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I don’t recall being particularly offended by the Danish cartoons controversy as a college-age Muslim. For those unfamiliar with it, in 2005 the magazine Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which led to diplomatic incidents and protests in several Muslim countries as well as boycotts of Danish products. The cartoons were reproduced in several Western publications in response to the popular anger, supposedly as a stand in support of freedom of speech. The event of course should not be seen in isolation — it was a precursor to controversy and violence such as the attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the offense at this supposed blasphemy inspired other copycat attacks, such as the brutal murder of the teacher Samuel Paty in a suburb of Paris for allegedly showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon in a class on freedom of expression.
Part of not being offended by it had to do with me exiting a religious phase in my late teens that had coincided with the Iraq invasion. But I also didn’t understand why I was supposed to be angry at an unknown Danish newspaper because it had supposedly insulted a figure whom I revered as part of my faith. It seemed like a futile exercise to try to police everyone who disagreed with that worldview, and it didn’t seem to me like the founder of a religion that had over 1 billion followers around the world needed someone to defend his legacy or protect his feelings 14 centuries later, considering that he had contended with much worse in his lifetime. I thought the republication of the cartoons was petty and Islamophobic, like children repeating a mocking nickname because they know it will get a rise out of you in the schoolyard, particularly given the situation at the time, with the Iraq invasion and terror attacks in the West placing the very idea of multicultural coexistence in question. But it all failed to provoke anger in me. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be angry at or what the outcome of it was supposed to be.
It didn’t help that some of the protests were farcical. Arab scholars and diplomats held the Danish government responsible, even though it has no power over what a newspaper publishes, which spurred an amusing cultural clash with friends used to government control over media (but was not amusing to the members of Norwegian and Danish diplomatic missions who were attacked in response). In Lahore, protesters burned down a KFC for some reason.
What did pique my interest is how protests suddenly were able to happen in some Arab countries that ordinarily would crush their participants. Overnight, Syria became a bastion of free expression and popular protests, allowing people to vent their anger at the cartoons — protests that were largely instigated by secularists, many of them likely working for the Bashar al-Assad regime. The clerical establishment all over the region rushed to condemn this apparent assault on the Prophet’s honor, having suffered grievous wounds to their credibility in the years since the Iraq invasion for having to kowtow to governments keen to avoid inflaming the situation further. Both governments and the clergy used the blasphemy allegations to foment an outlet for popular anger and discontent. It wasn’t just religion that played this useful opiate role. The Egyptian government would continue to gleefully participate in diplomatic incidents with Algeria over ill-tempered World Cup qualifying games, with the president and his sons adopting the mantle of defending Egypt’s honor and interests.
As the writer Arash Azizi argues in a piece in our magazine, the Iranian regime had similar aims through its fatwa targeting the writer Salman Rushdie, which led to a savage attack against him last weekend. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa came at a time when he had been forced to compromise to end the Iran-Iraq war, a “poison chalice” that in its aftermath necessitated his burnishing his radical credentials. Khaled Diab made a similar point in his essay: that “The Satanic Verses” was actually available inside Iran — until suddenly it wasn’t.
The problem of course is that words have consequences, and this stoking of the flames costs actual lives. This is further exacerbated by a social media environment that simultaneously makes it easier to pile on with outrage as well as find reasons to be angry. Samuel Paty’s murder was preceded by a social media campaign. The social media companies have proven time and again that they have little interest in maintaining civility in the public sphere since they thrive off of interaction with controversy and outrage, damaging the fabric of society in their quest for advertising dollars. It enables some imbecile who wasn’t even alive when Rushdie wrote “The Satanic Verses” to try to commit righteous murder.
Not that it matters what the book contained or whether it was offensive. I have often found the argument that an intelligent reading of his work, or the work of a writer like Naguib Mahfouz (who was assaulted in a similar fashion), shows that it isn’t actually blasphemous to be accurate but besides the point. They should be able to say what they want without fearing for their lives.
There is no shortage of clerics and government officials willing to fan the flames to improve their standing in their societies (as the Rushdie case and countless others before it have shown). It is incumbent upon individuals and conscientious members of the clerical establishment to fight this instinct for bloodlust and outrage as an outlet for life’s challenges. It is also incumbent on them to realize when they are being used in this way to serve the interests of the ruling class.
After all, if something as integral to the foundation of your identity as your faith trembles every time someone mocks it, it is perhaps time for some introspection. It is both an admission that your faith is weaker than you believe it to be and a capitulation to the secular regimes you claim to oppose.