Cartoons in the clash of civilizations
By Les Roka
Febrary 8, 2006 | The firestorm that has been lit in
the Islamic Diaspora over a series of caricatures portraying
the prophet Muhammad with a bomb-like turban and a sputtering
fuse is part of a chain reaction that eventually could
envelop the entire Middle East in war.
The rage is a turning point in this inevitable "clash
of civilizations" because the moderate Islamist
voices are being drowned -- if not silenced -- by the
growing discordant chorus of extremist protesters. The
emotional, violently visceral tides of religious fundamentalism
are washing over more comprehensible notions of nationalistic
identity. For Westerners, it would be a bit foolish
to treat this cavalierly.
Two comments from Western speakers illustrate a couple
of dynamics in this debate. The first is from Pope Benedict
"The right to freedom of thought and expression
. . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious
sentiment of believers."
The other is from Matthew Parris, who wrote an opinion
piece in The London Sunday Times on Feb. 4:
"Offence implicitly offered, and offence actually
taken, are two different matters. On the whole Christians,
for example, take offence less readily than Muslims.
The case for treating them, in consequence, differently
is obvious, but we should be wary of it. It means groups
are allowed to be as thin-skinned as they wish: to dictate
for themselves how delicately we must tread with them
-- to create, as it were, their own definition of respect
and require us to observe it. Those who do this may
not always realize that that they create serious buried
resentments among those of fellow-citizens who are more
broad-shouldered about the trading of insult."
Let's start with the Parris quote. While some criticized
the editors of Rolling Stone magazine for its
recent cover portraying singer Kanye West as Jesus,
it would be absurd to think that editors would hide
or cower in fear. Even when John Lennon proclaimed the
Beatles were more popular than Jesus in the 1960s, public
reaction was limited to the burning of some records
and band paraphernalia.
On the other hand, Jihad al-Momani, editor-in-chief
of the Jordanian weekly Shihan, was arrested
last week for publishing the cartoons not to offend
but to show Arab readers why these protests erupted.
Momami wrote in an editorial, which his staff disavowed
after his arrest, concluded: "Who offends Islam
more? A foreigner who draws the prophet . . . . or a
Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in
Amman or anywhere else?" In the Hashemite kingdom
of Jordan, where moderate players have engaged contact
with the American and Israeli governments, this is an
unusual turn of events.
The extremists claim that even benign representations
of the prophet are forbidden. While the Vatican publicly
criticized the violence, the pope signaled that rights
of freedom of expression should not be construed to
permit such caricatures or satire. One wonders if fundamentalists
-- regardless of their religious colors and stripes
-- differ merely in nuances of mindset and response.
Some Westerners have observed that the renderings
in question are tame compared to those in Arab newspapers
and magazines, which have shown rabbis and other non-Muslim
religious leaders as blood-soaked butchers or as lecherous
characters in flagrante delicto. Responding
to European claims that the cartoons are protected expressions
of press freedom not intended to offend or stigmatize
Muslims, the Arab-European League's Web site has started
a series of cartoons, noting "if it is the time
to break taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly
do not want to stay behind." Its first entry? A
caricature of Anne Frank having sex with Adolf Hitler.
Is this debate a passing border skirmish or is it
an omen of a larger-scale conflict? The protests coincide
with several significant developments in the region:
the super-majority mandate of the Hamas party in the
Palestinian elections, the passing of the Ariel Sharon
era in Israel, the political ascendancy of the Shiites
in Iraq, and, last, but certainly not least, the growing
confrontation with Iran over its nuclear technology
Many scholars challenged Samuel P. Huntington's hypothesis
that, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse,
future conflicts would be drawn along cultural rather
than political or economic fault lines. Huntington introduced
this "clash of civilizations" concept in a 1993 foreign
affairs journal essay that was expanded into a 1996
The hypothesis gained some currency after the 9/11
terrorist attacks but many scholars wrote that Huntington
had oversimplified the dynamic interplay of culture,
political ideology, and economic forces.
Scholars such as Samuel Inglehart of the University
of Michigan and Pippa Norris of Harvard University give
Huntington's hypothesis partial credit, noting that
the Bush Doctrine has it right when it comes to advocating
and promulgating democratic freedoms for the peoples
of the Muslim world. However, both scholars, who co-authored
a 2003 book about global cultural changes and their
impact on sexuality and gender, wrote that there is
no "global consensus on the self-expression values
-- such as social tolerance, gender equality, freedom
of speech, interpersonal trust -- that are crucial to
And, this is where the real clash, the two believe,
It is no benefit to the United States that much of
the Islamic Diaspora -- even the segment characterized
as moderate -- despises the current American president
as an arrogant warfarer callously ignorant of the complexities
of Islamic identity. Even for those who are nonviolent,
deeply religious adherents of fundamentalist Islam who
do not separate their persona of faith and ritual from
the daily secular routines of life, the continuing public
assault on Islamic identity is insulting, if not humiliating.
The cartoons, in their minds, crossed into unacceptable
The verdict on Bush's Middle East foreign policy is
yet to be decided. However, the signs are disconcerting
-- and not just from the region's Islamic strongholds.
In a post-election wrap of the Hamas victory in Palestine,
The New Yorker magazine carried this telling
quote from Shalom Harari, a former Israeli military
intelligence officer: "Look at the wives of the
[Egyptian] generals. Many of them are wearing traditional
head scarves. This was not so ten years ago. And this
tells you where we are heading. When the women of Egypt's
pro-Western military elite are dressed like that, you
know that the Hamas victory is not about Palestine.
It's about the entire Middle East."
If the impending Iran conflict is cast in Mahdaviat
terms -- a reference to the return of the 12th Imam [Mahdi]
who will bring everlasting peace and truth, any hope
of a peaceful resolution will evaporate.
We may rue the missed opportunity to expand the dialogue
that the moderate Mohammed Khatami sought when he was
president of Iran from 1997 to 2005. Although Khatami
was an Islamic cleric who reported directly to the Supreme
Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, he worked a delicate balance
trying to bring his nation back to the international
The election last summer of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former
mayor of Tehran and a laic Islamic fundamentalist, has
dashed all hopes of rapprochement. "Ahmadinejad
is instead transporting Iran back to the first radical
years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, defined by
battling imperial US and Soviet powers and Zionism,"
Scott Peterson, a Christian Science Monitor
correspondent who frequently has reported on Iran, wrote
The new Iranian president has set his sights on eliminating
Israel from the global map and setting the stage for
the Mahdi's return. And if the United States has any
intentions of assuming that role of salvation, Ahmadinejad
has made it unmistakably clear that his nation will
fight to be the sole legitimate exporter of Islamic
The suppression of the moderate voice in the Islamic
Diaspora is a frightening prospect. The rage about the
cartoons is a sidebar in a war that threatens to expand
well beyond its current theater of battle and engagement.
Perhaps Ghassan Sharbal, editor of the London Al-Hayat
Arab daily newspaper, had it right on July 8, the
day after the London subway terrorist attacks, we are
writing yet another chapter in World War III.