their increasing dominance of French and European life, reaching fever pitch during the treason trial of French officer Alfred Dreyfus. Drumont called his paper La Libre Parole - "The Free Speech".

As the Danish cartoon row spreads and editors hurry to wrap themselves in the mantle of Voltaire, it is worth noting that most of civilised Europe today gladly accepts (and in some cases even legislates to preserve) a taboo on the kinds of free speech that Drumont sought to establish.
He goes on to note that self-censorship in the media is practiced every day, from what photos grace the front pages of our newspapers to which letters-to-the-editor are printed in the back.

This doesn't mean, writes Mughrabi, that criticism of Islam or the prophet should be taboo.
But looking at the 12 Danish cartoons (which, thanks to the internet, is now easy to do) any of their criticisms — of the oppression of women, or the crime of suicide bombing — could have been made with just as much force and considerably more wit without breaching the taboo on representing the prophet Muhammad.
Speaking of the deplorable violence that has rocked the Muslim world since this story broke, Mughrabi makes an obvious, but essentially unmade, point:
Those Muslims who have threatened violence over the cartoons live mostly in the very Muslim world that many European Muslims have migrated from. However, such thuggish behaviour, wherever it occurs, is testament to a lack of power; only when you feel disenfranchised in those avenues of life that really matter can you become exercised over such trivia.

Those who insist that this row is about upholding Islam need to ask themselves at whom the prohibition on depicting the prophet is aimed. The answer is Muslims, so that they do not fall into idolatry and revering the messenger instead of his message. No Muslim is at risk of worshipping the images in these cartoons. So what's the beef?

This controversy is about power. Muslim communities in the West feel under suspicion and under siege through the mere fact of their faith. Muslims in the Muslim world feel war has been declared on them by an adversary who controls the world. In such circumstances, the one power people feel they have left is to insist on their dignity.
And in Europe, this is as much about the freedom of speech as it is about domination and a smug sense of cultural superiority. Lest they forget that their filigreed culture balances precariously on the knife's edge of a barbarity and intolerance all their own.
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