Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 April 2006
Issue No. 791
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Draining the reservoir

Following months of controversy over the publication of cartoons insulting to the prophet it is clear that those who have benefited from the episode are extremists from both sides, writes Ismail Serageldin*

The Danish cartoon controversy, subject of much debate during the past two months reveals, among other things, the depth of misunderstanding that exists between the Muslim world and the West. To many Westerners the publication in a Danish newspaper, and the subsequent reprinting in other Western media outlets, of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad offensively was a matter of free expression that did not justify the anger that swept the Muslim world, anger that resulted in violence claiming several lives and attacks on the embassies of countries with friendly relations to the Muslim world, not to mention a boycott of Danish goods.

The bitter resentment harboured by the majority of Muslims towards the West, and the US in particular, is not fully understood in the West. Even though this particular incident did not involve the US, and by and large the American media response to the controversy was balanced, to a great extent the resentment is fed by current US policies. Such resentment runs deep, drawing on feelings of victimisation that call on distant memories, from the Crusades to colonialism.

These feelings are exacerbated by perceived Western double standards in treating human rights issues in Palestine, and by the perception among the populations of many Arab and Muslim countries that their governments are unable to stand up to the West. This deep sense of grievance has accumulated over the years and now forms a dangerous reservoir of highly unstable fuel. The cartoons merely provided the spark, though the flames that ensued were fanned by those with political agendas to advance. The spark, then, though by no means negligible, counts among the least of the problems we face. Far more urgent is the damming of the tributaries that feed the reservoir.

The explosion in the French suburbs a few months ago, and the 18 days of rioting and curfews that accompanied it, fed on a similar reservoir of frustration, the result of decades of marginalisation. Similarly, in the 1960s the Watts riots in the US, and subsequent rioting across many urban centers in which African-Americans burned down entire areas of major cities, were fuelled by a history of frustration at unmet demands for justice and equality.

It is the accumulation of fuel and not just the sparks that set it aflame we must now address. And it is the acknowledgement that these dangerous reservoirs must be drained that lies behind the arduous work of those who promote the dialogue of cultures and the alliance of civilizations. For we are committed to this task not in order to confront the thesis of the clash of civilizations with another thesis: rather, our work is based on the genuine belief that only together can we address the underlying grievances and dispel misunderstandings.

While the West controls most of the world's wealth, Muslims number a billion people. Neither can afford to ignore the other. Islam is rapidly becoming the second religion of many Western countries, and these growing communities cannot be turned into targeted minorities. Far from showing that there is no possibility of dialogue between cultures, the cartoon episode highlights the urgency with which we must address the stock of grievances and change the policies that contribute to this gulf of suspicion. We need to dispel the misunderstanding in order to build a coherent framework for the construction of a better world for all.

One misunderstanding at the centre of the cartoons controversy has to do with the centrality of the Prophet in the Muslim consciousness, though it is difficult to communicate to non-Muslims the sensitivities involved in the issue. In Islam there exists a reverence, for the Prophet particularly, and for all prophets mentioned in the Bible and the Quran, that does not allow for jesting. In discussions with some of my co-religionists, when I pointed to cartoons in the Arab and Muslim press that would be considered anti- Semitic the response was telling: these were cartoons of people, whether Israelis or Jews; there would be no cartoon about the prophet Moses.

In the West, given the specificities of its history, it is probably easier for people to make cartoons of Moses, Jesus or even an anthropomorphic God than anti-Semitic cartoons that promote, once again, the stereotypes that led to pogroms and the Holocaust. But to Muslims this is another example of double standards. How is it possible to outlaw attacks against Jews and forbid Holocaust denial and consider this compatible with freedom of speech when giving offence to Islam and Muslims is defended in the name of that same freedom? Why is there a blasphemy statute on the books in the UK that tends to be extended to other non-Christian faiths but not to Islam? Why are bans on hate crimes extended to some communities but not to Muslims?

It is difficult for many Muslims, whose history has not brought them into contact with the darker aspects of the Second World War, to understand the profound revulsion many European countries feel towards this chapter of their history. For many in Egypt Erwin Rommel, the dashing leader of the Africa Corps, was the face of Germany in the Second World War. He was, and still is, widely respected as a soldier, even among the allies. Rommel was pushing the British back at a time the British continued to occupy Egypt.

No person of conscience who has studied the facts can react with anything but revulsion to the atrocities committed by the Nazis. It is understandable that European societies can, and perhaps should, limit free speech in some areas out of fear that it resurrect past spectres and lead to a repetition of the violence against Jews. Such stereotyping, after all, has been used to justify horrors against other minorities in Europe, most recently the Muslims of the Balkans. Similar stereotyping and hate-mongering has occurred as a prelude to genocide in Rwanda and to sectarian violence and mass murder from Africa to Indonesia. So how should we react when Muslim minorities in European countries are the victims of such stereotyping?

One does not argue the restricting of freedom of expression lightly. Without this freedom there can be no transparency, no accountability and no social progress. I consider freedom of expression to be "the first freedom," the title of an essay I devoted to it. All other freedoms devolve from it. But freedom is not chaos and liberty is not license.

Let me review a few facts, drawing on the experience of the US where freedom of expression and first amendment rights play a very big role. (It is, in this context, noteworthy that the US press refrained from reprinting the offensive cartoons, covering the story with text descriptions only.)

On the surface the US allows unlimited freedom of expression. The American flag can be burned as a form of political protest. Not only does the American Nazi Party have the legal right to exist, its right to assemble and march was defended by the ACLU in a famous case in Skokie, Illinois. This is in striking contrast to legislation in many European countries.

But the US, like most societies, legislates to strike a balance between the interests of the community and the rights of the individual. Recall the words of American Justice Holmes: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." [ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841--1935), Supreme Court opinion. Schenk v. United States, Baer v. United States, 249 U.S. 52 (1919) ]. Few cases, of course, are as clear-cut as falsely crying fire in a crowded theatre. But the fact is the "freedom of speech" protected by the US Constitution is not absolute. There are well-defined, narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of which does not raise any constitutional problem. They include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and insulting -- or "fighting words" -- which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace [Source: Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition].

What is meant by "fighting words"? These are words that, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, ie have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the persons to whom the remark is addressed [ Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031 ]. The test is what a person of common intelligence would understand to be words likely to provoke an average addressee to fight [ City of Seattle v. Camby, 104 Wash.2d 49, 701 P.2d 499, 500 ]. A subsequent narrowing of the doctrine by the Supreme Court held that the utterance must be likely to lead to violence. Being abusive and insulting was not enough. Utterances are not constitutionally protected as free speech if they are inherently likely to provoke a violent response from the audience [ N.A.A.C.P. v. Clairborne Hardware Co., Miss., 458 U.S. 886, 102 S.Ct. 3409, 73 L.Ed.2d 1215 (1982) ].

In the case of the Danish cartoons, which did lead to violence, destruction of property and loss of life, the issue is no longer one of likelihood, though whether such legal reasoning applies to the case of the cartoons remains moot. I seek simply to show that even in the US, where freedom of expression and first amendment rights are central to society, there have been debates about the imposition of practical limits.

As Martin Luther King Jr said about civil rights legislation: "Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart but they can restrain the heartless."

I call not for legislation but for enhanced social consciousness. It is social consciousness that fixes the norms of acceptable behavior. Freedom of expression remains our most precious right and how it is practiced is conditioned more by social consciousness than by legislation. In the US, where stereotypes were widespread, it is no longer admissible to mock Jews, make racist remarks about blacks or depict native Americans as bloodthirsty savages. "Steppin Fetchit" and "Amos and Andy" gradually gave way to series like Roots and to films that show positive images of African-Americans. Stereotyping and derogatory remarks based on race, religion and national origin are generally rejected as unacceptable, a situation that begs an obvious question. When will this rejection of the derogatory be extended to Arabs and Muslims?

In the presence of such wholesale rejection the occasional trespass by Islamophobes would be dismissed as the action of marginal extremists, the price we all pay for ensuring that free speech, with all the benefits it brings, endures.

If the overwhelming majority of Western society, including its political leaders, had condemned the cartoons, without necessarily restricting the right of the newspaper to publish them, it would have gone a long way towards healing past wounds and fostering the trust needed to diffuse the issue. It might even have been a step towards draining the reservoirs of combustible fuel mentioned earlier.

But looking back over the controversy it is clear that extremists on both sides benefited from it. That they still seek to fan the embers into flames means we must work doubly hard to set the episode behind us and move on. We can do that only by addressing causes, not symptoms, the fuel and not the sparks.

Some used the episode to reinforce negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, others to argue against free speech. Some used it to stoke hatred and fear of the Other, to exacerbate the cumulative mistrust and suspicion that has built up over the decades between Muslims and the West.

What should be done is to accept the episode as a call to action, a call to redouble our efforts to assert our common humanity and the universal values we share. Let us build that alliance of civilizations and in so doing advance the cause of freedom, promote mutual respect and common understanding. As we redouble our efforts we must seek to drain the reservoir of its combustible fuel, but in doing so we must remain wary of those who seek to ignite it and then fan the flames. We must bring the arsonists to task, using the words of the Prophet Muhammad who, when he was being stoned and insulted by non-believers asked that "God guide them to the right path, for they know not what they do" -- almost the same words Jesus had used before him on the cross.

Let the constraints on our speech be imposed by civility and honesty. Let us together dismiss those who refuse the minimum of decency all societies demand towards their minorities. Together, let us "fashion those wise constraints that make people free".

The writer is director-general of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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