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Caricatures and hysteria that disguise the truth

Had we wanted to be exhaustive, we could have published hundreds of articles, interviews and editorials about the caricatures of Mohammed and the reactions in the Muslim world. This story has reached incredible proportions in the international media. Most editorialists have commented the incident; the mainstream media have published long articles and even special dossiers. In most of the cases, the conflict presented by the western media is the same: they portray a conflict between a West that embodies freedom and a Muslim world, frequently identified with the Persian-Arab world, that embodies obscurantism. It is an approach that disguises the true questions of the issue.

| Paris (France)
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Had we wanted to be exhaustive, we could have published hundreds of articles, interviews and editorials about the caricatures of Mohammed and the reactions in the Muslim world. This story has reached incredible proportions in the international media. Most editorialists have commented the incident; the mainstream media have published long articles and even special dossiers. In most of the cases, the conflict presented by the western media is the same: they portray a conflict between a West that embodies freedom and a Muslim world, frequently identified with the Persian-Arab world, that embodies obscurantism. It is an approach that disguises the true questions of the issue.

First of all, let us look at one statement often heard or interpreted: the reaction of some Muslim people to the publication of these caricatures is not a threat to the freedom of expression in the West. First, because protests in western countries do not have a significant magnitude, in spite of the media impact, so as to endanger the legislations that guarantee freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression includes the right to blaspheme; it is a right that cannot be contested and it has often served to reveal the freedom status of a society. However, the caricatures published by the Jyllands Posten are not only blasphemous. Although some of them, very innocent, only represent Mohammed, others; on the contrary, portray Mohammed using features of the traditional racist caricature that emerged after September 11, 2001, linking Muslims with terrorists. However, while blasphemy is legal, the stigmatization of a community due to its religious or ethnic origin is not.

In addition, although they have been widely published in the western media, the caricatures have rarely been spread in Muslim countries. So, a lot of fantasizing has taken place and it has certainly not contributed to ease the controversy. We have to add that, in Muslim countries, the crisis has been aggravated by provocative agents. Thus, Ahmad Abu Laban, a Danish citizen of Palestinian origin, member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, published the caricatures of the Jyllands Posten, in order to denounce them, adding three more: Mohammed with a pig’s head, Mohammed as a pedophile and a Muslim person on his knees, praying, while he is sodomized by a dog. The three caricatures were accompanied by offensive texts, not to Islam, but to Muslims. Therefore, the violence against the European or Danish caricatures in part of the Muslim world, no matter how deplorable they might be, are reactions to the ones that have circulated or the rumors spread rather than to those seen by the Europeans. Undoubtedly, among the demonstrators, there are obscurantist groups who reject anything contrary to their dogma but it is also certain that this issue would have not reached the magnitude it has reached in some Muslim countries if they had not been seriously offended as peoples.

However, the point of view of the Muslims is not reflected by the western mainstream media. They do not question the origin of the reactions or the outbreak of this crisis six months after the caricatures were first published in the Jyllands Posten. There are also few questions about the political orientation of the Danish journal. Finally, the role of Abu Laban and Hizb ut-Tahrir – an organization often presented as a server of American and British strategic interests - has practically been ignored.

This issue strengthens the conception of Islam as something alien to the “West” in the media. Once again, while they defend themselves, the western media develop an analysis that is compatible with the theory of the “Clash of Civilizations”.

An anonymous pamphleteer known as Ibn Warraq, usually applauded by the neo-conservatives for taking sides against Muslims, gives an extremist vision of what the media generally only suggest in an interview with the German journal Der Spiegel. He considers the West to be very prudish towards Islam due to their colonial complex and their feelings of guilt. On the other hand, he affirms that the West is an example for the world in the field of rights and that it has an incomparable cultural development. Thus, it does not have to apologize to a Muslim world that remains in the Middle Ages on pain of seeing the Islamization of Europe.
This opinion is clearly shared by the director of the Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes, in the New York Sun and in the Jerusalem Post. Anyway, the author did not need this issue to present, once again, a Muslim world that terribly threatens the western rights and way of life. But, on this occasion, Pipes is not as isolated as usually since many European editorialists use this controversy as an argument to present Muslims as people who try to Islamize western societies and limit the existing rights. Islam is presented as a new form of totalitarianism that threatens European societies and in front of which any hesitation may be considered as a submissive position.

This ideological victory for Pipes is particularly appreciable in France.
This French sympathy towards this point of view may be explained by the emotion that the least attack against freedom of expression and the right to blaspheme could provoke. After all, it was Voltaire who theorized about it and said that the reaction to blasphemy could reveal the freedom of a society and the crime of blasphemy was abolished along with the privileges on that memorable night of August 4th, 1789, the date that marks the triumph of the French Revolution. However, unfortunately, we do not recall the French mainstream media reacting so strongly when, on March 10, 2005, the Conference of Bishops of France, through the “Belief and Rights” association banned a publicity campaign parodying Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, using young women instead of the male characters of this biblical episode. Therefore, this French obsession about the topic and the alleged “threat” to the freedom of expression should be seen as another sign of the unease of the mainstream media with respect to anything related to Islam and the French people of African or Arab origin.

As we noted on the occasion of the case of the veil, or during the riots in some French urban areas last November, the French media have developed an identity obsession that rejects the social and political affirmation of those who, since then, have called “visible minorities”. The reaction to the movements that demand equal rights and opportunities for all citizens or that demand that France recognizes the crimes committed during its colonial period, is the regular stigmatization of these minorities presented as “communitarist” or non asimilable. As these people are usually Muslim, Islam has turned into a preferential target and even more as the denunciation of the “Muslim threat” finds international echo in the theory of the “Clash of Civilizations”.
In addition, the Danish caricatures were published in France by the France Soir, a conservative journal that is losing dynamism. After that, its director, Jacques Lefranc, was fired by the owner, French-Egyptian businessman Raymond Lakah, clearly because he feared a boycott against his businesses. It is a “corporativist” reflect that amplified the reaction of the French media.

Although in France some people, like the director of Le Monde des religions, Jean-Paul Guetny, put distance between him and the Danish caricatures making emphasis on their racist nature, most of the media elites backed the reproduction of the caricatures as an act of resistance in front of a “green totalitarianism”. The editorialist of Le Figaro, Yvan Rioufol, tus speaks of “Nazislamists” to describe the demonstrators who protest against the publication of the Danish caricatures. It is a new term that joins others such as the “Fascislamism” of Bernard Henri Lévy or the “Islamofascism” of Frank Gaffney that identify Islam with Fascism.

The former Education Minister, Luc Ferry, went even farther when he told to the radio station RTL: Really, there is something more horrific because it is similar to the rise of Nazism, and maybe even worse as they are more and have, more or less, similar purposes..
From the other side of the board, political agitators also highlight the Islamic threat as Jacques Julliard , editorialist of the centre-left weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, states: What Islam fundamentalists are asking us is that we renounce to be ourselves». Media philosopher Alain Finkielkraut shares this opinion in Libération.
Strengthened by his status as historian, the ex Socialist parliamentarian and co-founder of the Movement of Citizens, Max Gallo, analyzes in Le Figaro the risks that any attempt to “calm down” the situation would bring to western societies. He believes that if the “West” shows too much respect for the other then it would abandon its democratic principles and he concludes using the hackneyed but long-lasting threat of a new accord with Munich.

However, undoubtedly, French editorialist Philippe Val, of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is the one who has caused people to comment the most. Announcing with a great fanfare that they would reproduce the Danish caricatures and others after the removal from office of Jacques Lefranc in France Soir, Philippe Val benefited from an unprecedented communication campaign in this weekly that broke sale records. Several times invited and interview by different media outlets, Philippe Val was also able to speak about an issue that he loves: the Muslim danger that threatens western rights.
For this special edition of Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val writes a peculiar editorial. Thus, he does not develop an idea but he writes a glossary commenting current topics or concepts, without linking them, trying to have people associate ideas without justifying these associations. He justifies the decision to publish the Danish caricatures saying that it is an essential right of any democracy and that the representation of people and concepts is essential for reflection (an aspect that he does not develop and something that suggests that the non depiction of Mohammed by the Muslims makes them doubt his dogmas). He only justifies the publication of the caricatures with the right to blaspheme and he implicitly rejects, without saying it, the racist character of some of them. On the contrary, he changes the argument: if they see Mohammed’s caricature in which he is using a bomb as a turban as an identification of all Muslims as terrorists it is because they do not understand that this caricature represents the way in which terrorists see Mohammed. But it remains to be proven!
Through this glossary, Philippe Val also identifies demonstrators with Islamic fundamentalists and the latter with the Nazis, recalling that Denmark had refused to hand Jews to the Nazi regime in 1940 or making reference, once again, to the Munich accords of 1938.

Along this editorial, Charlie Hebdo is portrayed as a courageous defender of freedom of expression, threatened by a new kind of fascism that threatens democracies and Muslim communities. In this issue, Philippe Val takes distance from some of his most recent statements accusing Muslims of not doing enough to fight Islamism. He also ignores his accusation on Monday, February 6th, 2006, in France Inter, Charivari, according to which the riots were taking place now because Syria and Iran were cornered and the process against Zacarías Mussaui was beginning. In short, without saying it clearly, he imagined a possible link between Damascus, Tehran and Al Qaeda, and reproached the indulgence of the Muslim world.
After the publication of Charlie Hebdo, French president Jacques Chirac condemned the “provocations” without openly citing the newspaper.

This appeal for calm reflects the position of other European diplomats who reaffirm the right to have freedom of expression but urge the media to be responsible.
In this sense, the International Herald Tribune publishes a call by the Spanish and Turkish prime ministers, José Luis Zapatero and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who defend tolerance and respect. They recall that the publication of the caricatures is legal and that freedom of expression should not be questioned but condemn, morally and politically, the publication of these caricatures. Once again, they make an appeal for an alliance of civilizations instead of a clash of civilizations.

On the same day, the journal published the adaptation of an interview granted by Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan to Global Viewpoint and that was published the following day by the Arab journal Asharq Al Awsat. He considers that there are three main elements in this issue: that the Muslims do not represent the prophets, that the Muslims do not laugh at religion but, on the contrary, irony and blasphemy are part of the European culture. So, he believes that Muslims should accept it. On the first two points, Tariq Ramadan explains the point of view of his trend rather than that of Muslims; the Shiites represent Mohammed and the Ottoman tradition, although Sunni has regularly represented Mohammed.
The Islam expert urges Muslims to calm down and to abstain from encouraging a boycott. In addition, he advocates respect for the sensitivity of Muslims in Europe and adds that although nobody should oppose the right to freedom of expression, this right has to be accompanied by a necessary sense of responsibility.

In an article spread in the Arab press by the Danish embassies and published by Oumma.com, the editor in chief of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, who ordered and was the first to publish the caricatures, Carsten Juste, apologizes to the populations whose sensitivity could have been hurt. However, his effort to calm things down is ambiguous. Juste says he regrets what he calls a difference of appreciation related to cultural differences. He affirms that the caricatures only aimed at testing freedom of expression in his country, not hurting the Muslims’ sensitivity. Thus, the chief editor implicitly rejects the racist nature of some caricatures. He adds that some of the drawings published in press of the Muslim-Arab world (by Abu Laban) were not published by his newspaper. In an effort to justify the situation, he implicitly presents the problem as a conflict between an open-minded Europe and a Muslim culture that is too sensitive when it comes to Islam.

The Arab or Muslim media regret the current situation.
The chief editor of Al Quds Al Arabi, Abdel Bari Atouan, criticizes violence but he calls for a boycott as he believes that it would be the only way to make the mercantile western societies understand. He affirms that the call to respect freedom of expression is hypocritical and it is used by racist editorialists and cartoonists as a shield. The author does not understand the lack of respect towards religions and regards Islam as the target: if, in Europe, anyone can be condemned for acting as a revisionist with respect to the Holocaust and if nobody can be accused without evidence, why do they have the right to insult Muslims? What are the limits of freedom of expression in Europe?

The chief editor of the British Muslim magazine Emel magazine, Sarah Joseph, comments in The Guardian the reaction of her magazine’s readers after the publication of the Danish caricatures. In her opinion, the anger caused by these caricatures are not only the result of the drawings but also of an accumulation of denigrating treatment that affects Muslims. Showing concern, she takes advantage of the recent commemoration of the Shoah in the United Kingdom to recall that the Jewish genocide was a consequence of a long dehumanization campaign against that community, so, she says, there is nothing anodyne in the systematic stigmatization of a population.

Not only Muslims criticize the racist nature of these caricatures.
In the website Counterpunch, British journalist Robert Fisk regards the caricatures as racist drawings that have nothing to do with laicism or freedom of expression. The problem is not that these caricatures make fun of Islam but that they portray Mohammed as an old Bin Laden. In addition, the media that advocate freedom of expression, do they publish caricatures of Jewish or Christian religions?

Israeli writer Bradley Burston also condemns the caricatures in Ha’aretz. For him, they are racist instruments to affirm that all Muslims are Arabs and that all Arabs are terrorists. However, suddenly, he changes the arguments: while the caricatures are racist and deserve to be condemned, the way in which the Arabs have reacted is also racist and it has frequently led to anti-Semitic statements. Thus, the author puts the caricatures and the Arabs in the same level.
The spreading in the Arab world of false caricatures that serve to stir up anger, and the time gap between the first publication and the current demonstrations, have raised questions to which the neo-conservative media have quickly found an answer: the demonstrations are used by the adversaries of the moment.

However, these are not the only two countries that are questioned. The neo-conservative journal Wall Street Journal, published two articles identifying two culprits.
For the expert of the public relations office Benador Associates, Amir Taheri, it is a media stroke of the Muslim Brothers later retaken by other Islamic movements and by the Syrian power. Ignoring the role played by Abu Laban, he affirms that it all began with the fatwa against the caricatures by preacher Yussuf al Qaradawi and that Hizb ut-Tahrir just followed the trend. Analyzing the chronology of the events, this assertion is not valid and seems to be preventive fire line to mask the role of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The author then presents arguments about the Muslim Brothers challenging the statements by Tariq Ramadan about the prohibition to depict the prophet Mohammed and about the absence of derision as to religions in the Muslim tradition. Thus, the author’s reasoning is contradictory: if Tariq Ramadam calls for moderation while, according to the author, he is a Muslim Brother, how can he affirm that the Muslim Brothers started everything? And, if he is not a member of that organization, as Ramadam has affirmed for a long time, why citing these arguments to condemn the reasoning of this movement?
In the written versions of the Wall Street Journal, The Age, and Ha’aretz, the director of the website Muslim Refusnik, Irshad Manji, sees the hand of Arab leaders behind this turmoil in an effort to divert public opinion away from internal problems. She denounces their hypocrisy but considers that they are capitalizing the Muslims’ inability to respond to humour in any other way than with violence.

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