Pictures have a long history of making history in the Middle East. Twelve hundred years ago, Byzantine emperors engaged in a tug-of-war over the place of religious iconography in the church: Ornate mosaics and paintings were stripped of their pedestals and smashed; icon-loving iconoclasts crushed icon-hating iconodules; iconodules brushed themselves off and began crushing the once-triumphant iconoclasts. It was all rather messy.
This weekend, modern-day Turkey, Lebanon and Syria — proud inheritors of the Byzantine past — witnessed a series of flag-burning, fist-pumping, Quran-thumping demonstrations against cartoons. These, of course, were no ordinary cartoons. Published in September by Jyllands-Posten, a conservative Danish newspaper, they depicted the prophet Mohammed in sometimes innocuous, sometimes wry, sometimes ominous terms. In one cartoon, Mohammed plods through the desert holding the reins of a camel. In another, his turban is a bomb.
Despite their often racist implications, the images stirred controversy not because of how they presented Mohammed, but because they presented Mohammed at all. Depiction of the prophet crosses the not-so-invisible line of Muslim taboo. The cartoons became the straw that broke the camel’s back: protesters took to the streets, newspaper editors clung to their desks, and the forces of Muslim orthodoxy now square off against beleaguered Western free speech.
Well, not quite. It goes without saying that the violent reactions were inexcusable. Nothing justifies the torching of an embassy, especially when it belongs to an innocent, cod-eating nation north of Denmark (I feel your pain, Norway). But at the same time, the West’s reaction deserves a colder, more critical gaze.
Some bristling commentators (read: Christopher Hitchens) have invoked the Enlightenment, rallying to the cause of a historical period. Some recall Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” the publication of which forced the Indian writer into hiding from Islamic radicals. These same people cite Rushdie’s fate as further evidence of the intransigence of Muslim mores and the volatility of Muslim passions. Others feel glumly compelled to choose between the lesser of two evils. In these same pages, Michael Seringhaus reluctantly sided with the editors of the Danish paper (“Denmark should stand by firebrand cartoonists,” 2/2). “It gives me no pleasure to martyr such boors on the altar of free speech,” he wrote, “but as is so often the case, it must be done.”
Such decisions have merit. It would be too easy to explain away the pyrotechnics on Muslim streets as the result of a “hope-gap” in the Middle East or as permissible expressions of frustration in undemocratic countries. After all, Thailand and India also saw violent demonstrations. Both nations boast lively civil societies and free presses. Outrage need not lead to riot and rubble when it can make itself heard in print. The hyper-sensitivity of many Muslims around the world is indefensible.
Yet this is not merely an issue of free speech. The cartoons are not the modern-day “Satanic Verses.” Nor are they foot-soldiers of Enlightenment civic freedoms. Instead, they point to a harsher truth: Europe’s clumsy handling of difference within its own borders. The following are a summation of European (and broadly Western) sins.
1) Self-righteousness: “If I can pooh-pooh Christ, why can’t I draw Mohammed?” some ask. At least in Denmark’s case, the answer is simple. The official Church of Denmark is Evangelical Lutheran Christianity. Christ is stitched deep into the fabric of state and culture. Mohammed, on the other hand, is dear to the country’s economically and socially marginalized minority communities. For months prior to the cartoons’ release, immigrant leaders and imams had complained to no avail about brewing anti-Muslim sentiment in the Danish press. Vilification in the media coupled with exclusion from mainstream society makes a dangerous cocktail.
2) Aesthetics over tactics: A few years ago, a radical Muslim murdered uncompromising Dutch director Theo van Gogh. The killing, like today’s violence, cannot be justified. Van Gogh’s film “Submission” brought into harsh focus the treatment of women in patriarchal Muslim society. The film’s author, Somali-expat Dutch member of Parliament Ayyan Hirshi Ali, had suffered at the hands of conservative Muslim men. Admittedly, in Europe and elsewhere, conservative Muslim patriarchy warrants sharp and daring criticism. Yet the visual language of the six-minute film worked against this aim. In projecting portions of the Quran on naked, bruised female bodies, van Gogh and Ali presented the abuses of religion in powerful but abstract terms. “Submission” targeted Islam, not its patriarchs. The film quickly inflamed passions, Balkanizing the already-divided Dutch society. Likewise, Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons were more a publicity stunt than a polemical point. By poking the softest ideological parts of an entire faith, the newspaper knowingly stoked the flames.
3) Unapologetically bad timing: The ongoing violence is cause for universal concern. But nobody — certainly no European — should feign surprise. The last year has seen bombings in London, race riots in France, Belgium and the Netherlands and unending war in the Middle East, and relations between the West and Muslims hang in precarious balance. Jyllands-Posten, notorious for its undiluted anti-Semitism in the 1930s, perhaps did not know any better. In an open society, the paper has every right to publish the cartoons. But when Muslims already feel embattled around the world (and make up the most marginalized segments of Danish society), the sanctimonious exercise of “freedoms” should not trump political sensitivity.
After numerous coups, ecumenical councils and a good deal of blood, the iconoclasts emerged victorious in Byzantium’s battle of the pictures. One only hopes that it takes less time and less grief for rioting Muslims and righteous Westerners to come to their senses.
Kanishk Tharoor is a senior in Davenport College. He studied Muslim integration in the Netherlands and Denmark as part of a summer fellowship program.