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Paul Buchanan: The Politics of Cartoon Conflict

The Politics of Cartoon Conflict

By Paul G. Buchanan

Recent controversies surrounding the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad have raised the spectre of a deepening cultural clash between Islam and the West. The issue has been debated as one of freedoms of speech and press versus respect for religious belief. The issue is more complex than that.

There is an element of cultural clash at play, but not just that of Islam against the West. The issue is one of pre-modern versus postmodern perspectives on life. For pre-modern ideologies like Islam, much is sacred, including images of prophets and seers. In post-modern Western society, virtually nothing is scared and no ideology is sacrosanct. One person’s blasphemy is another person’s parody.

In the post-modern world, the original Danish cartoons of Muhammad are seen as a political commentary on the times, not necessarily as a religious insult. In the pre-modern world of Islam, they are a desecration and a provocation. Many Western media declined to re-publish the cartoons in order to avoid further offence, but some did so as a matter of principle (if not to sell papers or boost audience ratings). Yet the violent reactions of recent days may be a case of protesting too much, because if religious sensibilities matter, then the grotesque characterisation of Jews and Israel in the Muslim world would also be equally deserving of repudiation—but it is not. Nor are outrageous depictions of a variety of Christians, and in earlier conflicts, of communists and other infidels. It seems that the West is not alone in profaning that which is sacred. Or put another way, when it comes to sacred cows, perhaps it is a matter of whose ox is being gored that matters most.

In the post-modern world all sorts of indecencies and liberties are taken against the honour and dignity of the living and dead. It is considered part of the tolerant philosophy of Western pluralism that individuals are free to choose not to view offensive imagery or read offensive lines. And if one chooses to do so and is offended, there are legitimate means of protest short of calls for mass beheadings, violent riots and torching of diplomatic missions. Trade embargoes, for example, are a legitimate means of expressing unhappiness with the behaviour of a foreign commercial partner (even if that partner may not be responsible for the original offence).

A more specific issue that has emerged in this controversy is that of incitement. The argument has been made that however unintentional, the original cartoon was an incitement to anger in the Muslim world and should therefore have been denied publication by newspaper editors, and certainly not reprinted and broadcast. Then there is the reaction that followed, where people were deliberately incited to retaliate with murderous intent against those who desecrated the image of the Prophet. The reaction, which appears commensurate in some Muslim eyes, is considered disproportionate in most of the West. Moreover, while the gravity of the offence may resonate equally in the hearts of many Muslims, the political reverberations of their reaction, although synergistic in effect, vary between the immigrant Muslim populations of the West and the resident populations of their home countries. In parallel, the reaction of Western societies depends on the degree of secularisation among them. Such is the context in which the specifics of the cartoon conflict are being played out.

Diversity of opinion and tolerance of contrary and often abhorrent views are considered foundational stones of modern Western political culture, yet history suggests otherwise. The Hispanic and Slavic worlds, to say nothing of Asia, have traditions of ideological intolerance and imposition that parallel that of the Islamic Diaspora, even if the specific content of the ideologies differs. It is only recently, via a process of global diffusion of democratic beliefs, that these societies have embraced ideological diversity and the freedoms of expression associated with it (not always wholeheartedly). Thus rather than focus on the nature of the religion itself, it is better to look at how ideological intolerance has roots in the cultural and political authoritarianism of the Muslim world, much as it did in other cultures until very recently.

Cultural and political authoritarianism tend to go hand in hand. Social contexts of ascriptive hierarchy and arbitrary imposition provide a nice base for political authoritarianism, which is consequently harder to dislodge as a social practice even by external military intervention because of its ingrained cultural roots. The question is often asked of Muslims what used to be asked of Latin Americans or Asians: how many Islamic countries are democratic? Even if Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq and Malaysia are included, that leaves a majority of Muslim states under authoritarian rule, backed by traditional cultural and social practices, justified by a state religion. Coincidentally or not, most of these countries, along with their authoritarian counterparts in other parts of the world, score low on human development indexes, measured in terms of literacy, infant mortality, GDP per capita, access to potable water, freedom from oppression and the like. Due to individual and collective socialisation in conditions of cultural and political authoritarianism (to say nothing of ignorance and despair), many non-Western Muslims (and more than a few Western Muslims) cannot distinguish between individuals, press editorials and the policy of governments when it comes to public expression in the West. They are simply unable to comprehend the primacy of the individual that is central to social pluralism, and are therefore susceptible to ideological manipulation by their local elites.

This brings up the issue of orchestration of anti-Western demonstrations and riots in some Muslim states. Rather than spontaneous outbursts of popular indignation, in several countries the dissemination of the offending cartoons (and some fakes) and a lack of police presence outside targeted Western embassies suggest some element of direction was at play. After all, how often is it that residents of Gaza happen to have Danish flags handy for burning? How many Syrians knew the street address of the Danish embassy, and how exactly did they come to congregate with firebombs outside of it? That raises the question of whether the cartoon controversy is being manipulated by certain states and groups for political purposes beyond the taking of religious offence.

Muslim states are not uniform or alone in their political calculations. Several Arab oligarchies and secular regimes (Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia) have suppressed dissemination and discussion of the offending cartoons so as to avoid mass unrest. Western countries that are on the front line of the conflict with the Muslim world, Australia, the UK and the US in particular, have all sided with the mainstream Islamic interpretation, arguing that the cartoons should not have been published because of their offensive nature. Given that all three of these liberal democracies have attempted to curtail freedom of speech as part of their own approaches to the “war on terror,” perhaps it is their way of conveying to the rest of the West the strategic gravity of the situation while justifying their own restrictions on civil liberties.

After all, beyond exacerbating already extant tensions, for those Westerners inclined to see darkness on the horizon, there is trouble ahead. Muslim birthrates are increasing while European birth rates are declining, which means that a demographic shift towards Islam as a dominant culture is inevitable where those populations coexist, as well as more globally. In fifty years Europeans will be a demographic minority (including in some of their own countries), and if Islamicists predict correctly, culturally subordinate as well. The time of reckoning will be theirs. This has Christian fundamentalists thinking in apocalyptic terms, and has secular humanists worried that the democratic rights and freedoms they hold as universal goods will eventually become the instruments by which the yoke of pre-modern religious belief is re-imposed upon them via forced conversion or restoration.

There are many other geopolitical and strategic implications. On the three major dimensions of international relations—diplomacy, security and trade—the fallout from the cartoon conflict is universally negative for the West, but advantageous for militant Islamicist groups (in government or not) who desire a withdrawal of Western influence from the Islamic world. Polarisation of conflict along pre-modern versus post-modern lines pushes aside the voices of moderation and rapprochement that attempt to bridge the cultural divide Islam and the West in the interest of common understanding and prosperity. The strategic outlook assumes millennial and crusading contours, with political militants, opportunists and troglodytes on both sides of the cultural divide seeing opportunity to advance their causes by fuelling the controversy.

The political implications of the cartoon conflict extend to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, Indonesian anti-terror efforts, the fate of Western hostages in Iraq, the stability of Central Asian Republics, the plight of Muslim asylum seekers and refugee communities in the West, New Zealand’s foreign trade, to numerous other facets of life, including individual fortunes touched by the inopportune happenstance. The course of modern history—unhappy enough as it is--is at risk of being diverted by cultural provocations and backlash, with international mechanisms for conflict resolution incapable of redressing the juxtaposed grievances of the pre and post-modern worlds.

In terms of Western foreign policy, realpolitik suggests that efforts be made to assuage Muslim sensibilities in this latest cultural battle because the larger struggle could well lie ahead, especially when there is much already at stake and plenty of existing problems to contend with. Likewise, for secular and moderate Muslims, reconciliation with the West on terms of mutual respect is the key to social progress in their home states (Chinese commercial inroads into the Arab world notwithstanding). This pragmatic approach should not be confused with cultural acceptance, nor is it a substitute for such. But it does have the virtue of understanding that respect for diversity of thought, opinion and belief is a two way street that should not be hijacked by the political interests of a cynical few.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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