Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 February 2006
Issue No. 782
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

Showdown of cultures

It is time to address the core of contentious divisions across cultures, and between states and regions, instead of masking them in an empty "dialogue of civilisations", writes Ayman El-Amir*

For decades, Arabs and Muslims have ruefully swallowed the stereotyping of their culture by Western cartoonists and columnists. Long before the infamous 11 September terrorist attacks, Arabs and Muslims were routinely portrayed as cruel, crude, corrupt and ignorant camel drivers who had nothing in common with Western civilisation, let alone a civilisation of their own. After 11 September, they were painted as the implacable enemy that is bent on the destruction of Western democracy and its way of life. This image was persistently etched on Western minds by lobbyists whose vital interests were best served by erecting a cultural barrier between the West and Muslim peoples. Their remarkable success, particularly among Washington's neo- conservatives, made anti-Arab, anti-Muslim prejudice part of Western cultural perception.

It is against this background that the insulting anti- Muslim cartoons were published five months ago by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. With this cultural prejudice in mind, Western politicians, media and the public were stunned by the vehemence of Muslim outrage that has so far claimed many casualties and caused heavy material and political damage. When the intense firestorm eventually peters out, many more people on both sides of the cultural divide will be surprised by how much the concept of Arab-Western rapprochement, envisioned by the incipient Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, has been set back.

The row over the satirical representation of Prophet Mohamed by the Danish newspaper, later reprinted by other Western papers, was not about Islamic taboos versus freedom of expression, as Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark has put it. It is about the freedom to caricature Islam as an inferior religion equated with terrorism, with a sense of impunity. Published cartoons carry an editorial point of view that is approved by the publisher and the editor of any publication. However, European press laws are replete with provisions that criminalise insult, slander and racial hate, but are not applied even-handedly. Editors are wary of any form of expression that could be remotely interpreted as anti- Semitic. National laws in France, Germany and Austria penalise individuals who dare to question any aspect of the holocaust. In Austria, prosecution for holocaust denial is being prepared against British historian David Irving based on two lectures he gave in the country on the subject in 1989. On the other hand, Jens Kaiser, former Sunday editor of Jyllands-Posten reportedly turned down cartoons of Jesus Christ three years ago because he felt they would be "too offensive" to the public. In the heat of the confrontation, Sweden's civilised decision to close down a Web site that was planning to carry the offensive cartoons can hardly be characterised as an act of censorship by a country that holds freedom of expression and human rights in high esteem.

Under the French press law, of 29 July 1881, insult is defined as "any offensive expression, term of scorn or invective not involving the imputing of any deed". By the same law, which is still on the books of French statute, defamation is characterised as "any allegation or imputation of an act injurious to the honour or reputation of the person or the body against whom it is made". In 1968, a Frenchman was charged with insulting the president of the republic under the same law by booing, as he stood in a crowd, the passing motorcade of President Charles de Gaulle as he drove down the Champs Elysées . Despite the charge, the man never stood trial.

Freedom of expression, under which the publishing of the cartoons was justified, has many uses, restrictions and caveats. Editors are not only careful not to break the law, but are also sensitive to social decorum and the sensibilities of interest groups on a wide range of issues, including race and religion. Church groups in both Europe and the US are vocal watchdogs of any published material or film production they view as offensive. They fight back using boycotts and legal recourse.

Muslim reaction against the publishing and adamant justification of the cartoons need not have been that intense or so widespread. Torching the embassies of Denmark and other acts of violence by angry demonstrators were excessive, just as the manipulation of the situation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lambaste Syria and Iran was disappointing. One explanation is that these explosive protests combined many Muslim grievances that have been simmering since 11 September and the rise of right-wing conservatism in Europe and the US. It was a response to what many Muslims living in Western and regional societies saw as a denigration of their faith and religious practices at a time when Islam had become the second religion in many European countries. But it was equally a political backlash against Western policies on many fronts, including Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. It would be naive to claim that the protests did not embody anti-Western sentiments. But so did the dismissive attitude with which the Danish government treated appeals by the Muslim community and diplomatic corps in Copenhagen since the issue surfaced last September.

This showdown between the secularist culture of the West and rising political Islam speaks volumes of the miles that need to be travelled if both sides are to meet in a meaningful dialogue. The Euro-Mediterranean summit that met in Barcelona in November 2005 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration failed to make any significant progress towards the fulfilment of the Barcelona partnership process. Issues that separate the European Union's 25 members from most of their 10 southern Mediterranean partners remain unresolved. Contentious questions about the distinction between terrorism and armed resistance against military occupation, including that symbolised by Israel, stemming the flood of Arab immigrants to Europe and how to foster better economic cooperation remain. Added to them now are problems of the integration of Muslim nationals into European societies without threatening their cultural identity. The stereotyping of Arabs, identifying Islam with terrorism and misrepresenting the edict of jihad, do not help promote better understanding of either Islam or the Western liberal tradition. This is a tall order that needs to be addressed urgently on political, cultural and intellectual levels. Having a dialogue of religions alone cannot and has not produced significant results. One reason is that it is not really a dialogue in the sense of attaining consensus through a process of debate and compromise.

One brainchild of the Barcelona process was the creation of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue among Cultures that was launched in Alexandria, Egypt, last year. As its name suggests, the foundation has been entrusted with building cultural bridges across the Mediterranean to improve communication among the diverse cultures that the Barcelona process encompasses. However, that leaves the root-causes of the conflict of cultures in abeyance rather than addressing them. One major concern is that after much cultural dialogue and communication, and much debate about accepting "the other", one seemingly insignificant incident may touch a raw nerve and send the whole process back to square one. A dialogue about what divides cultures on both sides of the Mediterranean in the first place might be a more productive start.

* The writer is former corespondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, the writer also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.

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