“If You Can’t Take a Joke, You’ll Hate the Cartoon”

[Note from Christopher:  Back in 2006, when a Danish newspaper published several cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, firestorms exploded around the world. People died, buildings were burned. The publication of the cartoons and subsequent violence prompted a fierce discussion of what to do when fundamental cultural values clash. In this case, the conflict pitted freedom of speech against devout religious belief. And it caused me to write this column for The Progressive Populist, a biweekly political news journal based in the U.S.]


PRAGUE, Czech Republic – March 15, 2006

What began as a political assertion of free speech within the tiny country of Denmark has become a global-wide calamity. Economic boycotts. Violent street riots. Embassies burned. Ambassadors recalled. Protesters gunned down. Charges of racism, cultural provocation, imperialism, terrorism. . .

All that over a dozen cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

If it seems hard to swallow—this scenario of cartoons causing a global crisis—then it’s smarter not to swallow it. Because the story really is much more complicated than that.

The mainstream media takes in the U.S., where any event must be defined by a headline, miss the complexity of the story. The explanation in the European media—that this is the latest clash in the ongoing culture confrontation between Western secularism and Muslim theocracy—is perceptive, but not very useful.

What, then, would be useful? First, to understand why the Danes (and later, many other European newspapers) published the cartoons. Second, to understand why Muslims reacted so violently. Third, to understand how fundamentalists and extremists exploit such a controversy and drive it toward violence.

Let’s start in Europe, where the two world views of Western secularism and Muslim theocracy aren’t so separate anymore. About 5 percent of Europeans are Muslim immigrants; religion is important to them. Religion is less important in European cultures, which are essentially agnostic. Fatigued by hundreds of years of religious strife, this region birthed the Western Enlightenment and dumped theocratic institutions. Secular democracy represented progress. As Europeans see it, Muslim immigrants who now resist assimilation, who demand theocratic exemptions, are resurrecting ugly ghosts.

So when a Danish author confessed he was afraid to publish a children’s book on Islam, a Danish newspaper editor responded by publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad. In his view, freedom of expression must trump religious belief. Other European media agreed and published the cartoons in a show of solidarity (except for the British, who offered a convoluted rationale that seemed driven more by fear than logic).

In short, Europeans expect Muslim immigrants to adjust to European culture, not vice versa. If that makes the Muslims unhappy, well, there’s the door. And frankly, those Muslims aren’t eager to leave Europe. One look at Muslim regimes in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and you understand why. Those countries are repressive, poverty stricken, undemocratic. Who’d want to live there given a choice?

Which takes us to the Muslim world’s take on the cartoons. The cartoons were offensive, most certainly. But the violence that erupted globally was—and is—mostly about something else. It’s about rage. Rage about massive poverty in oil-rich states where royal family members commandeer the wealth while hobnobbing with Western leaders. Rage about living under corrupt, repressive, non-democratic regimes. Rage about watching TV ads for products you’ll never afford, over feeling powerless as the days of your impoverished life pass by. And rage over knowing if you dare take to the streets in protest, you’ll be arrested, imprisoned, likely murdered.

Unless, of course, you ventilate your rage toward someone other than those directly responsible for your predicament. Doing that is permissible, even covertly encouraged. And certainly far, far safer. Muslims know that. So do Muslim fundamentalists eager to exploit the rage.

You’d think the secular West, led by the U.S., would respond by actively going after the roots of the rage, not just extremists who exploit it. But any western idealism is sacrificed to its economic dependence on oil from theocratic Islamic regimes. What? Lean on the Saudi royal family? Forget it. The one place where the U.S. has purported to express its democratic idealism, Iraq, doesn’t even address this issue. It’s an expensive side-show, a pork barrel venture.

As for Europe, for the moment it is struggling to resolve the clash of two world views within its own borders. The problem was imported. The Muslim rage from overseas is being resisted. European political leaders have refused to apologize for cartoons they say were published by a press they don’t control. Angry Muslims overseas don’t understand; in the regimes they inhabit, the media serve at the pleasure of theocratic governments. But most Muslims in Europe get it. They are adjusting. Given the choice between that and the door, well, it just isn’t much of a choice.



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