VIEW: Cartooning Islam across the Atlantic —Saleem H Ali
What the cartoon controversy shows is not that one side of the Atlantic is friendlier to Muslims than the other but that there are lessons which both can learn from each other about how to live with a diverse Muslim population. Of course Muslims must also learn to be patient and not let such matters incite violence or reciprocal hatred
That Europe and North America are divided not just physically but also on matters of policy was shown most recently by their divergent responses to the cartoon controversy. Unlike its European counterparts, the US government has decided to strongly condemn the publication of cartoons caricaturing Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The State Department spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, said quite unequivocally that “freedom of the press must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”
Some may cynically consider this a pragmatic strategic decision on the part of the American government to revitalise its battered image. However, even private conservative newspapers across America, on which the government has no control whatsoever, have decided not to publish the cartoons.
Leonard Downie Jr, executive editor of The Washington Post, responded to a recent query about publishing the cartoons as follows: “the very nature of depicting Mohammad editorially is not an ambiguous question. Either you do it or you don’t ...we’re maintaining our standards.” This more nuanced approach to freedom of the press is also shared by neighbouring Canada where Giles Gherson, the Toronto Star editor-in-chief, said that the paper would rarely run an editorial cartoon that was “gratuitously offensive”, to a segment of the population.
Ironically, European journalists have been championing Muslim territorial causes such as the Palestinian conflict and the resistance in Iraq. However, their sympathies seem to run shallow on this matter. Indeed much of the support such causes may get from Europe has a lot to do with antipathy tinged with envy which many Europeans have towards America. It is interesting to note that while America is often criticised in the Muslim world for being an unquestioning ally of the Jewish people, European laws have taken far stronger action in support of Jewish concerns.
When it comes to holocaust denial, for example, freedom of expression is not supported by many European countries. In several countries it is illegal to publish articles (or cartoons) or make speeches questioning the holocaust. British historian David Irving who was arrested in Vienna under the Austrian holocaust denial law has been in jail for the past three months for his writings.
It may be prudent to support laws preventing the spread of virulent conspiracy theories and the writers denying the holocaust should certainly be condemned. However, when it comes to possible incitement of hatred against Muslims some Europeans have double standards? While Europeans have been gracious in allowing immigration from many countries, there is indeed a vital strategic interest in this regard — many European countries such as Italy have declining indigenous populations due to the couples’ reluctance to have more than one child. These countries need migrants — as is stated in their economic growth plans — to provide a stable tax base. Given their proclivity for large families Muslims migrants provide a rapidly growing labour force.
Sadly, European journalists appear to be showing a secular petulance which thankfully their American and Canadian counterparts have avoided. In a recent radio interview, a Muslim member of the Danish parliament, Kamal Qureshi, openly stated that several of his family members had migrated to North America from Denmark due to the racism they faced in Europe. Some in the developing world also perceive this to be a hangover of colonialism that Europeans are not entirely apologetic about. (Belgium apologised in 2002 for its conduct in Congo by accepting culpability in the 1961 murder of the country’s first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba.)
Of course the American CIA also has a record of political assassinations and US foreign policy is chequered by many indiscretions. American Muslims also cannot be too smug about their situation. While they may be spared the disrespect of cartoons in prominent newspapers, they are still subjected to frequent interrogations at airports and profiling in jobs. A US citizen by birth, I am usually stopped at American airports and questioned when returning from a trip to Pakistan. At Kennedy Airport in New York, even our four-year old son was once profiled because of his name.
My experience at airports in London or Paris or Madrid is usually far less onerous as European immigration officers are far less paranoid about phenotypically ‘Arab’ faces than their American counterparts. As for the Canadians, they tend to provide a more balanced policy on such matters but the recent election may have tilted the scales more towards American-like security concerns.
There are also many areas of common hostility such as the construction of new mosques, which are increasingly facing public opposition in both Europe and North America. The new Islamic Centre in Rome was beset by many community protests, even though the land for the mosque was donated by the city of Rome itself. The construction of a new Islamic Centre building in Boston (USA) has been beset by community opposition and the Islamic Society of Boston recently filed a defamation lawsuit against the Boston Herald and local TV stations for repeatedly maligning members of the centre as terrorists and anti-Semites.
What the cartoon controversy shows therefore is not that one side of the Atlantic is friendlier to Muslims than the other but that there are lessons which both can learn from each other about how to live with a diverse Muslim population. Of course Muslims must also learn to be patient and not let such matters incite violence or reciprocal hatred. They should also be judicious in not allowing publications that malign other faiths.
Muslims must show special sensitivity in publications and public statements about our Jewish brethren. Creating a culture of respect will not undermine freedom of expression but only give such liberties further strength to manifest what is most meaningful in human societies.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont in the United States. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org