Independent 4 February 2006
So now it's cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed with a bomb-shaped turban.
Ambassadors are withdrawn from Denmark, Gulf nations clear their shelves
of Danish produce, Gaza gunmen threaten the European Union. In Denmark,
Fleming Rose, the "culture" editor of the pip-squeak newspaper which
published these silly cartoons - last September, for heaven's sake -
announces that we are witnessing a "clash of civilisations" between
secular Western democracies and Islamic societies. This does prove, I
suppose, that Danish journalists follow in the tradition of Hans
Christian Anderson. Oh lordy, lordy. What we're witnessing is the
childishness of civilisations.
So let's start off with the Department of Home Truths. This is not an
issue of secularism versus Islam. For Muslims, the Prophet is the man
who received divine words directly from God. We see our prophets as
faintly historical figures, at odds with our high-tech human rights,
almost cariacatures of themselves. The fact is that Muslims live their
religion. We do not. They have kept their faith through innumerable
historical vicissitudes. We have lost our faith ever since Matthew
Arnold wrote about the sea's "long, withdrawing roar". That's why we
talk about "the West versus Islam" rather than "Christians versus Islam"
- because there aren't an awful lot of Christians left in Europe. There
is no way we can get round this by setting up all the other world
religions and asking why we are not allowed to make fun of Mohamed.
Besides, we can exercise our own hypocrisy over religious feelings. I
happen to remember how, more than a decade ago, a film called The Last
Temptation of Christ showed Jesus making love to a woman. In Paris,
someone set fire to the cinema showing the movie, killing a young man. I
also happen to remember a US university which invited me to give a
lecture three years ago. I did. It was entitled "September 11, 2001: ask
who did it but, for God's sake, don't ask why". When I arrived, I found
that the university had deleted the phrase "for God's sake" because "we
didn't want to offend certain sensibilities". Ah-ha, so we have
In other words, while we claim that Muslims must be good secularists
when it comes to free speech - or cheap cartoons - we can worry about
adherents to our own precious religion just as much. I also enjoyed the
pompous claims of European statesmen that they cannot control free
speech or newspapers. This is also nonsense. Had that cartoon of the
Prophet shown instead a chief rabbi with a bomb-shaped hat, we would
have had "anti-Semitism" screamed into our ears - and rightly so - just
as we often hear the Israelis complain about anti-Semitic cartoons in
Furthermore, in some European nations - France is one, Germany and
Austria are among the others - it is forbidden by law to deny acts of
genocide. In France, for example, it is illegal to say that the Jewish
Holocaust or the Armenian Holocaust did not happen. So it is, in fact,
impermissable to make certain statements in European nations. I'm still
uncertain whether these laws attain their objectives; however much you
may prescribe Holocaust denial, anti-Semites will always try to find a
way round. We can hardly exercise our political restraints to prevent
Holocaust deniers and then start screaming about secularism when we find
that Muslims object to our provocative and insulting image of the
For many Muslims, the "Islamic" reaction to this affair is an
embarrassment. There is good reason to believe that Muslims would like
to see some element of reform introduced to their religion. If this
cartoon had advanced the cause of those who want to debate this issue,
no-one would have minded. But it was clearly intended to be provocative.
It was so outrageous that it only caused reaction.
And this is not a great time to heat up the old Samuel Huntingdon
garbage about a "clash of civilisations". Iran now has a clerical
government again. So, to all intents and purposes, does Iraq (which was
not supposed to end up with a democratically elected clerical
administration, but that's what happens when you topple dictators). In
Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 per cent of the seats in the recent
parliamentary elections. Now we have Hamas in charge of "Palestine".
There's a message here, isn't there? That America's policies - "regime
change" in the Middle East - are not achieving their ends. These
millions of voters were preferring Islam to the corrupt regimes which we
imposed on them.
For the Danish cartoon to be dumped on top of this fire is dangerous
In any event, it's not about whether the Prophet should be pictured. The
Koran does not forbid images of the Prophet even though millions of
Muslims do. The problem is that these cartoons portrayed Mohamed as a
bin Laden-type image of violence. They portrayed Islam as a violent
religion. It is not. Or do we want to make it so?