Why Muslims Don’t Laugh at Insults to their Religion
Twelve cartoons, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30th 2005, satirised the prophet Muhammad and were received negatively by Muslims in Denmark and throughout the world. Muslims generally perceived them to be derogatory and took the insult as an attack upon Islam. Protests were organised all over the world, and serious violence occurred at a number of them: embassies were ransacked and western institutions and property in the Muslim world bore the brunt of these expressions of anger. Other forms of protest included economic boycotts of Danish companies leading to considerable financial loss for the companies affected, which formerly had a substantial market investment in the Muslim world.
Regardless of the nature of the Muslim expressions of anger, many westerners were incredulous. The extent and universality of Muslim anger were to them very surprising. Why, they asked, should Muslims be so upset by harmless cartoons that should not have hurt anybody? The old English saying, 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' just didn't seem to wash with Muslims. Why? Why couldn't Muslims just accept the insults to their prophet and their religion as harmless fun, or as a legitimate form of criticism?
Western critics were not alone however in their incredulity. Muslims also felt incredulity. How could the Danish and other governments allow such insulting material to be published in their countries? Shouldn't they apologise and promise to prevent a repeat of the offence? It seems that the mutual incredulity proves the truth of the famous saying about east and west that 'never the twain shall meet'. Despite the deeply polarised feelings the cartoons have generated, it ought to be possible for Muslim and western personalities to understand each other’s sentiments. The opposing emotions highlight not only the sharp differences between Muslim and western thinking, but also some unexpected similarities. This article explores these differences and similarities, and offers a possible basis for mutual criticism and debate between opposing ideologies, without recourse to rancour and reckless provocation.Before exploring the deeper issues in question, it is necessary to decide upon the reality of the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad. Do they constitute an intellectual argument or are they to be regarded as an insult?
The question is important in order to determine whether Muslims have a problem with intellectual criticism of Islam or with being insulted. It is clear from listening to the protestations of Muslims across the world that they feel insulted, but are these perceptions accurate? Could it be that they feel insulted by criticism or do the cartoons in reality constitute an insult? One of the most controversial cartoons depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban; the fuse was lit and written upon the bomb was the Islamic creed. Another cartoon included a poem with the words: ‘Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!’ which means: ‘Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke!’ Mohammad is also drawn standing in heaven, upon a cloud greeting dead suicide bombers with the words: ‘Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!’ which means: ‘Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!’ It is difficult to see how such cartoons could be seen by Muslims as anything other than an insult to the prophet Mohammad. In response to Muslims protests, Jyllands-Posten published two letters of explanation. The second letter, dated 30th January 2006, states that the cartoons: ‘were not intended to be offensive … but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologise.’
The stated intentions of the cartoons’ publishers have a bearing upon these questions. The Danish publishers explained that their motive was to test the boundaries of freedom of speech and they did not challenge Muslims to debate any substantive issues about Islam. They did not explain what intellectual criticisms they were bringing through the medium of cartoons; rather they sought to see how far they could go to provoke Muslims in order to make a statement about freedom of speech. They claimed that freedom of speech was under threat in Denmark and published the insulting cartoons as a means to bring attention to their issue. Insulting Muslims may not have been their objective, but it was a means of publicising their concerns through the debate that followed. Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, made this clear:‘
The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule … we are on the way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.’
Thus Rose made it clear that Muslims should be ready to accept insult, mockery and ridicule. Debating Islam is not the issue, and so Muslim perceptions of being insulted were accurate. The question then is not why Muslims cannot accept to listen to criticism and respond with reasoned argument, but why Muslims cannot accept ‘insults, mockery and ridicule’ of Islam. As Rose explained in the Washington Post, on February 19th 2006, his paper was not singling out Islam for attack, but was drawing Muslims into the secular fold, so that they be treated as equals to Christians and those of other religions:
'The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: we are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.’
Jyllands-Posten were thus making a principled stand for secularism in general and more specifically for freedom of speech in Denmark, which was enshrined in the constitution of 1849 and reaffirmed, after the suspension of freedoms during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II, in section 77 of the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1953). The feeling amongst some Danish thinkers, that freedom was under threat in Denmark, was expressed two weeks before the publishing of the cartoons. On September 17th 2005, the Danish newspaper Politiken printed an article titled: ‘Dyb angst for kritik af Islam’ (‘Profound fear of criticism of Islam’, which discussed the difficulty the writer Kåre Bluitgen was facing in finding an illustrator for his children’s book about Islam. Three illustrators refused and a fourth agreed to assist anonymously - apparently for fear of repercussions. Carsten Juste, Editor-in-Chief of Jyllands-Posten, wrote in a letter of clarification dated 8th February 2006, that the cartoons were published: ‘as part of an ongoing debate on freedom of expression, a freedom much cherished in Denmark.’
Freedom is an abstract concept; you cannot see or hear freedom, you certainly cannot eat it, but it does have a reality nonetheless, to those who cherish it. The editors of Jyllaands-Posten cherished freedom and they made sacrifices for it that were borne by many Danish companies and individuals. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, described the cartoons affair as, “Denmark's worst international crisis since World War II”. Such an abstract concept cannot have a priced assigned to it, and the initial publishers of the cartoons were arguing that it was worth paying a high price in order to preserve freedom. Many Muslims viewed the cartoons as a base attack upon Islam, but the publishers of the cartoons claimed they were making a principled stand for a core western belief in the primacy of freedom.
Abstract concepts are can be priceless and they often ennoble human society. Abstract thinking and aesthetic appreciation distinguish man from beast and enrich life with many forms of art. The western renaissance and scientific revolution fused art and science, which were built upon new forms of abstract reasoning. In the arena of personal relationships, the abstract concepts of love and honour are cherished as priceless. It has always been considered noble to believe in high concepts and sacrifice material benefits for the sake of principle.Western societies do not, however, hold a monopoly on cherishing abstract ideals. In fact, while such ideals have become scarce in the west, Muslims cherish a multitude of abstract ideals and this is where East and West crashed head-on over the issue of the cartoons.
Muslims hold the concept of honour in high esteem, and to insult someone is to transgress upon his honour. Just as the publishers of Jyllaands-Posten were ready to sacrifice for freedom, so too were Muslims, ready to sacrifice for the sake of honour. If a Muslim would seek to defend his own honour, then it would be even nobler for him to defend the honour of another. If defending the honour of his mother or his father should be nobler than defending his own honour, then for the Muslim nothing is more precious than defending the honour of the prophet who brought to him his religion. Honour, however, like freedom, is an intangible concept that does not put food on the table. Pragmatists who criticise Muslims for getting upset, and might equally criticise a newspaper for causing such a fuss in the first place, argue and against taking principled stands for the sake of intangible concepts. They are practical people who concern themselves solely with the material; this preoccupation with the material has become a dominating feature of western life, which has eroded many former values and concepts in favour of hard-nosed materialism. The concept of honour, held dearly by Muslims, needs no explanation to a western audience who are familiar with it as a part of their historical heritage. Nowadays however, honour is an outmoded concept in the west. Standing up for honour, as opposed to reason, is to be considered naive or romantic at best, and dangerous fanaticism at worst. It is no surprise, therefore, that the editors of Jyllaands-Posten found little support from their freedom loving allies in Britain or America and took the full force of criticism on their own. Their publication of cartoons that were expected to cause offence appears foolhardy. Likewise, intense expressions of Muslim anger may by western standards also be considered unreasonable. In both cases, to argue a point of principle too far, be it western freedoms or the honour of a prophet, risks being labelled in the west as extreme or fanatical.
While western values are being eroded, Muslims are still adhering to and championing their own values. By opposing insults upon the prophet Muhammad, they are not excluding the possibility of reasoned debate and listening to intellectual arguments against their belief, but standing up for the honour of the man most beloved to them – Mohammad the prophet. The indignation expressed by Muslims would be easier for many to understand if Mohammad were a company director, Islam a company and Muslims shareholders! In such a situation an insult upon Mohammad would affect the stock value of the company capital and the shareholders could sue for damages. Honour or what used to be called in law ‘goodwill’ is an intangible phenomenon that as capitalism has developed is now considered an asset, which can be given a pecuniary value and hence receive protection in law. The ‘good name’ of a company or an individual may be lost and the implications of that could be financial loss. Financial loss being a material thing is protected in western law, but honour for the sake of honour itself has no such recognition. This is in contrast to Islam, which protects not only life and property, but also honour for its own sake regardless of the financial implications.
As for argument and debate, while Muslims jealously protect the honour of the prophet Mohammad and react strongly to any insults levelled at them or their religion, they are not unyielding to criticism. Reasoned criticism is of the greatest concern to Muslims because Islam calls for adherents to assent to belief in the truth of key ideas: the existence of a supreme Creator and the messengerhood of Mohammad who brought the Qur’an as guidance for mankind from the Creator. This is an intellectual belief that requires proof for acceptance and led Muslims to engage in intellectual dispute with others from the time of the prophet Mohammad himself until today. The Qur’an expressly forbade the coercion of non-believers into the faith of Islam and protected their right to live in peace and harmony as citizens of the Islamic authority, without compulsion to change their religion. Muslims through the centuries have listened to the arguments and philosophies of other nations, translated their literature into Arabic and responded intellectually to whatever criticisms of Islam they encountered.
When the issue of reasoned debate is considered comparatively, it will be discovered that the thinkers and politicians of western countries are remarkably opposed to debate with their own Muslim minority populations and seek to impose their beliefs by coercion rather than persuasion. When Jyllands-Posten sought to make a stand for freedom they chose not to raise an intellectual discussion directly, but to offend Muslims in Denmark and push them into a corner. If it were not for the world-wide reaction, then the Muslims in Denmark would have been under intense pressure to concede to others the right to ‘freely’ express any racist or insulting views towards them, in the name of secularism and tolerance. They would have been asked to compromise on their values and give up their adherence to pre-modern non-tangible values in the name of integration with the Danish host society.
The publishing of offensive cartoons in the name of freedom seems less honourable when it is recalled that in April 2003, the same Danish newspaper rejected publishing cartoons "lampooning" Jesus Christ, citing that they could be offensive to readers and were not humorous. The Sunday editor of the paper remarked, "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them." Freedom then has its limits – except when used against Muslims and what they hold dear. If politicians, editors and writers in the west are concerned that the Muslims living in their countries do not share their political visions and their values, then they ought to try and convince Muslims through discussion and debate. In fact coercion is the favoured method used against Muslims who do give intellectual reasons for their beliefs and values. Muslims who reject western political culture are commonly insulted rather than refuted. In fact it is almost impossible to find any serious attempts to refute the political ideology of Muslims who refuse to believe in democracy and secularism. Instead, offensive cartoons or the issue of immigration are used to coerce Muslims into believing in and participating in the political culture of secularism. If this does not work, Muslims are told they must conform or the extremists will gain power. If Muslims still fail to fall in line, they risk being labelled as ‘extremist,’ ‘militant,’ ‘fanatic’ or ‘terrorist’.
Such a tactic has an historical precedent. The nationalism of the 19th century that cemented the concept of the ‘nation state’ in Europe had violent consequences in the 20th century in the rise of fascism. Fascism had a powerful hold on many Europeans and wars had to be fought in order to defeat it. Nevertheless, ‘far-right’ politics is still very much alive in Europe. It seems then that fascism is a resilient force and those opposed to fascism have adopted a common tactic in fighting it. They are incapable of defeating it intellectually, because it is no more or less rational than any other western political philosophy. No one tries to prove the concept of ‘freedom’ in the same way that Muslims, for example, offer proofs for the existence of the creator or the prophethood of Mohammad. Instead the terminology used against fascism is framed in opprobrium and insult. Fascism is ‘obscene’, ‘repugnant’, ‘unacceptable’ and so on, but is also ‘wrong’. While Muslims would respond to fascism by trying to demonstrate its intellectual flaws, western opponents of fascism simply insult it and those who believe in it. This approach has been successful in marginalising extreme forms of nationalism and even the word fascism has become a standard insult in the English language. This word is even applied to Muslims who hold to their political culture and express the hope of the return of the Caliphate. The debates in Denmark and throughout Europe regarding the presence of growing Muslim minorities that are slow to accept western political concepts has focused upon coercion and has neglected debate. This can only end in disappointment, because Muslim political thought is resilient and evidence-based, leaving it untouched by coercive integration measures. This approach may also lead to conflict, because Muslims believe in intangible values, such as honour, and will respond vigorously to insults upon their religion.
If newspaper editors dispense with mocking cartoons and opt for intellectual debate with Muslims they can expect a more fruitful response than the worldwide reaction the editors of Jyllands-Posten managed to incite with: ‘Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke!’