Many have been surprised by the scope and intensity of angry crowds throughout the Islamic world demonstrating against the offensive cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad that were published last year in a small, right-wing Danish newspaper. It is perhaps time that we stopped being surprised by a routine phenomenon: the affirmation of Islamic identity as the dominant form of national self-assertion in developing societies whose citizens hold major grievances against the quality of their own statehood and governance, as well as against Western and Israeli policies.Which is pretty much in-line with an article this morning in the New York Times:
The cartoons, including one depicting the prophet's headdress as a bomb, were only the fuse setting off a combustible mixture of pressures and tensions anchored in a much wider array of problems. These include the cartoons themselves; provocative and arrogant European disdain for Muslim sensitivities about the prophet Mohammad; attempts by some Islamist extremists and criminal-political elements to stir up troubles; the Europeans' clear message that their values count more than the values of Muslims; and, a wider sense by many citizens of Islamic societies that the West in general seeks to weaken and subjugate the Muslim world.
The Danish cartoons only sparked some mild complaints when they first appeared last September. The current wave of intense protests was sparked when half a dozen other newspapers throughout Europe provocatively reprinted the cartoons last month. This was coupled with European political and press leaders flat out telling the Islamic world that Western freedom of press was a higher moral value and a greater political priority than Muslims' concern that their leading prophet not be subjected to blasphemy and insult.
As leaders of the world's 57 Muslim nations gathered for a summit meeting in Mecca in December, issues like religious extremism dominated the official agenda. But much of the talk in the hallways was of a wholly different issue: Danish cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad.I think the attitude in this country to this matter is fairly well summed up by the epigraph Eliot appended to his poem "Portrait of a Lady," taken from Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta:"
The closing communiqué took note of the issue when it expressed "concern at rising hatred against Islam and Muslims and condemned the recent incident of desecration of the image of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in the media of certain countries" as well as over "using the freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions."
The meeting in Mecca, a Saudi city from which non-Muslims are barred, drew minimal international press coverage even though such leaders as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran were in attendance. But on the road from quiet outrage in a small Muslim community in northern Europe to a set of international brush fires, the summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference — and the role its member governments played in the outrage — was something of a turning point.
After that meeting, anger at the Danish caricatures, especially at an official government level, became more public. In some countries, like Syria and Iran, that meant heavy press coverage in official news media and virtual government approval of demonstrations that ended with Danish embassies in flames.
"Thou has committed fornication/But that was in another country/And besides, the wench is dead."
Anger never arises ex nihilo; there is a always a source for it, a provocation, a history behind it and before it. Anger in societies especially, in large groups and across nations and among crowds of people: that kind of anger and violence has its roots in a cause and effect dynamic. It is never just unmotivated evil of a benighted soul. Rami Khouri points to this:
It is too simplistic and easy to categorize this as a clash of civilizations, a very Western perspective that explains political tensions primarily through the lens of cultural and values differences. Most Muslims (and non-Muslim Middle Easterners, including several million Christians) probably see the current tensions as a political battle, not a cultural one. This is not primarily an argument about freedom of press in Europe, much as our European friends would like to believe it is. It is about Arab-Islamic societies' desire to enjoy freedom from Western and Israeli subjugation, diplomatic double-standards and predatory neo-colonial policies.Does this mean we in the West are responsible for the violence of Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran? Kouri doesn't think so:
This is no mere clash of cultures. It is a new form of the colonial struggle that defined European-Arab and Asian relations in the 19th century. The difference this time is that the natives in the South are not helpless and quiescent in the face of the West's large guns, disdainful rhetoric, or insulting cartoons. Muslims, Arabs, Asians and others today are much more aware of the policies of Western states, concerned about their goals, angry about Western double standards, able to resist through mass media, political and other channels, and willing to stand up, fight back, and assert their right to live in freedom and dignity. The message from the Arab-Islamic heartland is that the 19th century has officially ended.
Clearly, some troublemakers in Europe and the Islamic world stirred up Muslims' anger and provoked some of the destructive protests, especially burning embassies and offices in Damascus and Beirut. This is the political equivalent of football hooliganism in Europe - a small minority of unruly criminal thugs that preys on the legitimate sentiments of otherwise peaceful crowds that take to the streets in orderly if lively protests. It would be a huge mistake to focus mainly on the few violent political skinheads, and to ignore the meaning of the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of protestors who marched in earnest and in an orderly way.But the question of history needs to be addressed here. In another odd bit of synchronicity, I am reading one of Jacques Derrida's last books, Rogues. It is an examination of the concept of the "rogue state" (with special attention to U.S. foreign policy and the "war on terror.") The French term used for "rogue state" is etat voyou. But the word "rogue" derives from the French word "roué," or "wheel."
A roué is a delinquent, a kind of voyou.... What is condemned under the name or epithet roué? "This name was given under the Regency to men without morals, partners in the dissolute life of the Duke of Orleans, thus named because they deserved to be put on the roue, on the wheel." [Derrida's earlier discussion makes clear that "wheel" here means an instrument of torture.] And Saint-Simon clarifies: "The obscure, and for the most part blackguard company, which he [the Duke of Orleans] ordinarily frequented in his debaucheries, and which he did not scruple publicly to call his roués, drove away all decent people."And what about debauchery?
We mustn't forget that the original meaning of debauchery is worklessness, the interruption of labor, a certain employment, a crisis in the job market or in the right to work, but also, as a result, the playful and the lustful, the shameless, lewd, and dissolute, the licentious and libertine.And then there is the question of history, the history of exclusion, of who is excluded, or deemed deserving of "the wheel", and why:
The roué thus appears to be a voyou, at once included and excluded, excluded from within the closely policed circle of respectable society. Were I to allow myself to keep coming back to this extraordinary and untranslatable French lexicon of the roue, to all the turns that link the uses, semantics, and pragmatics of this word to the history of France, to its social, juridical, and political history, we would never be done making the rounds of the politics of the roue, of the wheel, of everything it includes and excludes. For example, the word roue, or more often rouelle, was the name given to a little red and white wheel, the ancestor of the yellow star, which Jews had to wear openly on their breasts at all times or else face severe punishment. Voltaire recalls in his "Essay on the Manners and Spirit Of Nations" that "the Lateran Council ordered that they [the Jews] should carry the figure of a small wheel [roue] on their breasts, to distinguish them from Christians."Everything, you see, has its roots somewhere. And the connections are sometimes quite frightful. We neglect the lessons of history at our peril.
--Quotes from Jacques Derrida, Rogues, tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005), pp. 19-21