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Rousing the lethargic bull

Islamic culture has continually transgressed its own taboos. But sustained provocation will put off even the best of wills. By Navid Kermani

The controversy over the Danish caricatures has unfolded as though a screenwriter had penned a script for a global culture war. The Muslims in this scenario react like Pavlov's dogs: predictably, thoughtlessly, brutally. They bark in response to light signals, biting on cue. Substantial sections of the Iranian and Arab populations in particular have failed to grasp the principle that one does not resort to violence simply because one feels annoyed or offended, that in a globalised world, there exist peaceful, and incidentally far more effective, ways of getting your position across.

Every consumer has the option of boycotting certain products: that is the nature of a free market economy. Given the potential consequences for business, no American media concern would dare to alienate a major target group. Had the Muslims kept to such a response, they could have turned the current conflict decisively to their favour and focussed world opinion on the ludicrously unprincipled stance of the Danish prime minister, who was only too eager to jettison his disdain for Muslims when the first package of feta cheese went unsold, all of a sudden whining "please, please, dialogue."

The Muslims would have succeeded, and no matter how many Europeans might have waxed indignant, they would have been assured the sympathy of the majority of world opinion - including many American correspondents, who rub their eyes in disbelief when faced with the racism disseminated in the European media. Meanwhile, it has once again become obvious that while many Muslims want to live in the modern world, they have not even begun to comprehend the rules of the game.

It is legitimate to boycott products, to write articles, to contribute money for media campaigns, to engage in lobbying. But no one has the right to burn flags or storm embassies. There is much to explain about the behaviour of the rioters (for instance, its instrumentalisation by dictatorial regimes), but it cannot be excused. The rioters have despoiled the heritage of their prophets and the standing of Islam more thoroughly than a European right-wing extremist could have hoped to do in his wildest dreams. The Muslim mob has shown just how remote the Arab public remains from civilized standards, from the fairness and balance they expect of the West.

On the other side of the cultural war, to begin with, stood a Danish newspaper situated on the right-wing in a nation that has itself shifted far to the right in recent years, enacting laws that contradict the achievements of European civilization in the crassest manner.

For four months the newspaper failed to seriously provoke the Muslim community in Denmark. They repeatedly ran tasteless caricatures until they finally succeeded in finding a couple of zealots who got themselves worked up in the desired way. The fact of the provocation does nothing to diminish the reactions of some imams in Denmark, nor those of sections of the population in Iran and the Arab countries. Still, if you wave a red flag long enough, even the most lethargic bull will eventually rouse itself. And unfortunately, many Arabs and Muslims are behaving these days like bulls with limited intellects and powers of comprehension, allowing themselves to lose control over a handful of tasteless cartoons.

Anyone even slightly familiar with Middle Eastern literature knows that it abounds with jesters who heap scorn on absolutely everything, including God, the mullahs, and, as a matter of course, rulers (although the prophets - all prophets – are for the most part exempt). Even the ban on depicting Muhammad has of course been violated repeatedly in the course of history (see a collection of Islamic depictions of Muhammad). So that Islamic culture, particularly during its medieval heyday, could even be described with reference to the continual transgression of its own taboos.

The most trenchant jokes about Islam can be heard in Teheran, Beirut and Istanbul, told again and again with pleasure by mischievous mullahs. Jokes about the Jewish and Christian minorities are only heard among racists in Iran today. No one seriously interested in the peaceful coexistence of the religions in Iran laughs at them. But as the appeal from an Iranian newspaper for submissions of anti-Semitic caricatures demonstrates, the current Iranian president, together with the fascist press that does his bidding, is not interested in such social harmony.

Should we take him as our role model? Europeans could do him no greater favour than to throw their own standards and ideals overboard. Unfortunately, many intellectuals, journalists, and politicians in the West agree that it is time to start firing back. Whoever opposes the enemies of an open society by renouncing cultural openness has already lost the battle.

The Mohammed caricatures are by no means a second Salman Rushdie case. It was Rushdie's inalienable right to defame his own Islamic culture. To treat one's own values and authorities disrespectfully is the right and even the duty of literature and art, even if it is persistently met with hostility for its efforts. Rushdie stands in the long tradition of writers from the Islamic world who have taken on Islam. Many of them have paid for the privilege with proscription, imprisonment, even with their lives (although Middle Eastern history has nowhere near as many as heretics as that of Europe).

The Danish editorial decision is something else entirely. Here, a minority population is deliberately provoked in its own country, while its reaction in turn serves as a justification to further marginalize it. It is neither a question of the right to engage in critique, nor of humour as the spearhead of freedom of expression. In this case, another culture is being ridiculed. In Europe, this belongs to a completely different tradition, and one, moreover, that has precious little to do with humanism - although it does correspond to the political tendencies of the Danish newspaper and of the politicians closest to it. Their campaign is directed not only against Muslims, but against everything that (after so many atrocities and so many wars) has made Europe such a wonderful place, against the values of tolerance, reason, equality, the achievements of compromise and a genuine secularization that itself rests on the equal rights of diverse religions. To publish caricatures aimed at a - repressed - minority in its own land is the antithesis of enlightenment. It is and remains a kind of muffled xenophobia.

Also important is the negligent and in part deliberately one-sided and mendacious reporting by some elements of the media - and not just in the Islamic world. From the very beginning, there seemed to be no limit in the West to what could be reported, nor to the level of malice.

Germany is not the world - it is not even Europe. In countries such as Greece and Poland, which are also European Union members, artists and authors who poke fun at Christianity are regularly hauled before judges. In Rome, just two weeks ago, a Muslim man was sentenced to eight months in prison for removing the crucifix from his hospital room. We hear virtually nothing about such things from the media. Not do we hear much about ordinary Muslim citizens, who do not necessarily live in Berlin's Neukölln district, who clap their hands to their foreheads in dismay at the rampages of their fellow believers.

People who ceaselessly disseminate hateful stereotypes of Muslims - hooded men with machine guns, veiled masses of women, headscarves photographed from behind in German schoolyards, faces distorted with rage, praying figures shown just at the brief moment when their heads touch the ground, so that there posteriors grin up at the camera - should not act surprised when hatred escalates and turns violent. Far more offensive than the Danish caricatures are certain books on the German bestseller lists, cover pictures in Der Spiegel, commentaries appearing in the Springer press.

When a politician such as Friedbert Pflüger, who is preparing to run for office as Berlin's Mayor, extensively praises Oriana Fallaci's bestseller "The Rage and the Pride", which reviles Muslims - literally all Muslims - as "rats", then the "rats" themselves are forced to weigh the likelihood that - depending upon the outcome of the elections - it may soon become impossible for them to live in this country's capital.

Anyone attempting to get a fair hearing with considered arguments, even with scholarly knowledge, is promptly stigmatized as a naïve multiculturalist. To believe the rabble-rousers among the German press, the entire field of Islamic studies in Germany has been collectively taken in by Islamism. The same fate, meanwhile, has also overtaken integration research in Germany, now that a group of researchers has published an open letter published in Die Zeit opposing the pseudo-scientific discourse of certain best-selling German-Turkish authors who they say are indifferent to reliable empirical data (more here).

Anyone reading the indignant reactions to this open letter gets the impression that Islamo-fascist brainwashing is pervasive at German universities. Much more preferable is listening to elderly gentlemen telling grisly anecdotes about their Taliban friends, or German-Turkish women who certify the most absurd prejudices about Turks with spectacular case histories, or even well-known Christian fundamentalists like Hans-Peter Raddatz and Christa Schirrmacher, who have been rehabilitated to respectability in the serious daily press.

"The scandal exists when the media makes an end of it," one might say with Karl Kraus, although he was not, in any event, referring to the media, but to the police. At some point in the future, the current caricature controversy will provide experts in media studies with an illustration of how Western and non-Western broadcasters, acting in perfect accord, are capable in just a few days of generating the very mass hysteria about which they are reporting. Anyone who expresses an opinion becomes a part of this scenario, in which each must have his say: the critics of Islam, as well as the representatives of Muslim society, the media critics and the journalists who complain about media critics. This author keenly anticipates learning which corner this text has placed him in.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 8, 2006.

Navid Kermani lives in Cologne. His book of short stories "Du sollst" was recently published by Ammann Verlag.

Translation: Ian Pepper.

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