02/03/2006, 00.00
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The Mohammed cartoon strips: Islam shows its darkest face

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj

The enormous wave of polemics, of governmental and popular initiatives against the publication of cartoon strips is provoking the rejection of Islam, which still finds itself ill at ease in modernity. Islamic governments are using the controversy to distract local public opinion from internal problems.

Beirut (AsiaNews) -- Diplomatic demarches, boycotts, protests and threats criticizing the cartoon strips on Mohammed, published in various western newspapers, risk showing Islam yet again as obscurantist, backwards, and incapable of living in modernity, leaving room for a full blown conflict of civilizations. But instead of diplomatic and economic threats, the Muslim world should use the arms of modernity: writing letters to newspapers, undertaking legal actions, and arguing in court.

Whatever the case, this controversy is an occasion to clarify certain aspects of East-West relations.

The West

In the West, freedom of expression and opinion is a positive value. A democratic society must be based on such freedom. Where there's freedom, there will also be certain excesses. But it is better to not limit liberty despite excesses. Now, to write and have opinions on religions is part of the democratic West. Usually in the West, 90% of such freedom is employed on Christian religion. If we were to put together all the nonsense that just the Italian press writes about Christianity in a week, we could publish a book. Thus the idea that, in the case of the cartoons, Islam is being specifically targeted can be dismissed: rather, this is the normal use of press freedom, a sometimes bitter fruit of democracy.


In the Muslim-Arab world, anything that touches religion is considered taboo. To give an example: two days ago, in the Lebanese parliament, a Christian member, Nicholas Fattoush, known for being a great orator, cited the patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob, who was sold by his brothers to traders, to illustrate certain problems pertaining to security in Lebanon. At the end of his speech, he exclaimed something that went more or less: "Oh, Saint Joseph, come and free us from this state of affairs in which people are mistreated as you were mistreated..." A that point, a parliamentary from Hezbollah, considered one of the most moderate, asked that that sentence be erased from the meeting transcripts because "it is not allowed to speak in that way of the prophets." And he continued until Fattoush replied, "Joseph is a prophet for me too, but I used that image to express a concept!" The Hezbollah member of parliament was nonetheless steadfast in his call for that sentence to be removed from the transcripts.

Two years ago, the famous Arab film director, Egypt's Joseph Chahine, made a film on Joseph, but it was censored because "the prophets cannot be depicted." Several years ago, his film on Averroës won a prize at Cannes. For Islam, therefore, anything religious is taboo.

Freedom of press and government

The freedom of press in the West means that there is a clear distinction between the press and government: the fact that the governments let something be printed does not mean that they support it. It would be time that non-Western governments, especially in the Muslim world, understand this distinction. Otherwise, we Arabs will never be able to enter into the modern world. There's room for criticism, in which case one can then send a letter to the newspapers, to editors. There's also the option of a law suit, in accordance with the norms of the country in which the cartoon or article was published. But it is pointless to recall ambassadors, boycott Danish or Norwegian products, expel Danish and Norwegian citizens from Arab countries, and, of all things, dismiss the editor of a newspaper. Among other things, the owner of France Soir [Editor's note: the newspaper the editor of which was dismissed for having published the cartoon strips] would appear to be an Arab Christian, judging by his name, Rami Lakkah. The Lakkah family is of Greek-Catholic tradition.

This is fully-fledged blackmail. If the cartoon strips were inconvenient, it is worth fighting the question in court, not fighting the battle with diplomatic arms. It is essential for us, as Arabs, to understand that this is a characteristic of the modern West.

Islam's problems

Islam currently suffers from a kind of persecution complex, of feeling attacked by the entire world. In this way, the littlest thing takes on a value and a weight that it does not have. No one would have known about these caricatures if Muslims hadn't given them all this publicity!

Protests and boycotts are the expression of populism...I am certain that many Muslims, while not appreciating the caricatures, do not approve of this style à la national-religious scandal.

In this case, it is the governments that are being the epitome of fundamentalism. I think that, by raising these useless polemics with the outside world, they are trying to make people forget about internal problems. They also know that it doesn't take much to manipulate the people. Unfortunately, all this allows for the more primitive aspect of Islam to emerge.

My impression is that the Danes have lacked in a bit of tack. But the response from Islam, with threats and blackmails, are absurd.

To bother the U.N. as a way to prevent any mockery of religion, for some caricatures, is quite an exaggeration: it is a sign of the trauma which has been experienced by the Islamic world. And the more they want to show themselves strong and effective, the more they push people to take sides against them. To show how much they count in the international community, the 57 Islamic countries responded to the cartoon strips with force and power. Instead, all they succeed in obtaining is a greater rejection of Islam.

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