What is the Cartoon controversy?

2/11/2006 - Political Social - Article Ref:
By: Chandra Muzaffar
Iviews* - 

The cartoons controversy is not about freedom of
expression. It is about how a segment of European
society views religion in general and Islam in

Western 'liberals' who have chosen to defend the
vilification of the Prophet Muhammad in caricatures
that first appeared in a Danish newspaper,
Jyllands-Posten, in September 2005 and which were
subsequently reproduced in various dailies in a number
of other countries, argue that their media are free to
publish anything and do not impose restrictions upon
themselves. This is not true at all. Elite and
corporate interests, the dominant worldview prevalent
in society, certain notions of the well-being of the
majority and specific circumstances have always
conditioned the freedom of the media.

Double Standards

Isn't it because of elite interests that in a
democracy like Italy where the majority of the people
were opposed to the invasion of Iraq very few anti-war
intellectuals were interviewed in the mainstream print
and electronic media? Isn't it because of a worldview
that is skeptical of Islam that almost every newspaper
editorial in France --- the nation that gave birth to
the 'Rights of Man' --- bemoaned the electoral victory
of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992 and
endorsed obliquely the usurpation of power by the
military junta? Isn't it because of a specific
circumstance  a deep seated collective guilt arising
from the holocaust --- that the European media hounds
and harasses anyone who dares to raise even the
slightest doubt about that terrible tragedy?

What this shows is that there are issues that the
Western media deliberately suppress --- in spite of
their professed commitment to freedom of expression
--- because they do not dovetail with the media's
worldview or their interests.

Secularism in the West

It so happens that religion is one of those subjects
that is at odds with the worldview of a lot of Western
media practitioners. Often vehemently secular in
outlook, sometimes contemptuous of matters of faith,
they have no qualms about deriding the Sacred and the
Transcendent. It is not surprising therefore that
Christianity has been lambasted at some time or other
in almost every major European newspaper and, on
numerous occasions, Jesus Christ has been lampooned in
films, cartoons and articles. This has caused grievous
hurt to practicing Christians in the continent. 

It is partly because of this attitude towards religion
in general on the part of the media that Islam has
also been targeted. But the vilification of Islam is
also a consequence of other factors. With the dramatic
growth of Muslim minorities in almost every European
country in the last 20 years, the majority community
has become more and more negative towards their
presence, reflected in the rise of the phenomenon
known as Islamophobia. While a degree of Muslim
exclusivity has contributed towards this, it is the
utter inability of the European to accord respect and
equality to 'the other' in the socio-psychological
sense which is the main problem. In an earlier period
Jews had also been the victims of Europe's
discrimination and demonization.

Stereotyping of Islam & Muslims

There is perhaps a more important reason for the
demonization of the religion. It is the baneful impact
of 911 and the war on terror upon Muslims and their
subtle stereotyping in the media as a people prone to
violence. Though most Western political leaders are
careful to distinguish the Muslim fringe that resorts
to violence in pursuit of its political objectives
from the rest of the community, television images and
media commentaries have often reinforced the erroneous
equation of the religion with terror. It explains why
some of the offensive cartoons of the Prophet
published in the Jyllands-Posten made that link.

Equating Islam and Muslims with violence and terror is
not new. It has been going on for a thousand years. It
began with distorted and perverted biographies of the
Prophet in Latin in France and Germany in the tenth
and eleventh centuries and has continued into the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the
writings of men like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes.

Historical Anger

In the past, Islam was equated with violence partly
because of the anger and antagonism generated by both
the Muslim conquest of large parts of Europe and the
defeat of Christendom at the hands of Muslim defenders
of Jerusalem at the end of the crusades. The power and
glory of Islamic civilization between the eighth and
fourteenth centuries --- especially its pioneering
role as the founder of modern science --- when much of
Europe was shrouded in the darkness of the middle ages
also caused a great deal of envy and resentment which
European folk literature expressed through negative
stereotyping of Islam and Muslims. This stereotyping
with the emphasis upon 'Islamic violence' reached its
zenith during the colonial epoch when Western powers
ruled the roost.

Oil & Zionism

It is not just the residue of this huge historical
baggage that colors Western perceptions of the Muslim
world today. It is significant that it was when
certain Muslim states began to exercise control over
their oil from the early seventies onwards, thus
challenging the Western grip over this vital
commodity, that pejorative portrayals of Arabs and
Muslims became rife in the mainstream Western media.
Similarly, as Zionist influence over the critical
sectors of American society increased and the
Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation
intensified in the sixties, the American media
accelerated its imaging of 'Muslim terror.' It is
undeniably true that the politics of Israel and oil
has been at the root of much of the stereotyping of
the religion and its adherents in recent times.

Role of Media

Since the politics of Israel and oil is entrenched
within a global hegemonic structure of power, it is
doubtful that the mainstream Western media will cease
to equate Islam with violence in the near future. For
the media themselves are part of this hegemony. This
is why one has to depend upon the alternative media
and dissident civil society actors to present a
balanced perspective on how the religion views
violence and what the historical record has been on
this score.


It is encouraging that there have always been
non-Muslim writers in the past as in the present, from
Wolfgang Goethe to Karen Armstrong, who have attempted
to provide an honest picture of Islam to the public.
It is bridge-builders of their kind who are crucial
for inter-civilizational harmony between Islam and the

Unfortunately, most Muslims are not aware of the work
of these bridge-builders. What they have been
witnessing especially in the last few years are the
stark consequences of global hegemony reflected in the
slaughter of innocent Muslims in Palestine and Iraq;
in the humiliation of occupation and subjugation; in
the treachery of double standards; in the machinations
of exclusion and marginalization. It explains to a
great extent the explosion of violent fury in
different parts of the Muslim world over the abusive
caricaturing of the Prophet. It is anger that is
driven by more than their boundless love for Muhammad.

Violent protest is not the way

However, what the cartoon protesters do not realize is
that by resorting to violence they have unwittingly
reinforced the worst prejudices of those detractors of
Islam who are only too willing to link the religion to
terror. Peaceful protest would have served the cause
of Islam better. Such protest calls for a certain
degree of restraint. It is true that in some of the
protests Muslims have shown remarkable control over
their emotions. But it should have been the norm.

After all, when the Prophet was hurled with abuse and
taunted with insults --- even when he was physically
attacked --- he displayed tremendous restraint.
Surely, the least that those who are protesting in his
name can do is to try to emulate his example.

Dr.Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the
International Movement for a Just World (JUST).


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