Monday, February 06, 2006

Clashes 2

(continued from Clashes 1)

Is there a "Clash of Civilizations" underway, insofar as one or more democratic values are concerned ?

Given the obviously-orchestrated "outrage" in the Muslim world over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish press, the French press, and their subsequent republication in many European papers, Amerloque is prompted to ask the question and search – vainly, perhaps – for a satisfactory answer. Quite frankly, Amerloque is a bit bewildered by some positions taken publicly by Western governments, politicians and media commentators … and wonders, in the long, dark hours of the February nights, if they have not in some respects taken leave of their senses.

It goes without saying – Amerloque will say it anyway - that the history of Western Europe is not the same as the history of the Muslim world. From time to time, on rare occasions, the two "civilizations" have cooperated, but for majority of the hundreds of years since the Muslim religion was founded (seventh century AD/CE – say 1400 years or so), they have been at odds, if not at war, outright. The premises of one civilization are not the same as those of the other, nor are the development or the worldview. Nowhere is it ordained or written that civilizations should be the same, should be uniform, should have the same values. There are no surprises on this score.

It should nevertheless be emphasized that one phenomenon took place that changed the Western world forever. That event, lasting many years, was the Age of Enlightenment. Rationality became the basis for establishing a referential system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge, which in many spheres replaced irrationality, superstition, and tyranny. Furthermore, one of the concrete results of the Enlightenment was the establishment of representative democracy and the separation of Church and State. No longer was a religion able to impose its will on the people. Human beings were free to believe – or, more importantly, not to believe – in any religion whatsoever, or in atheism, or in agnosticism. Dissenting, opposing views were tolerated. "Unbelievers" were not to be executed for any "heresy" whatsoever.

A major freedom springing from the Age of Enlightenment was Freedom of Expression (including artistic expression), which to this day is enshrined in various ways in the democratic forms of government. Part of that freedom is Freedom of the Press (again, preserved in differing manners in democracies). In Western democracies, one way for an individual to offer an opinion is through the caricature, which is a variety of artistic expression.

What, then, is a caricature ?

Wikipedia offers: A caricature is a humorous illustration that exaggerates or distorts the basic essence of a person or thing to create an easily identifiable visual likeness. while gives: A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect..

It is clear that there must be an element of humor, exaggeration, or distortion and that the effect must be "comic" or "grotesque".

On September 30, 2005, after requesting artists to depict Islam's Prophet, Mohammed, a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) published twelve caricatures (cartoons). The whole exercise was apparently designed to challenge what the newspaper thought was a tendency to self-censorship among artists dealing with issues related to Islam. Among the cartoons there were incendiary images such as Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. There was relative silence … until last month, when a Norwegian magazine reprinted the images and the Arab street began to demonstrate.

Under a wide definition, Muslims in Muslim countries make up the Muslim ummah, the community. Islamic law (shariah) applies in the ummah. Secular life and religious life are as one; there is no separation of Church and State under shariah. Any putative separation of Church and State, any alleged or perceived Freedom of Expression, no matter how little or how much, in any country in the Muslim ummah, has most assuredly not been preceded by an adherence to rationality similar to that of the Western European Enlightenment. That is quite clear.

Hence the demonstrators in the Muslim street are protesting the caricature of the Prophet as a "terrorist", right ? They are asserting that the Western European press has no right to publish "uncomplimentary" cartoons of Mohammed which "hurt religions feelings" or "portray Islam in a negative light" or "insult Moslems" or "humiliate the Arabs", right ?

Well … yes and no.

Islamic tradition apparently bars any depiction of the prophet at all, so as to forestall idolatry. Basically, it wouldn't matter at all which caricatures the Danish, or French, or European press published or how many times they published them. Any image of the Prophet – whether complimentary or disparaging – is forbidden. Not much room for discussion on that one, it appears.

If such is the case, then in Amerloque's view it doesn't really matter why the Danish newspaper published the caricatures. It could simply have been to lampoon self-censorship, as the paper asserted … or the reason(s) could have been far more sinister, with malice aforethought, so as to trigger off discord, which would clearly demonstrate that a percentage of the Muslims in the world were fundamentalists and would take to the streets, with violence. Moreover, it doesn't really matter if the images were "in poor taste" or "upsetting" or "outrageous". Finally, it doesn't even matter what the day-to-day consequences of publishing the images are, or whose feelings were "hurt" or not hurt, or who was "insulted" or "humiliated" or "disrespected": it is the mere fact that the images exist and that they were published which is at issue in the fundamentalist Muslim mind. The fundamentalists, rioters and demonstrators are asserting that because they believe something religious, others must believe it, too. No Enlightenment ever took place in the Muslim world.

Some politicos seem to have missed this point and have not addressed it, although, to be fair, perhaps they felt the strict minimum would do the job this time around. The French Socialist politician, Laurent Fabius, said the caricatures were "in bad taste" (de mauvais goût) and that one "had to be very attentive to everything that could harm religions feelings (il faut être extrêmement attentif à ce qui peut porter atteinte au sentiment religieux). Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, croaked "There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory." He certainly could have been more clear. The German home minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, vigorously defended the freedom of the press to make its own decisions. "Why should the German government apologize?" he said. "This is an expression of press freedom."

The media ? Newspapers throughout Europe jumped on the bandwagon and published the images in solidarity, while the TV media generally chose not to show them. CNN (aka "Craven News Network", as some would have it) and several US TV channels, according to press reports, chose to show the cartoons – but blurred, out of "respect". Undoubtedly they were thinking first of their reporters on the ground, in Iraq and elsewhere … rather than of the millions and millions of people down through history who have died because of religious intolerance or simply because of differences of opinion over god(s). Putting people before principle is fashionable, nowadays.

Much as there are different kinds of expression, there are different kinds of terrorism, which is not necessarily limited to strapping on a bomb and blowing up a bus or a subway, or hijacking an aircraft and ramming it - and its passengers - into a skyscraper. Demanding public excuses from sovereign governments for real or imagined "insults" appearing in a free press, burning flags (Amerloque didn't realize that so many Danish flags were so easily available in the Muslim world …), torching consulates and embassies, and threatening people with beheading might be considered forms of terrorism, too. Or ... are such actions simply "expression" ? In France, as in most countries in Western Europe, the courts in the justice system (another benefit of the Enlightenment !) will end up deciding whether or not these images and caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed fall within the boundaries of Freedom of Expression in a free society. They will also decide if demonstrators' placards containing incitement to violence, murder and terrorism are within the purview of free speech. Et tant mieux !

Moderate Muslims want Western Europeans – and others, starting with the politicians and continuing to the media – to believe that they are not terrorists. Fine. Moderate Muslims might remember that two wrongs never make a right. Contrasting the media treatment of "Muslims" with that of the "Catholics" or the "Jews" is avoiding the issue and not addressing the problem. Reasonable people all over the world do not believe that the extremist Stern Gang represents the majority of "Jews", any more than they feel that the IRA represents the majority of the "Irish" or that the project kids rioting represent the majority of the "French".

Reasonable people want to believe that the extremists and fundamentalists do not represent "Muslims", at least in Western Europe. Since moderate Muslims want to be seen something other than as terrorists, should they not step forward ? Do they not see that the protection of one minority is the protection of all minorities ? Do they not subscribe to Western European values ? Do they want to return Europe to a time before the Enlightenment ?

Is there a Clash of Civilizations insofar as Freedom of Expression is concerned ? Today, in Amerloque's view, it appears that there is, and it is a huge one.

What would freedom of speech be worth if it were only the freedom to say what offends no one ?


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque


Blogger RemyCC said...

Good point, Americain.
But let's not forget that no civilization is monolithic.
When I feel depressed about the middle east, I take at Japan or Germany and marvel at the change.
I'd bet huntington wouldn't foreseen it in 1939

8:30 AM  
Blogger Liz said...

It takes a lot of people-- you me and a bunch more-- to stop bigotry.
We need to have the intellectual integrity and feel the moral
Necessity to step into the public forum and speak up.
How has the "n" word become a taboo? How did gays become accepted? How
has it become a crime to utter any word that may be perceived as anti-> Semitic?
People do not tolerate any of these any more-- why? Because some had
the courage to speak up for the victims.

Consider for a moment the burdens heaped on one group of people by another -- invasion, occupation, torture, physical humiliation, mockery of their traditions and values, desecration of their holy book and now cartoons defaming their religious leader!

Unfortunately when some confuse freedom of speech with responsible
journalism they cater to the lowest common denominator on both sides
and the extremists win. Newspapers are supposed to be in the News Business— was there news value to these cartoons? None!Was the commentary necessary? No!

Thus some may see this as skillful manipulation to elicit, yet again, a violent response that further discredits the victim. Then the perpetrators can claim victory over these wild children and assert the right to preach to them a better ways of life, and yes "manage" their resources for them too!


10:50 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Good article!

Islam does not forbid images of Mohammed.

Your article had some similar ideas to one in the LA Times.,0,1305367.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

We should not intentionally antagonize other people.

On the other hand, cartoonists can illustrate ideas in different ways than words.

The whole idea of "martyrdom operations", where Muslims blow themselves up to kill some Jews or Americans, and thus being assured a place in paradise with 72 dark-eyed virgins, seems bizarre to most non-Muslim people.

Daniel Pipes, who is on the right, has an interesting article entitled "Caroons and Islamic Imperialism".

Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi responds to the cartoons.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Pumpkin Pie said...

Great post as usual.
I find myself siding with Liz's previous comment on this one.

It is not the fact that the cartoons were printed it is the paper history of intolerance and racism against Muslims that is at issue. This paper acted out of hate not out of freedom. It has been abused and twisted into a means to lead people into more hate and anger. That is wrong and people should talk about it as well.

I posted about it today, but wish I had read your post first.

The happens in the world are certainly complex yet I feel it could be resolved simply if everyone would grow up and listen to one another with respect and compassion.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Pumpkin Pie said...

Hi, Amerloque!
I just saw your response on my blog and placed this comment there as well:
It is hard this topic of censorship and freedom of speech. But, I am a mother that teachs her children to accept and respect other cultures and other people not to delittle them or hate them. Freedom of speech comes with resposibilty and consequence.
I think both the paper and the Muslims who are acting out of anger and hate should be called onto the carpet. Not just the Muslims. Like when I correct my children I punish all those who participated in the arguement or fight. We need to behave as adults just like we teach our children.
I dont necessarily disagree with you. I find myself very torn on this issue. I am still working out my final take.

1:27 AM  
Blogger benoit said...

I don't think it's a clash of civilisation : it's rather a clash into middle-east civilisations themselves. Nowadays, muslims seem to know nothing about what their future will be, and first they don't know how to be into this so fast-changing world.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Wu Ming Shr said...

I did actually see a comment in the Parisien where a young woman said she believed in freedom of speech "pourvu qu'il ne blesse personne" [provided it hurts no one's feelings]. What kind of freedom of speech is that?

I disagree that it matters what kind of journal published the cartoons. It doesn't after all matter to the people protesting. They are against any image showing Mohammed anywhere.

Criticizing a religion or idea is not race bigotry. You cannot change your race, but you certainly can change your religion or ideas. Since when is the Muslim religion off limits to critics? Since death threats? That is supposed to make you STOP criticizing the religion?

We've heard a lot about understanding Muslims' culture, but what about their understanding of our culture? I see no effort whatever being made on their side. They are effectively asking for special treatment for their religion, since Christianity has long been dealt far worse treatment than this in the media.

The protesters' basic aim is to change our culture: to forbid us to do things that are against their religion. This is the thin end of a very large wedge and it is time to wake up to the danger.

3:41 AM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

What a nice post !! Thank you very much l'Amerloque, you've said exactly what I was thinking, but I couldn't find the rights words to say it.

I'm French, and I really have the impression that the politics weren't able to understand what was really going on in the world.

French politics seem to always overreact, surfing on people's emotions, they're not really able to see further...too bad for us !

5:33 AM  
Blogger Tex said...

Hello. I'm puzzling through the clashes, too.

Related topic: I've copied below a scenario: "Paris Ramadan 2006". It's a future history scenario under discussion at a history-and-current-events blog, Belmont Club.

Most of the blog contributors are in the US. Your may be on-the-ground in France, and better informed. So if you have thoughts on plausibility, or the outcome of such a scenario, I invite you to respond with a note. If you email, I'll post for you; or you may register to post at:

Thank you.


re: "the enervation of the western world"

Mark Steyn:

"A big chunk of Western civilization, consciously or otherwise, has given the impression that it’s dying to surrender to somebody, anybody. Reasonably enough, Islam figures: Hey, why not us?"

Yes, why not? What's to stop them?

(I don't view most Muslims as antagonists, by the way. I think most are good citizens: only a small minority really wants trouble. Unfortunately it's a barbarous, deadly minority.)

Some people view acts of Muslim opportunism as the unreasoned grasping of barbarians. To my mind these people hold a false belief: that barbarians are incapable of reason. But barbarians can reason, and effectively; certainly in the political realm. Most of the people on Earth live even now under regimes that are at heart barbaric, when you think about it. Define "barbarism" as "cruelty" and by that definition whole continents are still politically barbaric, yes?

Barbarity works, if only for the most barbarous.

And what of Europe? I'm thinking of France foremost: 10% Muslim, 60% Muslim in the prisons. French Muslims have already tested their street-power. They know now how to win concessions. What more can they win?


I'm imagining Ramadan 2006 in Paris, with the juvenile two of France's six million Muslims converged upon the city.

5 AM. First prayers. And then -- flash mob. Half a million in the streets. Shadow knots of young toughs bullying past shocked guards -- knocking the enervated men aside -- to race into city offices, public utilities, corporate headquarters, museums, university research centers. 200 men barricaded in Ecole Polytechnique. 400 in France Telecom. In Musée d'Orsay 800 men -- ten of whom are gathered before a trio of Muslim girls, videotaping.

Al-Jazeera will play the video endlessly. A single frame will one day illustrate the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for the day's events.

The video frame captures the girls at sunrise: three black chadors stark against the dappled pastels of Monet's water lilies.

"The New Graces"


Of course, all the kids claim to have bombs.

300 do.

What happens?

1:07 PM  

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