Islam vs. the West: Clashing Sensibilities

BY Salim Muwakkil

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The violent reactions of some Muslims vindicate the arguments of neoconservatives that Islam is an inherently anti-modernist religion.

Were it plausible, I would suggest that al Qaeda and American neo-conservatives planted the cartoons published last fall in a Danish newspaper that satirized Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim masses’ predictably furious response to the cartoons provides perfect inversely proportionate illustrations of the two cults’ clash-of-civilizations scenario.

But in fact, this increasingly rancorous dispute does pit two foundational principles against each other: Islam’s proscription against portraying its Prophet, and the West’s reverence of free expression. Muslims have a religious obligation to take offense at “desecration” of Islam, while Western nations feel compelled to speak up in protection of free speech.

These clashing views have put in motion a cycle of mutual antagonism that is likely to keep spiraling downward unless cooler heads prevail.

This Islamic ire is not difficult to understand, really. When Louis Farrakhan allegedly called Judaism a “gutter religion” in 1984 he was denounced from pillar to post, and more than 20 years later he still catches flack for those reported remarks. Congress even got into the act, unanimously passing legislation condemning Farrakhan’s words. The phrase “freedom of expression” was seldom heard during this controversy; nor were there reiterations of Farrakhan’s words in gestures of sympathy for that libertarian concept.

At that time, Americans seemed to understand that expressions of religious bigotry had to be resolutely condemned. This was a progressive step for a nation once mired in anti-Semitic bias. Muslims are asking similar condemnations of the cartoons they construe as attacks on their religion.

The cartoons were offensive not only because they depicted the Prophet, but because the depictions were disrespectful of the deep reverence Muslims have for the founder of their religion. Whenever Prophet Muhammad’s name is mentioned (even in informal conversations), believers always add “peace and blessings be upon him.”

The offense is compounded by what many feel is the West’s hypocrisy on the issue of free expression. Several Muslim commentators have noted that freedom of expression stops at holocaust denial in a number of European countries, including France and Germany (where the cartoons were published in solidarity with the concept of free expression).

All of this is taking place in a global context informed by a history of Western imperialism and a current resurgence of that aggression. Islamist groups long have argued that the West has launched a new crusade against Islam. Following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, that argument has a lot more traction.

In a post-9/11 world, growing numbers of Muslims feel they are being demonized by an increasingly Islamaphobic West. And, several Islamic and human rights groups have documented increasing incidents of persecution against Muslims. That sense of injustice has helped to propel the electoral success of Islamist parties in Gaza (Hamas), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) and Lebanon (Hezbollah). Islamists are using the cartoon flap to give popular resonance across the Islamic world to their notion of a new Crusade.

Jihad Unspun, a Web site that reflects the radical views of Sunni “mujahideen” presents an example of this mindset. In a recent editorial, the Web publication denounced the military aggression that “has swallowed Afghanistan and Iraq, and is heading towards Iran, Syria and Pakistan.” Referring to the cartoon flap, the editorial added, “The new phase of the crusades, this time on cultural and social levels, has been sparked not by the U.S. but her low-profile and smaller allies in Europe.”

Of course, Muslims also have some growing up to do. The violent protests run counter to Islam, which forbids any compulsion in religion and it does not require non-Muslims to follow Islam’s religious rites. What’s more, such reactions vindicate the views of those neoconservatives who argue that Muslims are inherently anti-modernist. “As a Muslim, I can understand the emotional intensity of the issue, however, responding through violence does not uphold the dignity of our faith,” said Mahdi Bray, head of the civil rights bureau of the Washington-based Muslim American Society. And, according to commentators from the various regions of protest, only a small minority is engaged in violence.

Muslims also have to understand that the freedom of expression ideal is one of the West’s distinguishing principles. Just as it allows for religious satire, it also allows for religious freedom. In fact, the West’s statutory protections have likely shielded many Islamic minorities from nativist opposition.

This is a clash of sensibilities, not civilizations. But if Western and Islamic governments allow the cultists to push the agenda, the choreography of polarization will take over.


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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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