Thursday, February 09, 2006

Muslims, Cartoons, and Religion in the Modern World

The last few weeks have witnessed widespread protests in the Muslim world. People have been killed. Danish and other European embassies have been burnt down and dire threats have been issued by Islamic hardliners. All this because a Danish newspaper published twelve cartoons last September depicting Prophet Muhammad, including one showing Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb. As I see it, this episode highlights some of the problems that arise from the failure in large parts of the Islamic world to establish a suitable role for religion in modern society.

All modern civilized societies are based in some way or another on the concept of freedom, respect and equality for all religions. While this basic concept may be very simple, it makes two very important demands on followers of all faiths.
(1) Religion must be confined largely to the spiritual domain, and the business of the material world must be left largely to non-religious forces, such as democracy, rationality, etc.
(2) While one is free to follow a religion of one’s choice, one must respect the right of others to not follow that religion.
I find that many Muslims are either unable or unwilling to accept these two fundamental requirements.

Many adherents of Islam – including many who choose to live in modern liberal societies such as in Western Europe – simply do not accept the premise that their religion should be confined largely to the spiritual domain, and must not be used as an instrument of governance in the material world. For example religion must never be used to deny equal temporal rights to certain sections of society (such as women or non-Muslims), or to restrict freedom of expression. This does not mean a complete lack of rules and regulations. It is perfectly okay to have laws regulating various activities, including laws regulating the freedom of expression, for example by restricting sexually explicit pictures. However these regulations must be determined by society on the basis of democratic debate and rational argument, not on the basis of theological rulings.

Many Muslims also do not accept that human beings have a fundamental right not to follow Islam (or any other religion). Idol-worshipping may be one of the cardinal sins in Islam. However, as a Hindu, I regularly worship idols of our many gods. Muslims must respect my right to do so, as long as I do not infringe upon their own spiritual rights. Similarly drawing pictures of Prophet Muhammad may go against their religious beliefs, but Muslims cannot impose this religious belief on others. It may be okay for people following a particular religious creed to believe that they are spiritually – but only spiritually – superior to others. However, it is completely unacceptable for them to feel a sense of superiority (or inferiority) over others in the non-spiritual temporal world.

It seems that wherever Muslims live, they feel that Islam deserves special treatment – not just equal treatment as one among many religions. Here is what Fleming Rose the editor of the Danish newspaper who made the decision to publish the cartoons says “These cartoons do not treat Muslims in any other way than we treat other citizens in this country. By treating them as equals, we are saying, you are equal.” If one neglects the Islamic aspect, the cartoons themselves are unexceptional. Thousands of similar cartoons are published every day in the world's newspapers satarizing politicians, celebrities, sports personalities, and yes, religious figures as well. When Muslims claim that these cartoons demonstrate a lack of respect for Islam, what they really mean is that they are not satisfied with mere equal treatment for Islam. They demand that non-Muslims treat Islam with much greater reverence and respect than they do other religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, etc., or even other belief systems such as nationalism, liberalism, etc. A balanced and insightful observer of Indian Muslims, C.M. Naim, partly quoting Narahar Kurundkar, says “Muslims believe in their cultural superiority over the Hindus … they hardly seem to be in a mood to be content with the mere rights of equal citizenship. Further … the basic issue is whether or not I have the right not to be a Muslim.” While this quote is about Muslims in India, I think the point that it makes is valid for Muslims worldwide.

While Muslims demand that non-Muslims display greater respect towards Islam than they do towards other religions, they themselves are unfortunately not willing to reciprocate in a similar manner. In many Muslim majority countries such as those in the Middle East, other religions are treated in an extremely disrespectful manner. In Saudi Arabia for example, the practice of any religion other than Islam is simply banned, and the pursuit of Islamic religious purity is sometimes taken to absurd lengths. Even outside Muslim majority countries, Islamic leaders sometimes display appalling disrespect towards non-Muslims. For example, on a recent state visit to India, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia refused to follow established protocol and pay his respects at Mahatma Gandhi's memorial (Rajghat) in New Delhi, citing some bizzare religious rule.

Islamic scholars and intellectuals who appear on U.S. TV channels from time to time always claim that the vast majority of Muslims are vehemently opposed to terrorism, that Islam is a religion of peace, etc. However in the wake of the Muhammad cartoon episode, this claim appears to be somewhat hollow. After all, if Muslims can protest so energetically and violently against the cartoons, why can’t they expend even a small part of this energy protesting against terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, which the large majority of Muslims supposedly oppose so vehemently ?

In fact the tactics of pressure and intimidation – in the form of strident and occasionally violent demonstrations – that are being employed today by many in parts of the Islamic world to “teach a lesson” or “send a message” to non-Muslims are themselves a mild form of terrorism – though thankfully not the bombing type. These tactics seek to create an atmosphere of self-censorship where non-Muslims are cowed into conforming to certain Islamic religious tenets by inducing a climate of fear and terror.


Blogger tanvi said...

The danish cartoons were not targetting muslims delibrately and the reaction of the community can well be criticised. however before going overboard with criticism we must understand that nothing in our world exists in a vaccum everything is contextual.The cartoons may be innocuos but they came at a time when almost all major international conflicts involve the community. After targetting Afghanistan and Iraq the US is busy threatening Iran with war. The gruesome pictures of Abu gharib are still fresh in public memory. Terrorism and Jehad have become synonymous in political and academic discourse. Western thinkers like Huntington openly call Islam a threat to western civilization, world peace and democracy. In such a scenario we can hardly blame muslims for feeling marginalised, persecuted and insecure. For them it is an us against the world situation. When groups and communities feel threatened from outside they have a natural tendency to become more protective of their collective identity. So we have even the moderate secular muslims asserting their islamic identity. This later breeds anxiety, frustation and anger. The reaction to the cartoons can be seen as an expression of these emotions. When under threat people cannot be expected to act rationally so its pointless to blame the communityfor overreaction. Now lets look at the other side.
The cartoonists claim they were only excercising their right to free expression and technically they are right. However it is important to understand that rights too are excercised in a larger context. As media persons they were bound to know that this action could lead to volatile reactions yet they went ahead with it. What did they expect? I am not trying to accuse them. I am an ardent supporter of press freedom and liberty. However lets not forget freedom always comes with responsibility. A right is not a license. Just because the law says they had a right to something do not gives them a reason for doing it. These were only cartoons not some story which had to be told. They had little value for the public. If it were something on violation of human rights by a muslim country it was worth publishing in spite of similar reactions it could have generated. But going this far for a cartoon which at the end of the day will be of little consequence to the world was a clearly going overboard. I will say it was not intentional but definitely irresponsible.
We can put it as a costly mistake if we do a simple cost benefit analysis. The cartoons were published ignoring the possible impact and led to protests. They were further reprinted in other publications throughout the world. This as expected led to violent reactions throughout the muslim world. Did it help anybody? May be sales of these publications shot up fuelled by the controversy but was it the worth the long term effects?
This has reinforced the feelings of alienation in the muslim world which could lead to serious consequences. Moderate mulims will easily fall into the trap of extremists who will cite this as an expression of western hostility against their community. Terrorism may gain support as the only viable mean of fighting the western assault on their religion. On other hand many innocent muslims will be further marginalised. The protests have strengthened the orientalist stereotypes about their community prevalent in the west which potray them as violent fanatics intolerant towards freedom and democracy. This can be used by oppurtunistic leaders to win domestic support for their unjust war campaigns abroad targetting muslim countries like Iraq ( no prizes for guessing who I am talking about).
Thus I will conclude by saying publishing those cartoons was an irresponsible mistake which could and should have been avoided. Unfortunately the damage has been done all we can hope for is that it won't be repeated. About religion inpolitics I will say in an ideal world they should be confined to the spiritual domain but not when half the world marks your identity based on that

April 21, 2006 12:51 PM  
Blogger Sujai said...

You seem to be of a rational mind. I would like to point out another aspect of intolerance that is creeping into India- from Hindus. Some of us like to impose onto others what Hinduism is about. Many Hindu organizations join hands to decry any 'desecration' of Hindu Idols (when they are printed on chappals, toilet seats, etc). And when MF Husain portrayed a Hindu Goddess nude, his place was ransacked.

April 29, 2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Sujai, I agree with you completely. I think it is incredibly stupid that certain Hindu organizations are protesting against MF Hussain's nude paintings of Hindu Godesses, or idols on toilet seats, etc. As long as I am doing these things of my own free will and not forcing them onto others I should be free to do so.

Another thing that I find even more disconcerting are statements like "ancient Hindus were far more scientifically and technologically advanced than modern scientists/engineers. Quantum Physics, Nanotechnology, etc. can all be found in the Vedas". This leads to statements from Hindutva-types like "Astrology is a science, no different from say Physics". Note than Arundati Roy, Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva have very similar views, "Adivases know more about herbs, roots, etc. than modern scientists; age-old technologies are far superior to modern ones, etc."

April 29, 2006 11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I hope you wont have any problems if i paint x's wife nude....or even morph her pic to that of a porn star....

October 11, 2006 9:03 PM  
Blogger the said...

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August 17, 2009 1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anjana said...

I do wish Muslims were more concerned about how their image takes a beating when they hold violent protests against a cartoon, but are quiet when their brethen take part in dastardly acts of terrorism. Violence is the only path that the muslim world will embark upon to solve any issue.
On the other hand, religion is a sensitive issue & people rightly are concerned when they see their gods potrayed in a bad light. The danish cartoons were an irresponsible act & so were MF Hussain's paintings on Hindu gods. He may not be forcing these on anybody, but the fact that they are put up for public viewing itself calls for responsible behavior. Where does freedom of expression end? Tommorrow somebody could paint religious figures in extremely erotic ways & justify it as freedom of expression. We live in a community & if there is to be harmony, there has to be a balance between freedom of an individual & responsibilty towards society.

January 09, 2011 10:09 AM  

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