All cartoon politics are local

Muslim outrage reflects specific national conflicts -- most of them exacerbated by Bush's policies.

Published February 9, 2006 12:52PM (EST)

The global controversy over the Danish caricatures of the prophet Mohammed continued to spin out of control this week, as Iraqis demonstrated for the withdrawal of Danish troops, and Afghans attacked NATO soldiers, leaving four dead and dozens wounded. The dispute has typically been treated in the Western media as a further sign of the fanaticism of Muslims. But the tempest did not arise out of nowhere. Muslim anger has been greatly heightened by the widespread belief that at best the West has treated the Islamic world unjustly and at worst launched a war against it. Moreover, the caricatures have most often been deployed by Middle Easterners and Muslims in disputes with each other -- disputes that have been sharpened by the Bush administration's blundering interventions in the region. Western attempts to cast the issue as one of freedom of expression display an ignorance of the local context of these conflicts, which are not mostly about religion so much as they are about religious nationalism and about power struggles within Muslim societies.

After the cartoons were published on Sept. 30, right-wing Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen reacted to the angry response by refusing to meet with ambassadors from Muslim countries and sternly lecturing Muslims on their need to put up with the caricatures. He finally sounded a more conciliatory note this week, complaining of a global crisis. He was clearly worried, like another Dane, Prince Hamlet, about what would happen "if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me."

Muslim touchiness about Western insults to the prophet Mohammed must be understood in historical context. Most Muslim societies have spent the past two centuries either under European rule or heavy European influence, and most colonial masters and their helpmeets among the missionaries were not shy about letting local people know exactly how barbaric they thought the Muslim faith was. The colonized still smart from the notorious signs outside European clubs in the colonial era, such as the one in Calcutta that said, "Dogs and Indians not allowed."

Indeed, the same themes of Aryan superiority and Semitic backwardness in the European "scientific racism" of the 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the Holocaust against the Jews also often colored the language of colonial administrators in places like Algeria about their subjects. A caricature of a Semitic prophet like Mohammed with a bomb in his turban replicates these racist themes of a century and a half ago, wherein Semites were depicted as violent and irrational and therefore as needing a firm white colonial master for their own good.

(It is worth noting that in 2004 the Danish editor who commissioned the drawings, Flemming Rose, conducted an uncritical interview with the American neoconservative and Islamophobe Daniel Pipes. Pipes, an extreme right-wing supporter of the Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank, has warned of the dangers of Muslim immigration into Denmark, claiming that "many of them show little desire to fit into their adopted country" and that male Muslim immigrants made up a majority of the country's rapists.)

Muslim sensitivity about insults to Islam in Europe has a strong postcolonial context. But the decades since independence have also seen increased conflict between the often Westernized elites in Muslim societies and the traditional Muslim middle and working classes. (See Mark MacNamara's report from Morocco.) In several countries, most notably Egypt, the ruling elites took a hard line on the cartoons in an attempt to cover their flanks from the religious right.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has been doggedly fanning the flames of the controversy since last fall, when he thundered that the drawings were an anti-Islamic "scandal" that must not be repeated. As recently as Feb. 5 he said, "The publication of cartoons by a Danish newspaper affronting Islam's Prophet Mohammed had triggered massive anger among Muslims worldwide," without acknowledging his own role in keeping the issue on the front pages.

Abul-Gheit's aggressive intervention has little to do with piety and a lot to do with Egyptian politics. The cartoons gave the relatively secular military Egyptian government a free -- and much needed -- opportunity to burnish its Muslim credentials. Egypt jailed 30,000 Muslim fundamentalists in the 1990s and killed some 1,500 in running street battles. Since 2000, the Egyptian government has continued to arrest members of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and to repress the movement, perhaps the largest and most important dissident organization in Egypt. Despite extensive government intervention against it, the Brotherhood managed to win 88 seats in Parliament in the recent elections, and it would surely have won more if the elections had been truly free and fair. The Brotherhood's good showing was an indirect consequence of pressure from the Bush administration, which demanded fairer elections, thus helping polarize Egyptian politics. In response, Abul-Gheit and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought to increase their popularity and outflank the Brotherhood by posing as champions of Islam against a disrespectful West. The move was made all the more attractive because the only cost was to relations with a small country like Denmark.

On Tuesday, the grand sheik of the Al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi -- the foremost Sunni authority -- led a procession of 20,000 students and others in a protest against the caricatures. He and other leading Egyptian clerical figures gave speeches. The Egyptian clerics are often criticized by the lay Muslim Brotherhood as mere stooges of the military government, so this controversy was a means for them, too, to assert their religious leadership.

Reactions in other parts of the Muslim world also reflected local politics. Kashmir Muslims, many of whom feel themselves wrongly dominated by Hindu India, demonstrated on Tuesday, and surely their real target was New Delhi rather than Copenhagen. In Iran, the now nearly decade-long struggle between hard-line clerics and liberal reformers has increasingly been won by the hard-liners, who want to keep Iran from falling under Western influence. The Iranian crowd that attempted to attack the Danish embassy was expressing the hard-liners' policy of isolationism. The standoff between Iran and the United States and its Israeli ally over Tehran's nuclear energy program was also clearly part of the dynamic. Wire services said that Iran's supreme jurisprudent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the Danish caricatures an "Israeli conspiracy" set in motion by Zionist anger over the victory of the Palestinian Muslim fundamentalist party Hamas in recent elections. (Khamenei's timeline is off, since the drawings were published last September. But the absurdity of the charge should not obscure the powerful political emotions it appeals to.)

On Tuesday, as well, the Pakistani Parliament took up two major pieces of business. One was an attempt by the secular Pakistan People's Party to repeal an Islamic-law ordinance on adultery put into effect by the late dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. Religious-law courts had used the law to punish rape victims for coming forward, judging them to be adulteresses unless they could prove they had been unwilling. A woman's testimony is worth half that of a man in such cases, in accordance with Zia's version of Islamic law, and so few women could hope to convict their rapists. The other matter before Parliament was an overwhelming condemnation of the caricatures of the prophet. The obvious lesson: If you are going to try to repeal Islamic law in Pakistan, it is awfully convenient for you to have a Danish newspaper to vote against as a way of affirming your Islamic legitimacy.

Iraq witnessed similar struggles. A spokesman for the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, told Agence France Presse, "The ayatollah asks the government of Denmark to take measures to discourage those who knowingly harm the position of the Prophet." Sistani went on to say that "participation in the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq by Danish forces with the said aim of helping the Iraqi people is contradictory with attacks against that which is most sacred to Iraqis and attacks on their most noble beliefs." The grand ayatollah was more or less inviting the Danish troops to leave, a radical step for him.

Although Sistani announced as early as 2003 that he viewed the foreign military occupation of Iraq as undesirable in the long run, he has not so far issued a ruling that the troops of the outsiders must depart. As a result, he has been attacked as a creature of the Americans by more hard-line Shiite groups, such as the Sadrist movement led by the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. On Monday, the Sadrists mounted a demonstration some 5,000 strong in the southern city of Kut, famed in history as the graveyard of invading British troops during World War I, at which crowds burned Danish flags and demanded that the 530 Danish troops leave the country. A day earlier, Danish soldiers stationed in the Shiite south had been shot at.

Sistani could not afford to leave the defense of the prophet Mohammed to Muqtada al-Sadr. The competition for mantle of the best Muslim between more hard-line and more moderate leaders has helped provoke the strong reaction to the caricatures in Iraq, just as it has in Egypt.

Likewise, the demonstrations in the largely secular and cosmopolitan cities of Damascus and Beirut over the weekend, which turned violent and led to the burning of the Danish embassies in both cities, reflected strong divisions in Syria and Lebanon. In Damascus, the secular Baath government of President Bashar al-Asad has repressed the Muslim Brotherhood. In Beirut, it seems likely that pro-Syrian Sunnis demonstrating on Sunday resented the new assertiveness of the Lebanese Christians, who had successfully led a movement last spring to get Syrian troops out of the country. The Sunnis not only burned the embassy but also attacked a Christian church, over the objections of their Sunni clerical leaders.

In Afghanistan, rural tribespeople attacked NATO bases, demonstrating that they were far more impatient with the continued foreign military presence in the country than was their pro-American president, Hamid Karzai. The most important such attack came in Maimanah, in the northwest of the country near Turkmenistan, not an area that had seen strong support of the Pushtun Taliban.

Rather than merely an East-West issue or a clash of civilizations, the caricature controversy should be seen as part of a culture war within Muslim societies. Precisely because the issue is distant and not very important, it is a cost-free bandwagon on which everyone can jump in search of greater legitimacy among Muslim publics. There is no downside in the Muslim world to defending the prophet Mohammed from Western insults. Pro-American politicians such as Abul-Gheit can use it to burnish their nationalist image, while Sistani can embrace the campaign as part of his old rivalry with the Sadr movement. The cleric Tantawi can employ it to boost his popularity among the rank and file in Egypt and to offset the popularity of the lay fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. It can be used to mobilize Muslims in Kashmir who care a great deal more about Indian repression than about Danish newspapers.

The Bush administration's impulsive intervention in Middle Eastern affairs has heated up the internal Muslim culture wars to the boiling point -- and ironically strengthened those very radical, pan-Arab and Islamist forces that Bush wanted to check. Bush handed Muqtada al-Sadr his current platform, which calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Iraq immediately, and which promises that Iraqi Shiites will defend Iran and Syria from an American attack. (The ruling elites of both Iran and Syria are Shiite.) Sistani would not feel the same need to compete with Muqtada by attacking the West if the Americans had not occupied Iraq in so thorough-going, arrogant and incompetent a manner. Bush's pressure on the Syrian regime is an important background to the Damascus and Beirut riots. Pamphlets passed out before the Beirut demonstration denounced the U.S. presence in Iraq, and an attack on a church in Beirut is a symbolic strike at the United States, perceived as a foreign Christian power intervening in Muslim affairs.

The "global crisis" of which Rasmussen spoke has been exacerbated by the decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq and throw the region into turmoil. It isn't just about some cartoons. It is about independence and the genuine liberty to define yourself rather than being defined by the imperial West.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Egyptian Protests Islam Middle East Religion