'Tooning out humanity

Triggered by cartoons, the latest round in the bogus "clash of civilizations" reduces complex cultures to empty caricatures.

Published February 14, 2006 7:46PM (EST)

We might well laugh at the absurdity of a notion that would put Adolf Hitler and Ernest Hemingway on one side of a battle line and Osama bin Laden and Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the other.

Yet the bogus "clash of civilizations" -- ludicrous, recycled, 19th century Orientalist racism as it may be -- is becoming all too real. The two sides are getting more enamored of the fracas with every passing day. To try to convince them that this is a bogus altercation looks increasingly to be as futile as attempting to convince a bunch of drunk English soccer hooligans that, win or lose, a football match is nothing to come to blows over.

Make no mistake about it: The recent West versus the Muslim World contention over 12 ignorant and offensive cartoons is not about freedom of expression and its limitations. It is first and foremost about the bleak reality of a great many powerful forces -- on both sides of the Atlantic, north and south of the Mediterranean and all the way to the Indian Ocean -- having a decided stake in perpetuating and escalating the so-called clash of civilizations, even if for a whole range of very different reasons. This is no conspiracy but, rather, an ugly convergence of equally repugnant interests.

How else could we explain the supposed confusion over demarcating between freedom of expression and racist hate speech, a distinction that one would have thought was by now well established in the "Western" democratic tradition? Presumably, one need not be particularly "culturally sensitive" to recognize barefaced racism and hate-mongering in a cartoon depicting the Prophet, venerated by over a billion and a half human beings, sporting a turban with a fuse-lit bomb in its center. Or another in which that same Prophet is standing at the gate of a Muslim paradise telling an endless line of suicide bombers that he's running out of virgins to offer them. None of this is a question of subjecting a particular religious dogma to ridicule (as "we in the Western world" are supposedly in the habit of doing); it is blatantly and unashamedly a matter of expressing contempt and hatred for a group of people by virtue of the race, religion and/or ethnicity they were born into -- the very definition of racism.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, a commentator writing in an Israeli newspaper had no difficulty in recognizing the Danish cartoons for what they are. "Of late, a new breed of anti-Semitic caricature has begun to circulate through Europe, an indication, perhaps, of a new breed of anti-Semitism. But the Semites, in this case, are not Jews," wrote Bradley Burston in Haaretz on Feb. 6. He goes on to describe the message of the Danish cartoons as racist and obscene, adding, "In that sense, it also profanes the right of freedom of speech, distorting it into the freedom to foster hatred."

There is, indeed, a great deal of irony in the liberal "Western" pretensions of ambivalence and ambiguity over the Danish cartoons, as experts pontificate about the "tension" between free expression and cultural sensitivity. No such ambivalence or pretended naiveté is shown when expressing abhorrence of the anti-Semitic cartoons that continue to plague some of the press in Arab and Muslim countries -- and rightly so. Compounding the irony is the fact that Arab and Muslim editors jealously defend their "right" to publish anti-Semitic cartoons, Holocaust denial editorials and other rubbish of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" variety by shouting "freedom of expression."

Meanwhile, the protagonists seem to be reveling in this new battlefront of the "clash of civilizations." For one thing, compared with the larger, global "clash" launched by Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush in 2001, the recently opened Euro-Muslim front is superbly economical -- for both sides. No billions of dollars or thousands of lives need to be expended by the Western world on this particular front -- merely newsprint.

The Arabs and Muslims, for their part, can engage in a glorious jihad in defense of the faith, their religious and cultural identity, without fear of regime change, elimination of states or the destruction of whole nations and the killing of hundreds of thousands of their peoples in order to liberate them. All they need do is shout slogans, burn a few flags, make the ultimate sacrifice of eliminating Danish blue cheese from their diets, torch a couple of European embassies and -- what could be easier -- launch the odd attack on Arab Christians and publish hate cartoons about Jews.

Triggered by cartoons, the latest episode of the clash of civilizations is the caricature of a caricature, one in which our fundamental humanity is diminished, the almost limitless richness and diversity of that vast world of the intellect and the imagination that we call culture is flattened and shadowed over, the profound commonality of our human condition rubbed out, until finally all that remains is the horrible and the grotesque: the "liberal" West represented by a T-shirted female American soldier holding a prone and naked Arab on a leash, and the "devout" Arab/Muslim world represented by a masked and hooded terrorist holding a knife to a hostage's neck under a banner of "God is great."

By Hani Shukrallah

Hani Shukrallah, former editor in chief of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly, is a senior research consultant at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley.

MORE FROM Hani Shukrallah

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