Sensitivity cannot always ordain silence
February 26, 2006
By Ashok Easwaran
Published February 23, 2006
The Danish cartoons on Prophet Mohammed have had its reverberations in the heart of the US. Immediately after the University of Illinois' student newspaper carried them, there was uproar by Muslim students, culminating in the firing of the paper's editor-in-chief and the opinions editor.
Apart from token protests by Muslims, mainly in New York, Americans have been mostly insulated from the controversy. The Daily Illini's publication of the cartoons and the subsequent sackings provoked a fiery debate, occurring as it did, on the campus where traditionally two privileges have been sacrosanct - freedom of speech and sensitivity to other cultures. Following the controversy, and despite it, other campus publications at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard published some of the cartoons.
Major American newspapers have refrained from publishing the cartoons, but a Wisconsin newspaper ran them portraying Prophet Mohammed with a turban in the shape of a bomb. The editor-in-chief noted that although she found the cartoon repugnant, there was a larger issue at stake - press freedom.
Last week also marked the publication, either by accident or design, of author Robert Ferrigno's book "Prayers for the Assassin", marketed as a 'thriller'. The book is set in the future when the US has become an Islamic republic, bringing with it a radical change to American culture as we know it.
The star attraction in amusement parks is AK-47s and suicide belts for children. Disneyland is full of 'rent wives' whose services can be engaged briefly, then terminated through a Muslim divorce. The official drink of the new Republic is 'Jihad Cola'.
Compared to the vociferous protests in Europe and other parts of the world, the response from American Muslims has been somewhat subdued. Some scholars said that publication of the cartoons in the US was a manifestation of the Western society's increasing exasperation at seeing Muslim perpetrators of suicide bombings and beheadings justify their action with reference to Islamic texts.
Implicit also is a growing, and increasingly vocal, discontent with the incompatibility of Muslim values with Western ones - principally the equality of women and homosexuals.
There have been frequent allusions to the clash of civilizations, with some drawing similarities with the Crusades. Although it is widely conceded here that the initial publication of the cartoons was a provocation, the subsequent ones seem to be an act of defiance against a radical Islam which is a potent and, to many, a profoundly disturbing global force today.
One scholar has noted that today's conflict, like the Crusades, were not wholly rational movements, fuelled as they were by myths and passions on both sides. In the Crusades, fundamental passions were involved which touched the identity of Christians, Muslims and Jews. They have not changed very much in today's 'holy war'.
The Crusades were also in every respect defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression - an attempt to turn back Muslim conquests of Christian lands. It may be argued, with some conviction, that the Muslim world today is reacting with the same fervour to a perceived attack on their land (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) and their culture.
Some American Muslims have said that the tenor of the anti-cartoon protests violates the Prophet's teachings, and have called for an introspection in the community.
"Prophet Mohammed's greatest legacy is the values he came to preach," said Ahmed Rehab, director of the Council of American Islamic Relations in Chicago. "Today many of these very same values are brought to disrepute, not by insignificant Danish cartoonists, but by Muslim societies.
"Muslims would do well to consider vindictiveness as an insult to the Prophet, who preached that the best way to respond to an act of evil is with an act of goodness."
There is a certain set of intellectuals who advocate a vigorous defence of free speech even if it does sacrilege a religion. They hold that freedom of speech - including the freedom to poke fun at religion - is the defining freedom of liberal societies. These critics have even lambasted the law in many European countries under which it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. It is far more effective, they say, to let those who deny well documented facts expose themselves to ridicule, than pose as martyrs.
A sentiment which is often echoed here, is the one expressed by the French interior minister who said that he would prefer "an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship".
Sensitivity cannot always ordain silence. People need to give voice to their worries about the encroachment of new cultures and religion, as much as about globalisation and terrorism.
(Ashok Easwaran is a Chicago-based commentator.)
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