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"Cartoongate" and the Clash of Civilizations

The furor reveals more about the state of Western, and particularly European, fears of Islam than it does about Islam today.

| Tue Feb. 7, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Has the Muslim world really gone that mad? Do a billion Muslims really want to kill a few insensitive cartoonists because they violated their religious sensibilities, however dear they may be?

Luckily, the answer to both questions is no. In fact, what some Islamic scholars are calling "cartoongate"--the publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in more than half a dozen European papers--actually reveals more about the state of the Western, and particularly European fears of Islam, than it does about Islam today.

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Originally published last September in a Danish newspaper, the depictions of Muhammad in the cartoons include some very insulting images indeed: Muhammad with a turban-shaped bomb on his head; Muhammad at the Pearly Gates informing newly arrived suicide bombers that Heaven has "run out of virgins" (an allusion to the 72 virgins that supposedly await martyrs in Heaven); Muhammad menacingly holding a sword with two veiled women behind him, and so on. The images were commissioned because the paper's editor was having trouble finding a cartoonist willing to caricature the Prophet, depictions of whom are prohibited according to Muslim tradition.

These images have supposedly led to a firestorm of protest across the Muslim world. Yet the reality, as so often is the case when it comes to the Western portrayals of Muslims, is different than the rhetoric. Yes, tens of thousands of Muslims have marched in protest against the cartoons; but out of 1.4 billion, that's not exactly a huge number. And death threats have been made by some extremist groups. But however upset they may be, most Muslims have not taken to the streets, and those who are protesting are doing so through democratic methods: demonstrating and threatening to take their business elsewhere.

And as the latest protests in Beirut make clear, the reasons behind them often involve issues of class, politics, and religious identity, as the consulates are often located in wealthy neighborhoods where the countries' elites and wealthy foreigners live, and which feature expensive shops far beyond the means of most protesters. And the organizers of the protests are most often groups looking to gain political capital by challenging weak governments at a moment of heightened tension.

More interesting than these dynamics, however, is the response to them. Why is it that practices considered perfectly respectable when done by environmentalists or evangelical Christians seem so undemocratic when done by Muslims?

And before we shake our heads at how backwards Muslims are for wanting to silence those who would insult the founder of their religion, let's remember that our hands aren't exactly clean when it comes to freedom of the press whenever it might threaten our core interests. Indeed, the US has admitted targeting al-Jazeera bureaus, and has arrested, detained without trial, and even killed reporters (accidently, of course) for daring to report news that challenges the official American version of events, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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