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The Mohammad cartoons:
It takes two to avoid a clash
of civilizations



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

February 6 2006

LONDON - Iconoclasm - the destruction of the figurative depiction of God and his prophets- was one of the important factors that in the ninth century strengthened the split between Roman Catholicism and Byzantine Orthodoxy. In fact the iconoclastic movement of the Eastern Church was in part a sympathetic reaction to the puritanical values of Islam. Later the Reformation led to similar moves against Catholic practices with Protestants stripping out of their churches images of Mary and the saints and the crucifix became bodiless.  

The reaction against the Danish newspaper cartoon drawing of Muhammad with his turban pierced with a bomb should come as no surprise to Christendom.

The Danes are going through a strange period of over emphasis, which undoubtedly has something to do with insecurities over their threatened culture and small population on the outer edge of northern Europe. During World War 2 the sense of beleaguered independence worked the other way, making the Danes the heroes of the struggle to save the Jews at risk under the German occupation.

But latterly this quirky individualism has led Danes to vote in referenda against two important developments in the expansion of the European Union and to become arguably, under the influence of a rapidly growing anti-immigrant political party, the most extreme of all Europeans in legislating against the consequences of immigration.

Indeed, when a non-European foreigner marries a Dane the couple may have to live in nearby Malmö over the bridge in Sweden, such is the rigor of a relatively new Danish law. This tendency toward a certain rabid distrust and dislike of immigrants is not to be found in next-door Sweden even though Sweden proportionately has more immigrants. No Swedish newspaper has decided to reprint the cartoons as an act of solidarity.

Censorship is one of the most sensitive of all issues. A rating system is accepted in countries around the world as a way of protecting children from sex and violence in the cinema. And in some countries - Sweden and Britain come to mind - gratuitous violence and sex can still be deleted by a government censor.

Journalists regularly practice self-censorship. I do in this column - I don't put into print the kind of verbal vitriol I might utter with friends after a few glasses of wine when I'm discussing the war in Iraq. I'm aware that I have to take my readers with me.

Famously, the Washington Post decided not to print a quote from the attorney general during the Watergate scandal threatening, if the paper pursued its investigations, that Mrs Katharine Graham's (the newspaper's owner) "tit would be caught in the mangle".

Taste and respect should be important journalistic virtues.

The Muslim reaction to the cartoons is not a demand that non-Muslims live by Muslim religious codes, as many have charged, it is simply asking for the basic politeness that societies everywhere believe in - there is more than one way of making a point and crude insults never got anyone anywhere.

This doesn't mean that immigrants in Western societies shouldn't conform to what the local culture considers are important values - like freedom of speech or the equal role of women. They must. If they don't approve or like the societies to which they are drawn for economic reasons they shouldn't migrate. They have to respect not just the opportunity to work but the way the host society works. You can't enter someone else's house and insist on altering the furniture. Emigration from one's own country and culture has always involved an act of renunciation, not just of family but of culture too.

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Likewise, we in the richer world have to recognize the transformed world we now live in where communications are so fast and borders so porous. We shouldn't live in a way that gives gratuitous offence. We need a franker discussion on certain aspects of our Western culture. When we debate same-sex marriages or the reach and extent of pornography in the hotel industry or even how young women dress are we sensitive to the fact that we no longer live alone?

We are part of the global village and we can upset and hurt other peoples by displaying our own extreme personal ideas of liberty. A woman's best friend is what she can hint at, not what she can wave like a football fan's flag. As Jean-Christoph Rufin, winner of the Prix Goncourt, wrote in his recent novel "Brazil Red", "The genius of civilization lay precisely in making sexuality blossom while keeping it hidden away, in revealing through dissimulation, in moving the very soul through modesty and artifice."

In this and all things a little more modesty would serve the West well. We should reflect that it takes two to make a clash of civilizations.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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