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Cartoon Protests: Religion and Freedom

Religion and Freedom The demonstrations that followed the publication of certain cartoons in certain European papers have cut across a wide swathe of regions, from Britain, across west Asia to as far afield as Indonesia. They have been led by the more vocal and radical Islamic elements, which constitute a minority within many populations; but to many even in the wider world, the cartoons have appeared an act deliberately derogatory, one that offends and also demonises an entire community. Thus far, attempts to understand the controversy have ranged across two dimensions. One that pits ostensibly

CARTOON PROTESTS

Religion and Freedom

T
he demonstrations that followed the publication of certain cartoons in certain European papers have cut across a wide swathe of regions, from Britain, across west Asia to as far afield as Indonesia. They have been led by the more vocal and radical Islamic elements, which constitute a minority within many populations; but to many even in the wider world, the cartoons have appeared an act deliberately derogatory, one that offends and also demonises an entire community. Thus far, attempts to understand the controversy have ranged across two dimensions. One that pits ostensibly “modern and western” values such as freedom of expression

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

against questions of faith and religious taboos; while the other construes the alacrity with which the protests spread as yet another instance of the deep cultural divides that persist across the world. This appears to corroborate, as it were, a view of the world challenged by “civilisational clashes”.

To posit the controversy, thus, would not only be a limitation, but would fan the issue to a level where reconciliation of difference becomes near impossible. At the same time, the antagonism and sharp polarisation that has emerged from the crisis reveals the inadequacy of present-day political and civil society institutions to confront such dilemmas that over time may only become increasingly commonplace in a multicultural and rapidly globalising world.

The cartoons drew attention first on September 30, 2005, when they appeared in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. The paper’s motive in publishing them was to symbolically protest against the “self-censorship” that Denmark’s media had imposed on itself, in its refusal to depict issues considered “sacrosanct”. As revealed by a timeline of events since September 2005 to January 26, 2006 when Saudi Arabia closed its Copenhagen embassy, followed soon by a boycott of Danish goods and the attack on Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut, the government of Denmark was caught on the slow, wrong foot, while vocal extremists on either side were able to whip the controversy to greater heights. Denmark’s long tradition of liberalism and tolerance has, in the last decade, been severely tested. The small but vocal migrant population, largely from the Muslim community, has long perceived itself as marginalised and discriminated against. After first denying an audience to Muslim clerics, the centreright Danish government of Anders Rasmussen belatedly stepped in to make amends. Late in January, Jyllands-Posten apologised and Rasmussen appealed for calm, but by then, and in much exaggerated fashion, the cartoons had been widely circulated. Their impact was especially felt in areas of west Asia that in recent years, following the second gulf war and the simmering Palestinian conflict, have been politically volatile. Matters were not helped when the cartoons reappeared in other newspapers, in Norway, Germany, France and Spain, ostensibly deferring to the principle of freedom of expression. In contrast, newspapers across Britain almost acting in unison, refused on principle to republish the cartoons.

Arguably, British multiculturalism has confronted challenges to it before, notably the furore sparked by the publication in 1988 of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and the introspection and questioning that has followed the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London. Since the 1990s, areas of mixed populations such as Leicester and other city councils have experimented successfully with multiracial representative bodies. The need to resolve issues of “integration” vis-à-vis imperatives of security may have led to restrictive legislation being mooted, such as the religious hatred bill which was recently passed, after substantial modifications, by the British parliament. Concomitantly, apart from the circumspection shown by the British media, the debate in Britain on the cartoon controversy has been more open than elsewhere, where moderate voices on both sides have found a platform. The guiding motif has been freedom tempered by the onus of responsibility.

The violence in west Asia that has targeted symbols of the Danish government and economy has disturbing portents. In Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where demonstrations have been most vehement, radical and extremist Islamic groups have used the crisis to their advantage – to protest against the more “liberal” elements in the polity, and raise the cry of “Islam in danger” against a west, portrayed as godless, nihilistic and debauched. Tempers in the region have been inflamed further following recent disclosures of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. At the same time, the Syrian and Iranian governments have been blamed for using the occasion to whip up emotions. Reaching an understanding will be elusive if opinions remain so sharply polarised. Communication technologies, economic imperatives as well as demographic pulls and pressures have rendered possible several freedoms, but amity and understanding in an increasingly diverse world is possible when freedom of expression – an essential freedom – is tempered by empathy and a willingness to engage in debate.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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