I was in Copenhagen this past October when the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad started to provoke demonstrations in Denmark. While being interviewed by a journalist at Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the caricatures, I was told how intense the debates had been among the editorial staff.
The Jyllands-Posten journalist told me about the discomfort many of his colleagues were feeling about the issue, and about how they had been surprised by the strong reaction of both the country’s Muslims and the Arab diplomats stationed there. My advice then was for Muslims to avoid reacting emotionally, and instead to denounce the racist behavior through quiet explanations of why the cartoons were hurtful to them. To demonstrate would be to risk both offering an opportunity for Denmark’s growing far right wing to flex its muscle and instigating a mass anti-Danish movement in the Muslim world that might be impossible to control.
At the time, it seemed the tension would not spread beyond Denmark’s borders. Yet three months later, fuel was again thrown on the controversy’s simmering flames, and the situation is now out of control, with tragic consequences.
After Jyllands-Posten first published the caricatures, a number of Danish Muslims brought news of the issue to the Middle East and stirred up resentment in several countries. Governments in the region, happy to prove their attachment to Islam — and by doing so find some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of their own people — took advantage of this piece of good fortune and presented themselves as champions of the great cause. Back in Europe, this was enough for some politicians, intellectuals and journalists to present themselves as champions of the equally great struggle for freedom of expression, as resistance fighters against religious obscurantism and for the preservation of Western values.
What an incredible simplification. What a simplistic polarization.
To hear these people tell it, this is a clash of civilizations — a confrontation between, on the one hand, the inalienable principle of freedom of speech and, on the other hand, the principle of the inviolable sacred sphere. When presented in such terms, he who does not win this debate loses.
Muslims demand apologies and threaten to attack European interests and even people. Western governments, intellectuals and journalists refuse to bend to the threats, and several newspapers have added to the controversy by republishing the caricatures. The majority of sane people around the world, meanwhile, are observing these excesses with perplexity, and asking what craziness drives this madness.
Let us be clear: This is not a matter of a clash of civilizations. This affair does not symbolize the confrontation between the principles of Enlightenment and those of religion.
What is really at the heart of this sad story is the capacity to be free, rational and reasonable, in regard to both one’s own beliefs and those of others. The fracture that seems to have opened is not, as some are saying, between the West and the Muslim world. Rather, it is between those who are able to assert reasonably their identity and their belief in faith or in reason, and those who are driven by blind passions, exclusive certainties, reductive perceptions of the other and hasty conclusions.
Lost in all the righteous anger is a basic understanding of the core beliefs behind the resentment. Those rushing to defend freedom of expression may not fully realize that it is strictly forbidden in Islam to represent the Prophets in any way. It is not only a matter of fundamental respect. It is — much like in Judaism — a principle of faith that the image of God and the Prophets are never to be represented, in order to avoid any idolatrous temptations.
In that sense, to represent a Prophet is a grave transgression. Moreover, when clumsy confusions and insults are added, as was perceived to be the case with the caricature of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban in the form of a bomb, one can understand the shock that was expressed by many Muslims around the world — and not only by practicing Muslims or radical Islamists.
Most Muslims feel that the hurt caused by the caricatures was simply too much, and it has been good for them to be able to express it and important for them to be heard. However, it is also necessary for Muslims not to forget that Western societies have known public derision, irony and criticism toward religious symbols and even God for the last three centuries.
Even though such attitudes are nearly unheard of in Muslim majority countries, it is imperative that Muslims learn to keep a critical intellectual distance when faced with such provocations. Muslims must not let themselves always be driven by passionate zeal and fervor.
It would have been, and it remains, preferable for Muslims to expose their grievances against the Jyllands-Posten caricatures — which are as much clumsy as they are stupidly nasty — to the general public without roaring anger, and instead wait until a more reasonable debate could be opened. What is welling up today among Muslims is as much excess as it is insane. The obsessive demands for an apology, the calls for boycotting European products, and the threats of physical and armed reprisals are totally excessive — and these excesses must be rejected and condemned.
At the same time, it is also irresponsible to invoke the right to freedom of expression in order to give oneself the right to say anything any way one wishes against anybody one chooses. Despite recent claims to the contrary, it is simply not true that in Western societies everything is permitted in the name of freedom of expression.
Each country has its own laws regarding racial or religious insults. A body of specific rules based on each respective society’s culture, traditions and collective psychology regulates the relationship between the individual and the diversity of cultures and religions. Although Western societies generally share a similar legal framework, each country has its own memory and its own sensitivities, and wisdom requires acknowledging and respecting that reality.
What is needed is not the enactment of laws to restrain the scope of free speech, but rather a broad appeal for all to exercise their right to freedom of expression in a more decent manner. What is needed is not the imposition of more legislation, but the nurturing of more of a sense of civic responsibility. Muslims are asking for more respect, not more censorship.
We — in both the Western and Muslim worlds — are at a crossroads. The false divisions being drawn are threatening to destroy the bridges our shared common values have built. We are in dire need of mutual trust.
We must reassert the inalienable right to freedom of expression, while at the same time urge the measured exercise of that right. We must promote a self-critical approach to our affairs that refuses exclusive truths and narrow-minded, us-and-them visions of the world.
The crisis provoked by these caricatures has shown how the worst is possible when two worlds of reference become deaf to each other and succumb to the temptation to define themselves against each other. This is a disaster that extremists on both sides will not fail to use to further their own agendas.
To those of you who cherish freedom, who know the importance of mutual respect and who understand the necessity of opening constructive and critical debate, I say this: If you are not ready to stand up, speak out and be more committed to resisting the dangerous currents of our times, we can only expect sad and painful tomorrows.