Cartoons, Terrorist attacks, and Criticism
The Charlie Hebdo attacks shocked the world. Soon, we witnessed the spectacle of global leaders flocking to Paris amidst nationwide protests and mourning. And there were soon copycat attacks in Denmark and in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, which ISIS claims responsibility for. The old argument of free speech versus blasphemy is in full swing again as we argue over whether one can satirise religious figures like the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons or not. But now we have allowed emotions to cool, we can examine this rationally in the hope that something is learnt from these events. One central issue here is criticism. The willingness to exchange balanced criticism is a basic part of a world of ideas where we freely examine and debate each other’s concepts of how society should be organised and run. Human societies constantly evolve, taking on new ideas in law, commerce, trade and so on, while discarding or modifying old ones.
All across the world right now, the Islamic resurgence (aẗ-ẗajdid l-ʾIslāmiyyah) is rising. It is social movement which proposes social, economic and legal systems which are closer in line with an Islamic ideal. Islamo-vangelists like Zakir Naik are siring a generation of Dawah-speakers (proselytizers) who spread this message. This is often heavily influenced by hard-nosed Salafism, which is in turn funded by varied backers in the oil-rich Gulf states. They have targeted the West for years, though with questionable results. And there is a fatal flaw in this mode of proselytism. Simply expecting the rest of the world to accept Islam as a superior socioeconomic, political and personal system on the one hand and being unwilling to accept examination of that faith’s founder on the other is a flawed argumentative strategy.
Personally, I find outright ridicule distasteful and needlessly insulting. Simply going out of one’s way to anger a group, any group, is foolish. But systematic, results-based and representative analysis of all socioeconomic systems must be done, for the sake of the people who will live under those systems. And political Islam must be objectively scrutinised as well. Simply ‘leaving Muhammad out’ from any analysis of the Islamic system places a serious hamstring on any proper investigation.
Most Muslims do not necessarily see it that way of course. First of course is the very real love and adulation with which they regard Muhammad. Driven by rote-memorised education and a sense of religious/communal fervour, many Muslims find it impossible to see him as anything but a paragon of all virtue. Similarly, many Westerners would look up to Napoleon, the American founding fathers, Stephen Dushan, Jesus and a variety of other figures with varying levels of admiration and at times reverence, whatever the historical realities.
Religious and national ‘Hot points’ and historical figures are invoked or used for many different reasons in specific times and circumstances in history. The violent reaction to defamation in the Muslim world is not that different from the response of early 20th century nationalists to anything even remotely besmirching their country. The current obsession with Muhammad is due to relatively short-term historical dynamics, not because of something which makes ‘Islam’ innately violent or the West especially peaceful for all time.
Muslims indirectly express their very real anger and powerlessness over issues like the repeated Western invasions of their countries through the defamation argument. Many won’t, or can’t, admit when they’ve been wounded or hurt in some way – as in Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir, etc. So they lash out and try to gain limited control over limited issues, often in the most seemingly ridiculous ways.
Compounding this, for many Muslims, free speech is seen as a club to bash them with. For centuries orientalist critiques of the Muslim world flourished, portraying them as backward, woman-hating, violent savages. This critique was at times used to justify the colonisation and brutal exploitation of their lands, and later invasions of Iraq. For instance, during the Second gulf war the Bush regime used the banner of female liberation to help justify their invasion, even though they actively discriminated against women’s groups in their own country and ultimately brought disaster to Iraqi feminist organisations thanks to gross mismanagement. Up till recently, from many Muslims viewpoint, the ‘Free speech’ they have seen in the West is a speech which is streamlined to suit occidental interests and ideas, with the airtime given to their views minimal.
The defamation debate is part of a larger Muslim identity debate as well. And identity debates are usually emotional because they come to the core of how we see ourselves. And nobody likes being the underdog. Looking at it from their perspective, if the power which dominated us tried taking away the one remaining cornerstone of our individuality, how would we react? In retrospect, arguing about a man who has been dust for 1300 years makes a great deal of sense.
But we should not forget that the ‘defamation’ argument is a handy totem which dubious local leaders like ISIS use to rally Muslims to their banner. It helps suppress viable debates which undermine their power and diverts attention away from the larger issue of an examination of the Islamic system. And none of this justifies slaying people in cold blood.
So finally, the defamation debate is an identity issue, a temporary issue created by politics and the poor image of the Western media and domination by the West of the Muslim world among others. In my view, insult should be avoided whenever possible. But basic analysis cannot. Islamists use Muhammad as the example of a ‘perfect person’ for their proposed socioeconomic system. Any debate between Westerners and Islamic Dawah proselytizers over the future socioeconomic system we want will inevitably be drawn back to Muhammad in some way. If Islamists expect anyone to give the ‘Islamic system’ a serious assessment, there needs to be a thorough, honest analysis based on the original sources of Islam and their results, to decide whether there is any real example there applicable to today. Just like Western figures and history – like colonisation – must be criticised and examined honestly. Finally we need to do this in a calm way, free of intellectual restraint but not respect.