Saturday, February 11, 2006

More on the cartoons

A Muslim woman and a Christian woman playing chess from the 13th-century book on chess of Alfonso X of Castile-Leon.

Well, the uproar on the cartoons continues. I'd like to point people towards two excellent posts on the subject: Mad Canuck, who explains with detail how offensive the cartoons are, and Fayrouz, who as an Iraqi Catholic, has a great perspective from which to analyze this situation (and who has some kind words for my post). If you browse through the >60 comments on Mad Canuck's post, you will see a good representation of the kind of attitude that all three of us have warned against: the attitude that the situation is one of us against them, that the violence that has erupted is proof that the one billion Muslims in the world are all intolerant and barbarously aggressive, that they are all, in a word, our enemies.

Indeed, the situation has been very disturbing. Many people in the Muslim world have used the rage provoked by the cartoons for their own purposes. Radical anti-Western Islamists, regimes like that of Syria that prefer their people be enraged by an outside enemy and not by their own government, and the extremists in Iran all can gain from this violence. Those in the West who prefer the simple solution of hating all one billion Muslims are enjoying the violence as well. A handful of extremists carrying threatening signs are seen by many in the West as representative of Islam, instead of the vast majority represented by those who protest peacefully.

At the same time, many people ask, "All this over a cartoon?" The answer is "of course not." The cartoon was a trigger that released a flood of anti-Western feeling among many Muslims. "The War on Terror" is seen by many as a war on Islam, and by a number of people in the West as well. The war in Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, the treatment of Muslim visitors to the US, the uncritical support of Israeli human rights abuses, the rhetoric of many of our politicians, preachers, and pundits... Couple this with the marginalization of Muslims in Europe, laws against their traditions and a history of brutal colonialism... This is the context in which a radical demonstrator will hold up a sign asking for "Death to freedom of expression." Freedom of expression, liberty, democracy are words that swell our hearts in the US and Western Europe, but that don't resonate so much everywhere else--not because they aren't universal values, but because they are values that must be cultivated, not imposed, especially imposed by arrogant powers made wealthy from imperialism.

I do not excuse calls for violence and against freedom of expression. We must, however, make an effort to understand how those who oppose us see us. If the only answer we can come up with to the question "Why do they hate us?" is the vapid and simplistic "Because they hate freedom," we will be doing little more than continuing to contribute our share to misunderstanding and hatred, a misunderstanding and hatred that have had and will have brutal results. It is, as the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey have stated, in all of our interests to defuse this situation. I will not stand here wagging my finger and say, "the Muslims must do this, the Muslims must do that," when I know how much work we in the West have to do. We need to understand our own prejudices and our own policies. We need to get off the soapbox and, if we really do abhor the violence, start towards understanding.

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