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The political repercussions
of the cartoons of
Prophet Muhammad



Farhang Jahanpour*


March 16, 2006

Five months after the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, controversy over those cartoons is still raging in many Islamic countries. Already dozens of people have been killed in half a dozen countries and demonstrations have taken place in nearly all Islamic countries, from Morocco to Indonesia. The US secretary of state's statement accusing Iran and Syria of having incited the demonstrations was a cheap and inaccurate shot at two countries which the United States and Israel are targeting at the moment for political reasons.

In fact, Iran lagged behind many other countries in reacting to the cartoons, so much so that many newspapers accused the government of indifference. Demonstrations in Iran against the cartoons took place only during the Ashura mourning ceremonies marking the martyrdom of Imam Husayn towards the middle of February.

The most violent demonstrations took place in Afghanistan, which is still under US occupation, and in Pakistan, which is America's ally in the 'war against terror'. Even in secular Turkey tens of thousands of demonstrator marched against the insult to Islam and called for cutting off relations with Denmark. Protestors in the streets of London vented their fury by dressing as suicide bombers or carrying placards calling for massacres and beheadings of those responsible for the cartoons.


The cartoons hurt people but the reaction was disproportionate

While there is no doubt about the sincere and genuine hurt that many Muslims feel about the insult to their prophet, there is equally no doubt that the reaction was disproportionate and counter-productive, and that the demonstrations have now taken a political turn. The cartoons have provided a rallying call for many Muslims who are protesting against Western and particularly US policies in the Middle East and beyond, and they have largely turned into anti-government protests.

The protests in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan may get out of hand and may destabilise the pro-Western governments in those countries. Despite the fact that there have been many calls by some leading Muslim scholars and leaders to bring an end to the demonstrations, they are still continuing in a number of countries as the result of incitement by anti-government agitators.


Freedom of expression - yes, but...

While insisting on the importance of freedom of expression, one has to condemn gratuitous insults to the beliefs of other people. There is no such thing as a fundamental right to total freedom of expression when it adversely affects others. Even in the secular West there are a number of issues that we hold very dear, and freedom of expression is not absolute. We often engage in self-censorship and refrain from anything that might involve defamation or libel. We have laws outlawing incitement to violence or to racial hatred.

Early in February, just at the time when we were condemning Muslims for undermining freedom of expression a Muslim cleric, Abu-Hamza al-Masri, was found guilty of incitement to murder and racial violence, and was jailed for seven years for what he regards as his right to free speech. A short time later, the controversial British historian, David Irving, was given a three-year sentence in Austria for comments he had made in 1989 denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.

In ten European countries questioning the Holocaust is regarded a crime punishable by jail terms. In 1988, when the film 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was shown in Paris, someone set fire to the cinema killing a young man. Even Jyllands-Posten refused to publish a few even more insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and a few years earlier it had refused to publish insulting cartoons of Christ. Therefore, it too realised that there must be some limits on freedom of expression.

It is often argued that many Arab and Muslim countries show disrespect to Israel and the Jews and portray insulting images of Ariel Sharon, and that those images are similar to what the cartoons have done in regard to Islam. While the frequent anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish propaganda by Muslim radicals has to be deplored, nevertheless, Arabs believe that the attacks on Israel and its politicians are similar to derogatory references in the West and Israel to 'Muslim terrorists', to the 'mad mullahs', to the 'rogue states', to the 'Axis of Evil', to 'Islamo-fascism', etc.

That form of political point scoring is different from insulting the religious sanctities of Jews and Christians and lampooning Moses or Jesus, in the way that the cartoons have lampooned the Prophet Muhammad. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad's outrageous remarks about Israel and the holocaust have been universally condemned in the West, but when it comes to anti-Islamic sentiments in the West we rush to defend freedom of expression. Some of the basic principles of any civilised society are courtesy, respect, civility and tolerance.


Political motives lurking behind: remember the Satanic Verses?

Having said all that, it is clear that neither the intent of the cartoons nor the violent reactions to them have had anything to do either with the merits or demerits of freedom of expression or with defending religious sanctities. In both cases, one can see political motives lurking behind two noble causes, freedom of expression on the one hand and safeguarding religious sanctities on the other.

The reaction to the cartoons brings back to mind the Salman Rushdie affair. For many months after The Satanic Verses was published, there was no hostile reaction by Muslims to it. However, some militant Muslims that wished to make political capital out of the book seized on it to incite the feelings of Muslim masses.

The late Kalim Siddiqui, the founder of the so-called 'Muslim Parliament' in Britain, flew to Tehran armed with a copy of the book. He had a few pages of the book that were insulting to the Prophet Muhammad's wives translated into Persian and took them to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran had just emerged from a deadly eight-year war with Iraq in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians had been killed or wounded, without achieving what Ayatollah Khomeini had promised to the people. Ayatollah Khomeini could have ended the war on very favourable terms after Iran had kicked Saddam Hussein's forces out of the country, but he continued the war for six more years, despite the pleadings of some of his closest aides, by pledging 'war, war until victory'.

The war that had resulted in the devastation of the country ended in a stalemate, with both countries going back to the original borders, before Saddam Hussein had torn the Algiers Accord that he had signed with the late shah. This was a terrible blow to Ayatollah Khomeini who described his enforced acceptance of the ceasefire with Iraq as similar to 'drinking a cup of poison'.

The Satanic Verses arrived just in time to provide some ammunition to the declining Ayatollah to distract the attention of the nation and to place himself again at the head of a world-wide Islamic uprising. The head of Ayatollah Khomeini's office was asked on Iranian television if Ayatollah Khomeini had read the book before issuing his infamous fatwa, as he should have done, because otherwise he would be issuing a judgement about something that he did not fully understand. He replied: "God forbid that he should read such filth, but the relevant passages had been translated for him", whatever the 'relevant passages' of a work of fiction means.

Of course, while Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie received wide publicity and universal condemnation in the West, the decision of more than fifty countries taking part a short time later in a meeting of the Islamic Conference Organisation to condemn the fatwa hardly got a mention in Western media.

We are witnessing the repetition of the same phenomenon at the moment. The role that was played by Kalim Siddiqui in the run-up to the Satanic Verses controversy, has been played by some Danish imams taking both the published and unpublished cartoons of the Prophet to the summit meeting of the Islamic Conference Organisation in Saudi Arabia in December. It was only after that event that the cartoons received wide publicity and resulted in angry demonstrations. Danish Muslims may have some problems with their government and were clearly offended by those cartoons, which up to that point had not produced any response in other Islamic countries. It was the projection of those cartoons on the world stage that produced such a universal reaction.


Islamic grievances: the Middle East a tinderbox

The Islamic world has many justified grievances. The illegal invasion of Iraq and the killing of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, constant outrageous threats by Israel and the United States to attack Iran and Syria, the continued occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the media campaigns portraying all Muslims as radicals and terrorists have caused a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims.

Early in February, amidst a phoney climate of impending disaster, the IAEA board of governors was pressured by America and Europe to report Iran to the Security Council for its nuclear programme, despite the fact that she is a member of the NPT and under constant surveillance. At the same time, the United States moved heaven and earth to remove a clause proposed by Egypt in the resolution of the IAEA board of governors referring to the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, which would have drawn attention to Israel's arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The entire Middle East is like a tinderbox waiting for a spark to ignite it. No wonder that the recent elections in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine have revealed manifestations of anti-American sentiments by either bringing radical Islamists to power or increasing their votes despite all odds. Under such circumstances, to pour fuel on the fire was very unwise, and it shows a profound ignorance of the depth of anger felt in the Middle East at Western double standards.

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What the cartoon story is not about - and what it is about

Therefore, the controversy over the cartoons is not really about free speech or Islamic sensibilities, but is the tip of a political iceberg that needs to be dealt with if similar clashes are not to be repeated in the future.

The irony is that the prohibition of the representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islam was meant as a way of preventing idolatry and hero worship. The Prophet who had smashed all the pagan idols in Mecca wanted to direct all attention towards God and portray himself merely as 'God's slave'. In fact, he was repeating what Christ had meant when he reprimanded someone who called him 'good master' by saying: "Why do you call me good? There is only one good, and that is the Father."

The greatest sin in Islam is 'shirk' or associating partners with God. Islam is strictly monotheistic and rejects anything or anyone to be associated with God, who is "the One, the Everlasting. He is not begotten, nor does he beget, nor is there anything like unto Him." Some Muslim mystics have even objected to the assertion in Islamic prayer, "I testify that there is no god but God." They argue that even the very mention of 'I' witnessing that there is no god but God denotes 'shirk' because we have put ourselves outside God, as a separate entity or as a being who can testify to God's existence. This is why they prefer to change the prayer to "God testifies that there is no god but Him".

It is ironic that such a strong denunciation of the personality cult and hero worship has ended up by making an idol of the Prophet, in whose name innocent blood is being shed. Muslims seem to have forgotten the Koran's injunction, "[Blessed are] those who suppress their anger and are forgiving towards the people."

The Koran also states: "Goodness and evil cannot be equal. Repel (evil) with something that is better. Then you will see that he with whom you had enmity will become your close friend. And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint." (41:34-35)

In the final analysis, when it comes to a choice between defending supposed 'religious sanctity' and freedom of expression, one has to opt for freedom of expression. Many crimes have been committed throughout history in the name of fighting against blasphemy. Had it not been for the breaking of religious taboos and questioning strongly-held dogmas, religion and society would not have moved forward. Nearly all prophets were denounced as heretics at their time and many of them were put to death for transgressing the bounds of accepted dogma. The whole history of science is a testimony to replacing one set of beliefs and hypotheses with new ones. Human civilisation would be much poorer if we allow certain ideas to be regarded as so sacrosanct that no one can utter a word against them.

After all, practically all of us are atheists and heretics in the eyes of others. The gods that we believe in are different from the deities of others. We do not believe in Greek or Roman or Hindu gods, nor do they believe in our idea of God. Each of us has his own narrow interpretation of the Absolute that is surely beyond human imagination. If the denunciation of any concept of a deity were to be regarded as a crime, then all of us would be heretics and blasphemers, worthy of severest punishment.

If we are not going to move towards a 'clash of civilisations', all of us must learn tolerance and forbearance. We live in a pluralistic world with ever increasing ease of communication. If we want to avoid constant war and bloodshed in this 'global village' we must learn to accept that others have views different from ours, and are free to express them. Many atheists would find any belief in a deity as offensive, yet they too have to learn to accept that other people are entitled to their views. Humanity is more important and more sacred than abstract notions of faith and dogma, of right and wrong. After all, God and the prophets can take care of themselves and can accommodate childish insults.


* Farhang Jahanpour, a British national of Iranian origins, is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, and a part-time tutor in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.


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