The furore concerning the cartoons published in a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist has yet to abate. In the wake of the government's defeat on the religious hatred bill, many have rushed to the defence of the cartoonists. These voices range from the chattering classes reaching for their book of Voltaire quotes and trumpeting the sanctity of free speech, to the sort of political-correctness-gone-mad types who email Radio Five live, grumbling that we already "bend over backwards" to accommodate Muslim sensibilities and that enough is enough.
Others might shrug.They're only a cartoons. What's the fuss? Cartoons, however, can be a powerful means of catalysing and disseminating ideas, be they pertinently satirical or hideously warped. Cartoons were, for example, used extensively by the Nazis in their anti-semitic propaganda campaigns, depicting Jews as hook-nosed, usurious grotesques molesting pure German women.
It would be excessive to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between those Nazi cartoons and the those that appeared in the Danish newspaper. The fact remains, however, that as an editorial act, rather than one of censorship, these items should never have been published. They are deeply crass. It suggests that Islam, as represented by the figure of Muhammad (blasphemy, of course, to represent him at all but that's by the by), is the font of all terrorism - the sort of syllogistic nonsense that leads some to conclude that, because some muggers are black men, all black men are muggers. There would be no general inclination to defend any cartoon which suggested that black men were thus predisposed - it would properly be condemned as racism.
Here, however, is the awkward point, one on which the government's ill-fated bill teetered. To have a go at someone on the grounds of their race is to have a go at them as people - to do so on the grounds of their religion is merely an attack upon their ideas, rather than their person. Technically, this is a valid distinction. However, in this instance, it has allowed our Danish cartoonists to get away with the crudest and most incendiary of generalisations.
In 1997, when I was director of the Runnymede Trust, I helped launch the Commission on Islamophobia, a newly coined phrase to describe a phenomenon that had grown in tandem with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. We found that "Islamophobia" wasn't just confined to BNP thugs hurling pigs' heads through the windows of Pakistani households, or the vile poison spouted by BNP chairman Nick Griffin. It manifested itself in middle class circles too, around dining tables, on Radio 4, much of it in (understandably) indignant response to the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Under the pretext of taking a rearguard action against religious dogma, it became permissible to unveil a cultural contempt for peoples who tended to be brown-skinned and poorly off. I sense a similar undercurrent today, in the cathartic excitement with which some have rallied to the Free Speech banner, a sense of fear and loathing of the troublesome, brown hordes we see jumping up and down brandishing guns on our TV screens.
Because Muslims are not a "race", they must endure such contempt; endure, for Voltaire's sake, jibes such as these cartoons. Such debating society pedantry, however, fails to acknowledge that in the case of Muslims, their religion and sense of cultural identity are so closely bound that an attack upon their faith is, to all intents and purposes, an attack upon their person.
There's more to it than that, however. Muslim grievances are not merely spiritual but, more pressingly, material. The rage expressed by demonstrators in Gaza against Scandinavian aid workers was, at a deeper level, the rage of the disenfranchised, the displaced. In the UK and across Europe, Muslims are socially and economically disadvantaged, among those at the bottom of the pile. Cultural gestures such as the Danish cartoons may please well-to-do secular liberals in helping push back the envelope of free speech and cock a snook at religious dogma. To Muslims, however, they merely add to a sense of disaffection, of themselves as a pariah people. Another insult to add to their social injury.
I suspect Muslim anger at this cartoon may be shorter lived and less widespread than initially feared. Some Muslims have themselves added to the pro-free speech chorus and suggested that Islam should be strong enough to withstand these brickbats. What the cartoon will add to, however, is a more long-term feeling of sadness, of exclusion and of being fair game for attack, either with the pen or with the bomb. Our first priority must be to address the material disadvantages many Muslims face worldwide. Until we do that in earnest, we should refrain from stupid, insulting cartoons, not by way of a self-imposed, legally binding gagging order (as the government has found, it's difficult to legislate in these matters) but out of discretion, good sense, good taste and goodwill.
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