Monday, February 27, 2006

Ethnocentrism in the Cartoon Debate

Christopher Hitchens recently had a good article about ethnocentrism in coverage of the Hamas victory in Palestinian Authority elections. There were gallons of ink spilled writing about what this result meant for Israel, but far less about what fate Palestinian voters had sealed from themselves.

It is always instructive to take a step back from the firing lines to try to get the bigger picture in any debate. Stepping away from the burning flags and fiery rhetoric of the Danish cartoon controversy reveals a similar imbalance to what Hitchens noted in the 'Holy' Land.

Almost all of the debate coming from the allegedly enlightened corners of the Western world focuses on what all of this means for Europe, or for Western civilization as a whole. The idea that Muslims could have in any way been aggrieved is dismissed out of hand. Why? Because in the popular imagination, it is the Europeans who are acted upon. The Muslim 'other' is the cause of the crisis, but they somehow cannot be affected by it. They can radiate hatred and intolerance, but not absorb it. In their zeal to protect the freedom of expression (a vital and worthy cause), many commentators have cast the Muslim world as an undifferentiated monolith that stands in contrast to the dynamic, multi-faceted societies of the West.

The question that almost never gets asked is, what does all this mean for Muslim communities in Europe and abroad? It's not that this should be the sole concern, but the fact that the answer is not even wondered at speaks volumes. It is often assumed that the cartoon crisis erupted in a vacuum. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some Danes and other Europeans had an agenda (or, rather, agendas) when they reprinted the cartoons, and certain Muslim entities had their own agendas as well.

There can be no honest discussion of the cartoon debate that doesn't address not only the failings of 'Muslim culture', but the shortcomings of European culture as well. The cartoon protests did not spring up out of nowhere. They happened against a backdrop of xenophobia, Islamophobia, political disenfranchisement and a host of other factors.

Another thing that doesn't get mentioned at all is the effect of the War on Terror. Many people in Muslim societies perceive the war in Iraq, in particular, as a Western war against Islam. I happen to think that is simplistic, but the existence of that perception cannot be denied. Much of the outrage surrounding the cartoons can be attributed to a general feeling on the part of many Muslims that they are being encircled by a hostile West that sees them all as terrorists. Miss this point and you risk misinterpreting the whole crisis.

When Western commentators are in a self-congratulatory mood, they like to point out that enlightened societies allow the denigration of religious beliefs and cultural mores. Piss Christ is a favorite example. The comparison is actually a terrible one. Piss Christ was created by the American photographer Andres Serrano, who was brought up as a strict Roman Catholic in New York City.

Most of the anti-Christian images that we accept or tolerate are created by Christians or, if apostate, at least by people of Christian 'stock'. It would be a far different thing for a Jewish person to mock Christianity or for a Christian to mock Judaism. That sort of thing tends to be frowned on much more than an attack on one's own culture. It's why Chris Rock can get away with a standup routine that would get a white comedian beaten up. It's a distinction that people can quite easily make, but when it comes to the cartoon controversy, it as if people's minds go blank.

To have the overwhelming majority—a group that holds the reins of political and social power—tell you that your religion is a sham and the founder was an evil person is actually quite menacing. It would certainly upset anybody put in a similar situation. One group of people flexing their muscles and lording their cultural superiority over a smaller, weaker group is not the hallmark of freedom and openness. It's a warning sign.

Despite some of the lofty rhetoric echoing around the Western media, much of Europe does not allow freedom of speech. Some have vague laws that offer little protection, and others have specific anti-defamation laws. Why? Is it because they hate freedom? No. It's because they have had a demonstrated problem with xenophobia in the past. It all started when certain powerful people decided that there were minority groups in their midst that didn't share their values and constituted a threat to their indigenous (and always superior) culture.

Lest we forget.
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