Printing cartoons of Muhammad creates fear and insecurity in Muslims across Europe
Friday February 3, 2006
The battle is set, of religious extremism versus freedom of speech. These are the lines drawn, or so we are told, in the escalating tensions worldwide surrounding the printing of images of Muhammad in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.Although the media is only now picking up on this story, my inbox has been receiving messages about these cartoons for weeks. The messages range from high-pitched to very thoughtful, but not one of them says, “Yeah, whatever … ”
There’s no apathy surrounding this issue. This is because of the love felt for the prophet and religious norms in Islam. But also because it feeds into profound feelings of disempowerment, fear and insecurity among Muslims that Europe would do well to understand. In Britain, we should realise that Muslims here will be angry if the pictures are gratuitously published in British papers – not just because of the insults to Muhammad, but because it makes them feel disempowered. Protesting is the only way to regain some self-respect.
First, the easy part. Any depiction of Muhammad, however temperate, is not allowed. There are but a few images of him in Muslim history, and even these are shown with his face veiled. This applies not only to images of Muhammad: no prophet is to be depicted. There are no images of God in Islam either.
So there is hurt and anger, and the messages I receive reflect that. In response, they suggest different approaches. One is through lobbying: distributing the phone numbers of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the Danish ambassador, Denmark’s parliament and everything else Danish, and urging Muslims to make their feelings known. We also have the boycott approach – “the only language the west understands” – listing every Danish product that one can buy. I also get messages from the great optimists, suggesting we use the controversy to explain the real nature of Muhammad, who returned insults with kindness. Indeed, Muslims would do well to remember that.
I have also been receiving other messages. These are the most worrying, and the ones of which Europe must take note. These are the messages of resignation. The messages that discuss exit strategies. The messages that question the very future of Muslims in Europe.
Why such hand-wringing over a few cartoons? The key is in the images themselves: Muhammad with turbaned bomb, Muhammad declaring that paradise had run out of virgins for suicide bombers, Muhammad with sword and veiled women. Muhammad in every Orientalist caricature. Muhammad as a symbol for Islam and Muslims. These are the stereotypes that, as Muslims, we face daily. The looks on the tube, the suspicion, the eyes on the bags we carry. There is no denying the feeling of being pushed against a wall, of drowning in the stereotypes that abound. This is no way to live, and it is certainly no springboard for making a major contribution to the society you live in.
The messages to my inbox of resignation, of fear, come with good reason. Some countries that have reprinted the images – Spain, France, Italy and Germany – have a nasty history of fascism. Just last week we had Holocaust memorial day. The Holocaust did not occur overnight. It took time to establish a people as subhuman, and cartoons played their part. Does Europe not remember its past and the Nazi propaganda of Der Stürmer?
Now the great shape-shifter of fascism seems to have taken on the clothes of “freedom of speech”. If these cartoons were designed to provoke Muslim fundamentalists, maybe they have done more to reveal the prejudices of Europe. Europe has a history of turning on its minorities. Will that be its future too?
· Sarah Joseph is editor of emel magazine firstname.lastname@example.org