impossible not to be dismayed by the spiral of events.
A witless racist cartoon is elevated into a totem
of western democracy and holocaust denial becomes
a symbol of resistance to imperialism.
message contained in the Danish cartoon was blunt:
it drew an equation between Muslims and terrorists,
between Islam and murderous violence. It was devoid
of humour, irony, artistic or social merit, yet
editors across Europe took it upon themselves to
publish it. They did so, they claimed, as a "test"
of free speech. Now, more often than not, the western
media is cautious about testing free speech, especially
when it comes to exposing government secrets or
embarrassing rich people who enjoy recourse to libel
lawyers. There are a wide range of offensive images
- racist, pornographic - that they routinely refuse
to publish. But when it came to the Danish cartoon,
the usual inhibitions were cast aside. What's apparent
from statements made by the editors and their supporters
is that what they were eager to put to the "test"
was not an abstract principle but the willingness
of a minority group to conform to majority assumptions.
to western commentators exercise themselves over
whether "we" have made too many concessions
to "cultural differences" and to what
extent "cultural diversity" is compatible
with "our democratic values", I wonder
what history books these people have read. Did they
miss the hundred odd years during which non-western
peoples fought for elementary democratic rights
against western colonial powers? Did they miss "our"
slave trade, "our" genocides, "our"
use of weapons of mass destruction? Have they missed
the "culture wars" that have ravaged the
USA for two decades, in the course of which a well-funded
right-wing religious movement has mounted successful
attacks on science and personal freedom? The current
relative openness of western society has had to
be extracted from recalcitrant elites inch by inch,
and is today threatened first and foremost by its
from British commentators, members of a notoriously
mono-lingual majority whose knowledge of other cultures
is often limited to the menu at an "Indian"
restaurant (usually run by a Bangladeshi or Pakistani),
the complaint that Muslims have cut themselves off
from the wider world is rich. Not as rich, of course,
as lectures on democracy and tolerance coming from
those who breach international law, inflict violence
on civilian populations and abuse human rights.
The mythology crudely expressed in the cartoon acquires
a daily deadly impact in Iraq, Palestine, Guantanamo
and on the streets of Europe, where innocent Muslims
are treated and punished as "terrorists".
of those who proclaim the right to offend seem shocked
and outraged when offence is duly taken. Surely,
the same principle that protects the cartoonist
protects the idiot dressed as a suicide bomber.
But while the Muslim response to the cartoon is
presented as pathological, the western mentality
that begat the cartoon escapes scrutiny.
affair has been driven in part by media sensationalism.
Ethnic polarisation - real or imagined - provides
drama, stirs emotions. Crucially, across Europe,
the market the media aim to capture is overwhelmingly
white and non-Muslim. In this market, coverage of
jihadi extremism takes on a prurient tinge. It's
exotic, it's threatening and it makes the white
European feel smug and superior. Producers and editors
are reluctant to admit it, even to themselves, but
the ingrained assumptions and festering resentments
of white supremacy make the story resonant for readers
and viewers and shape the way it is constructed.
debate about whether, where and when it might be
acceptable to restrict freedom of speech is both
difficult and necessary. But that's not the terrain
that's being explored or "tested" here.
Instead, discussion has been imprisoned in two related
paradigms, both of them unreal and distorting. One
counterposes "multi-culturalism" to "integration"
and the other sets "Islam" against "the
West". The first does not remotely reflect
the way people live, the multiplicity and fluidity
of actual social relations. The choices it offers
are unreal. The second offers a clash of incommensurable
abstractions, in which so much is left out, not
least the authoritarian and hierarchical strands
in western thinking and the humanist and egalitarian
strands in Islamic thinking.
grim perversity of the paradigm has been highlighted
by the tit-for-tat commissioning of holocaust cartoons
by an Iranian newspaper, following President Ahmadinejad's
public embrace of holocaust denial. That Jews should
come to be so widely perceived as a proxy for the
West is a fact brimming with tragic ironies. Holocaust
denial is not only a denial of common humanity and
an assault on human memory, it also lets Europe
off the hook for a crime that makes a mockery of
its claims to civilisational superiority. The preachers
of anti-semitism in Muslim societies are importing
a very European ideology, one that was always inseparable
from the broader discourse of western colonialism
and racial superiority. Indeed, anti-semitism provides
a template for Islamophobia. The Danish cartoon,
as has been widely noted, eerily recalls the Nazi
cartoons that demonised Jews (as well as English
cartoons depicting bomb-throwing Irishmen).
those many Muslims and indeed non-Muslims who reject
the false paradigms, recent weeks have been painfully
frustrating. The realities of social injustice,
economic inequality and US-British militarism that
lie behind the spectacle of the culture clash seem
to have been obscured, for the moment, by its media-mesmerising
flash and thunder.