Cartoons and the Clash of 'Freedoms'
By Ehsan Ahrari
Global Beat Syndicate
NORFOLK, Va. —The Danish newspaper published cartoons of the
Prophet Mohammad last September, but the backlash from that has sparked
renews anger in the Islamic world—the latest being the burning of the
Norwegian and Danish embassies in Syria. The roots of it all actually
go back to 9/11, which created a highly charged environment where
apparently, no subject is sacred in the West, especially topics related
to Muslims and Islam.
embassy burnings are reminiscent of another controversy that brewed in
1988 and still simmers today. Salman Rushdie—then an obscure novelist
of Muslim-Indian origin, wrote "The Satanic Verses," in which he
attempted to defile Islam. After the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's
fatwa (edict) calling for Rushdie's death, he
became, in Western eyes, a champion of freedom of expression. In Muslim
countries, he instantly became an embodiment of Satan.
world attention is focused European newspapers—notably in Denmark,
Norway and France—that published insulting cartoons of the Prophet of
the West, freedom of expression is considered sacred. For some, that
freedom is absolute, even allowing someone to insult a person's faith.
In Muslim countries, there are equally absolute standards regarding
Islam, and there, nothing and no one is above Islam, and love and
respect for the Prophet are requirements for adherents to the Muslim
this issue, the long-standing chasm between the West and the world of
Islam is getting wider. It may even be heading toward a "civilizational
war" like the one Samuel Huntington (wrongly) described as occurring in
the early 1990s in his book "The Clash of Civilizations and the
Remaking of World Order."
September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States clearly widened
that chasm. Osama bin Laden emerged as a new hero in the Muslim world
and villan in the West. But he caused the deaths of thousands of
innocent people, so why should he be admired for that? The answer lies
not in the September 11 attacks, but in the context of a larger
struggle taking place inside the world of Islam. Among Muslim regimes,
the dominance of the United States and the West has been taken for
granted. And in those countries, there is little hope about the
prospects of political change and economic progress. Moreover, the rot
of authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption has been so entrenched
that people cannot realistically aspire to be free, prosperous or see
prospects of technological advance.
most Muslims, the West appears content about the state of backwardness,
obscurantism and darkness that currently prevails in Muslim countries
in the Middle East and elsewhere. And along comes bin Laden, who voices
anger over the state of affairs in the world of Islam. People do not
necessarily buy into his murderous philosophy of transnational
terrorism, but they agree with his criticism of what is wrong with the
world of Islam and why it remains backward.
of speech is indeed a noble idea. To state that it should have no
limits (or that it should be absolute) may be a useful academic
exercise, but we also need to keep in mind that exercising that freedom
could also lead to the same kind of terrible consequences as when
someone yells "fire" in a packed theater.
Muslims, the West appears stubbornly against compromising on the
freedom of expression, and they see hypocrisy in this because this
freedom is not as absolute as it is pretended to be in some quarters.
Nothing in human affairs can be "absolute." And at the same time,
Muslims are equally uncompromising and "absolute" in their responses to
anyone being disrespectful of their religion and their Prophet.
how end the confrontation? In a world that is more of a global village
than ever before, there must be compromises. Muslims make a point of
not insulting Christians about their faith. As a quid pro quo, a
similar courtesy is warranted toward their religion. As the recent
violence underscores, the global village is like a packed theater. Good
judgment is a requirement before yelling "fire," even in the name
freedom of expression.