The Big Picture

So much has been said about the 12 cartoons of Prophet Muhammed published in a Danish newspaper in September, and the outrage that broke out in the Middle East in the last few months over them, that I hesitate to add more. What else can be said about this cartoonish “cartoon crisis”?

I guess I will start with the obvious. Some of the cartoons were offensive and racist. They were printed — by a rightwing newspaper that has been waging an anti-immigrant campaign for some time — with the intention to offend. A few of them equated the most revered figure in Islam with a terrorist bomber: they implied there was no difference between Prophet Muhammed and Osama Bin Laden.

On the other hand, a free society guarantees the right to say offensive things. It was and should remain legal to print such cartoons. And the violent reactions in the Middle East were out of all proportion to the Danish newspaper’s “insult”.

I watched with fascination as this perfect cultural storm built up. The controversy seemed to have a gravitational pull that no one could escape, in the East or the West. Everyone fell into position somewhere along its expanding edges. Including myself.

I’ve oscillated back and forward, taking turns being frustrated at both sides. I was angry at Muslims for once again playing the victims. And horrified to see them protest against being portrayed as violent fanatics by behaving exactly as violent fanatics and torching embassies.

On the other hand, the Western media paid no attention to the issue until violence erupted, and then portrayed the small minority of violent protesters as if they represented all Muslims. They also offered painfully simplistic explanations for what happened.

But this was not about some arcane rule over whether it’s allowed to represent the Prophet or not. This was about the current relations between the Middle East and the West; about history, cultural identity, and political power plays.

The cartoons were first published in September, but the protests didn’t start until January. It’s pretty clear, now, that people in the Middle East were manipulated into outrage by religious and political leaders wanting to whip up hostility at the West and support for themselves. By the time churches were being attacked by Muslim crowds in Nigeria, the Danish cartoons issue had become a passkey to generalized Muslim anger, and an excuse to indulge in the worst sort of religion-mongering.

But however much people may have been manipulated, their sentiments were sincere. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to in Cairo in the last month has been genuinely upset. “I’m not a religious fanatic. I’m not an extremist. I’m just a regular guy. I don’t want to attack anyone and I don’t want to be attacked,” one middle-aged man at a protest told me. “We were just sitting at home, in our houses, in our countries. Why did you attack us?” he asked.

It sounds like he’s talking about feeling assaulted by more than a page of cartoons, doesn’t it? Indeed, the cartoons were a match held over a great oil barrel of resentment. There are few things more calculated to hurt and horrify the average Muslim than a personal attack on the Prophet Muhammed. It’s an attack not just on the Prophet, but — in societies where religion is pervasive, mixed with every moment of the day — on one’s very identity.

But more importantly, Muslims saw this as just the latest evidence of the contempt and malice of the West. In the last four years, the US has invaded and occupied a Muslim country, which now thanks to our ignorance and arrogance is sliding towards civil war. Today, Muslims are being shot at roadblocks, killed in targeted assassination, kidnapped and tortured at secret facilities, held indefinitely without trial.

As Tarek Ali pointed out recently in the Guardian, these are the things that Muslims should have been rioting about (“This is the Real Outrage“, 13 February 2006). The latest photographs of abuses at Abu Gharib are the backdrop against which what happened starts to make sense.

Sadly, political and religious leaders in the Middle East would rather charge windmills than take any of this on. They would also seemingly rather keep the Muslim community in Europe “on their side” in the unspooling culture wars, rather than encourage them to become an educated, liberal vanguard that might be able to do things like, say, explain the notion of freedom of the press to their former compatriots. Right-wing groups in Europe are also happy for Muslims to stay “backwards” and unintegrated into society; it proves all their points.

And most sadly, instead of a discussion about any of the issues, what we got was a months-long argument in which both sides yelled right past each other. On the global media stage, there were some choice performances of incoherent indignation on one side, high-minded resoluteness on the other.

I wonder how the British Muslims who demonstrated saying the Danish cartoonists should be “murdered” or “annihilated” would like to return to the countries in which no such cartoons and no such demonstrations would ever be allowed. And I wonder if the US pundits who got on their soapboxes about freedom of expression have expressed equal indignation over the many ways in which our own government is curtailing that right with “free speech zones” and stage-managed political events, for example.

Each side is supposedly championing an obvious principle, and facing opponents that are hardly worth arguing with: violent religious fanatics, racist hypocrites. The controversy started over some pictures, and has handed us nothing but caricatures.