Are Muslims from Mars and Europeans from Venus?
Shortly before the row over the Danish caricatures began to grip the headlines, a public lecture was given by Tariq Ramadan at the London School of Economics. Ramadan is a Swiss national of Egyptian background, and a world renowned scholar of Islamic and European thought. He has spoken and written a great deal on the relationship between the West and the Muslim world: in terms both of international relations and of social relations in Western countries. Ramadan strongly advocates a constructive dialogue between the two cultures and enthuses about the substantial common ground in which such a dialogue could take place. As a scholar of both Western and Eastern philosophy, he sees a plethora of common principles and values shared by Islam and the West. For those of us schooled primarily in Western thought, Ramadan not only exhibits what we can instantly recognise as a deep intellectual immersion in the principles and values of the Enlightenment (not least the free exchange of reasoned ideas), but also gives us an insight into how those intrinsically human values have manifested themselves in the Islamic world throughout its history.
The notion that certain values are not exclusive to either West or East can be illustrated by considering the question of religious tolerance. Is religious tolerance an intrinsically Western value absent from Islamic culture? One might well take that impression from much of the recent media commentary in the West. But in fact, understanding and indeed celebration of other religions - far beyond mere tolerance – has manifested itself prominently in Islam, which the prophet Muhammad saw as completing a trinity of religions alongside Christianity and Judaism. The Qur’an explicitly demands respect for Jews and Christians (“the People of the Book”), and though one may well find contradictions of this principle elsewhere in Islamic scripture, one will also find much religious intolerance (putting it mildly) in the scriptures of those other two religions, particularly in the Old Testament.
Moving from principles to practice, Islamic history overall compares very favourably to that of the West. Examples such as the Inquisition and the semi-religious justifications used for various Western colonial genocides and acts of repression (including the wholesale extermination of indigenous societies throughout the Western hemisphere from 1492 onwards) run counter to the notion that the tolerance of dissenting beliefs is intrinsic to Western culture (1). Over the course of history, both Jews in the Islamic Middle East and Hindus in Mughal India, for example, were treated comparatively favourably, as against say the Jewish experience in Europe. The point is here not to prove the reverse of the liberal-West / dogmatic-East equation, but to illustrate its fundamental deficiency as an assumption underpinning much of the current debate.
However, in spite its deficiencies, this assumption is nevertheless deeply ingrained across the political spectrum. In Britain, The Observer published a “history of free speech” accompanying its coverage of the cartoons row, listing an almost exclusively Western chronology: from Socrates through the Magna Carta to the US Bill of Rights. Islam was permitted to appear in the story twice: firstly in 1989 when “[the] Ayatollah Khomeini issue[d] a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over the 'blasphemous' content of his novel, The Satanic Verses”, and secondly in 2002 where “Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel incense[d] Muslims by writing about the Prophet Mohammed and Miss World, provoking riots which [left] more than 200 dead”. In the same issue, the paper’s leader article had stated firmly that “this is not a clash of civilisations”. Yet its writers could have done little more to espouse the view expressed by Samuel Huntingdon in his book “The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order” that the “sense of individualism and … tradition of individual rights and liberties” to be found in the West are “unique among civilised societies”.
In their acts of cultural self-love, neither Huntingdon nor The Observer writers allow the facts to spoil the romantic mood as they gaze doe-eyed into the mirror. But in truth there are plenty of other examples of the principle of free expression asserting itself in history; even outside of the western tradition helpfully outlined for us by Britain’s leading liberal Sunday newspaper.
For example, at a time when Jews and heretics were being burned at the stake in Europe, the belief that “the pursuit of reason” should reign over “blind faith” was flourishing in India under the Muslim Emperor Akbar, who demonstrated his commitment to the principle by arranging public dialogues between people of all faiths, including atheists. Displaying the religious tolerance of Mughal India described above, Akbar issued a legal order stating that "no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him", or to choose to have no religion at all. In taking these measures, Akbar was laying the formal foundations of a secular state in the 16th Century, two hundred years before secularism gained the ascendancy in France and the United States.
Though keeping to the cultures of the West and the Muslim world for the purposes of this discussion, we might also allow ourselves a brief detour to note in passing some other occurrences of free expression flourishing beyond the European canon. For example, nearly two millennia before Akbar’s reign, in the 3rd century BC, the Indian Buddhist Emperor Ashoka proclaimed edicts promoting the human rights of people, at a time when the Greek philosopher Aristotle was excluding women and slaves from his writings on freedom, an exception that Ashoka did not make. One might also recall any number of indigenous societies in what is now the third world where pre-democratic forms of governance were evolving, giving ordinary people a say in public affairs, long before many of those societies were either reordered or swept away completely by the tide of European expansion. These examples, and countless others too numerous to list, demonstrate that the free flow and expression of ideas is by no means an invention of the West or its own Enlightenment tradition. Liberalism, both of thought and of belief, has been valued by various cultures throughout human history, and contrary to Huntingdon’s assertion, has never been the sole preserve of one (2).
Whether the omissions from The Observer’s chronology were accidental or deliberate their effect on the current debate will be the same. Whilst miming respect for Muslims and mumbling polite refutations of any civilisational clash, The Observer has strongly reinforced the erroneous belief that the story of freedom of speech is all but exclusively a Western story; with the East allowed to appear only fleetingly and in direct opposition to enlightened European values. Thus the ideological premise of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, whilst superficially rejected by polite liberalism, is further ingrained even on the left-hand side of the political spectrum. By putting aside such conceits and examining history, we have seen that liberalism is no more intrinsically Western than dogmatism is written in the DNA of any Muslim majority society. We can now therefore move to consider how those liberal values claimed as the West’s gift to humanity manifest themselves in the present day.
In his LSE lecture, Ramadan expressed the view that in a dialogue of civilisations principles could be usefully compared with principles and (social and political) practices compared with practices, but that difficulties will arise when one party compares its principles with the other's practices. This creates a flawed dialogue, not least because it causes the former party to flatter itself and to antagonise the other unnecessarily. So in this case, people on the European side compare “Western values” of free speech and tolerance with the angry demands emanating from the Islamic world that the offensive depictions of the Prophet are banned. Meanwhile aggrieved Muslims compare the piety of Islam with the disrespectful behaviour of the Western press.
But as Ramadan says, comparing our principles with our own practices and satisfying ourselves that they are consistent should be our first priority, before the denouncement of others. Self-examination is always productive, hypocrisy never so. For our part as Westerners, to compare our principles with our own practices, we might examine our true position on political freedom as it stands today. Are our collective practices consistent with our purported liberal values? To answer this question, it may be particularly beneficial to examine those relevant practices of ours that have been most visible to the world’s Muslims. The additional benefit here will be to gain insight into how our actual record on democracy and freedom of speech might be perceived by those who dwell, we are told, on the opposite side of the cultural schism. Empathy is, after all, an essential component of meaningful dialogue.
Currently there is much enthusiastic talk in the West of our mission to spread democracy in the Middle East, with the occupation of Iraq held up as an example. But the assertion that “democratising” the Muslim world is a Western foreign policy goal raises a number of questions which, though obvious, are conspicuous by their absence from mainstream political debate. For instance, in the case of Iraq, why were popular demands for free elections resisted so fiercely by the occupiers for several months after the invasion, and agreed to only after Iraqis took to the streets in their thousands to demonstrate for democracy? Since there is no question that the Iraqi public want the occupying troops to leave, as poll after poll has shown, and since the entire Iraqi political class united in calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of occupying troops at two national conferences late last year, why do Western political leaders continue to reject talk of any such timetable out of hand? And why do Western media commentators continue to debate the merits of withdrawal as though the Iraqi public had expressed no preference on the issue? Must freedom of speech for non-westerners be balanced with the freedom of the colonial master to ignore his subjects should they express the wrong views?
US-UK attempts to prevent democracy emerging in Iraq are consistent with long-established policy, and the views of the victims of those policies are not new either. Half a century ago, President Eisenhower asked the US National Security Council to look into the animosity felt by the people of the Middle East towards his government’s policies (which animosity he described as a "campaign of hatred against us"). The Council reported that the hostility stemmed from a widespread perception that the US was supporting oppressive regimes in the region in order to help it secure access to and control over oil reserves. The council went on to say that it would be difficult for the US to counter the perception, largely because it was accurate.
In 1953, the accuracy of that perception had been demonstrated in no uncertain terms as Britain and the US conspired to topple Iran's parliamentary government and install the dictatorship of the Shah. Tehran had upset the British by nationalising its oil industry, having taken the view that the Iranian public, not the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP), should be the main beneficiaries of the national wealth. Winston Churchill's government continued covert operations begun by the previous Labour administration to organise a coup with the help of the CIA. The coup was a success for Western elite interests, if not for Western democratic values, as the US-UK installed a client dictatorship that spent the next 25 years cultivating a reputation for astonishing brutality. Amnesty International reported in 1976 that under the Shah, Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture" which was "beyond belief". "The entire population” said the human rights group “was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror" by internal security forces armed and trained by the West.
The conventional strategic model wherein the West maintains effective power but the duties of day-to-day governance are delegated to local elites was described by Lord Curzon in the days of the British Empire. It is preferable, said Curzon, to rule behind an "Arab façade," with "absorption" of the quasi-colonies "veiled by constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer State, and so on" (3). The Persian façade provided by the Shah in Iran until 1979 is mirrored today by Arab regimes across the region whose role is to ensure that those countries are governed in the interests, not of their populations (as in a democracy), but of the West and its client elites. The UK maintains close military ties with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, whilst the US provides enormous financial, military and diplomatic support most prominently to Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. None of these countries can exactly be described as democracies but all are close allies of the freedom loving West. (The case of Israel, where non-Israelis living under illegal occupation are systematically denied their most basic human rights with the full complicity of the US, the UK and other Western countries merits a separate discussion altogether)
The example of Saudi Arabia bears closer examination. The Saudi government prohibits political opposition, has no independent media and - perhaps unsurprisingly given its record of public beheadings, torture and other abuses - bars human rights organisations like Amnesty International from entering the country. Yet, whilst Western politicians and commentators queue up to condemn the repressive theocracy of Iran, a somewhat different approach is taken to the Saudi regime; a theocracy every bit as tyrannical. Tony Blair has found time away from spearheading the drive to democratise the Middle East to praise Saudi Arabia as “a good friend in the international coalition against terrorism”, expressing “no doubt at all that in the future those ties and that relationship will become even stronger still”. The strength of the relationship the Prime Minister refers to is illustrated by the fact that the Saudi government not only provides Britain with its “largest defence sales markets in the world” (quoting the MoD) but has also, for decades, had its internal security forces trained by the UK, sometimes at the British government’s expense.
Returning briefly to the Observer’s chronology of free speech, we might suggest a new entry in the timeline to be inserted just before the Ayatollah Khomeinei’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie. In 1988, a religious body appointed by our Saudi allies issued a fatwa of its own sanctioning the execution of members of opposition political parties; surely something of relevance to us given our material contribution to the good fortunes of the Saudi elites responsible. Indeed, in the interests of comparing our principles with our own practices, the Observer might also have mentioned the praising of one of the world’s most notoriously anti-democratic regimes as “a good friend” of the British government by no less a figure than the Prime Minister. Are these not notable episodes, from a British perspective, in the history of free speech? (4)
Contraventions of that “tradition of individual rights and liberties” which is “unique” to the West are by no means limited to our policies towards the Middle East. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority nation in the world, the West backed the dictator Suharto enthusiastically for more than three decades as he slaughtered his political opponents and their supporters by the hundreds of thousands. One might well ask why the love of freedom apparently intrinsic to our civilisational values did not intrude upon the policies of countless democratically elected Western governments throughout that time?
As mentioned above, comparing our purported principles with our actual practices in this way serves two important functions: firstly, in highlighting instances where we fall well short of our own self-professed standards and where corrective action can be taken; and secondly, in illuminating the current debate by allowing us an insight into how our really-existing position on democracy and freedom of speech might be viewed in the Islamic world. It can hardly have escaped the attention of many people in the global Islamic community that the freedom of expression that is said to be “non-negotiable” when caricaturing the prophet Muhammad has proved, along with countless other freedoms, to be eminently negotiable, if not entirely dispensable, when backing a host of authoritarian regimes sponsored to uphold Western interests from North Africa to South East Asia. Having demonstrated the basic speciousness of the liberal-West / dogmatic-East dichotomy, we can now conclude by examining the debate over the Danish caricatures in their socio-political context, armed also with a new insight into possible Muslim perspectives on the issue.
A crucial yet overlooked aspect of the current debate is the balance of power between the offended Muslim communities and the media that have published the cartoons (and the socio-political elites that those media represent). In Denmark, where the row originated, Muslims largely inhabit a social underclass, experiencing real difficulties accessing employment and a stake in the economy more generally. In a country where an anti-immigrant right-wing is in the political ascendancy, bigotry plays no small part in determining the social status of Danish Muslims (for instance, it seems that one Danish MP described the Muslim presence in Denmark as a "cancer"). To many of them, the issue has as much to do with politics as it has to do with religion. The cartoons are an overt expression of the bigotry that has a material effect on their daily lives, and this experience is a common one in ghettos all across Europe. Add this to the historical record of Western foreign policy towards Muslim majority countries, up to and including the serious crises of the present day (Palestine, Iraq, Iran), and the context in which the cartoons are likely to appear from a Muslim perspective is hard to miss. The cartoons themselves figure next to nowhere on the scale of crimes committed by Western governments against the Islamic world, but they are, in the context, a puerile and gratuitous jab in the eye - the needless addition of another insult to a thousand injuries.
The posture struck by many in the European media has been one of brave defiance against the threat of religious dogma (though such bravery was in short supply three years ago when the Danish paper that published the caricatures of Muhammad refused to publish satirical depictions of Christ on the grounds that they might “provoke an outcry”). Given the balance of power between the media and the Muslim communities in Western countries, and between the West and the Islamic world internationally, the courageous pose is a hard one to take seriously. If the European media had a strong record in (a) documenting the relationships between their governments and autocratic regimes abroad, and (b) reporting on the lack of economic opportunity and consequent restriction of social freedom experienced by the domestic underclass, including Muslim first and second generation immigrants, then the current principled stand for freedom might deserve some credit. Again, the balance-of-power element of the issue, presented inversely by the newspaper editors who chose to publish the caricatures, is unavoidable. One can think of few less impressive sights than that of social elites affecting airs of heroism by valiantly standing up to the fearsome tyranny of those who reside under their boot.
But perhaps the most significant aspect both of the publication of the cartoons and of the subsequent reinforcing of the dichotomies discussed here is the effect they will have on the prevailing political discourse in the West and the government policies that emerge from or acquire legitimacy through the terms of that discourse. It is no coincidence that those who most enthusiastically peddle the fiction of a “clash of civilisations” also portray the opposing “other” as a force that seriously threatens to destroy “our way of life”, and therefore advocate an aggressive US-led military strategy across the Islamic world. Manichean rhetoric eulogizing the liberal idealism of “our values” and the necessity of defending them against those who “hate our freedoms” has been the very essence of Western pro-war advocacy in recent years. Observing essentially imperial foreign policies being depicted as altruistic endeavours aimed at bringing enlightenment to backward, inferior (if exotic) cultures, or at least at defending us against them, hardly places us in unfamiliar territory. Indeed, subjugation almost invariably goes hand in hand with the deliberate dehumanisation of those who are being subjugated by those responsible for or whose acquiescence is essential to the act of subjugation (5). And in terms of domestic social relations, the direct contribution made by stereotypical depictions of certain social groups as in some way inferior to the mistreatment of those groups by the majority is again a dynamic that's hardly unfamiliar, not least in Europe.
As Tariq Ramadan stressed in his LSE lecture, meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Westerners is eminently possible. History shows that the common human values of freedom of expression, worship and conscience have emerged in both cultures at various points in time, to greater or lesser extents. The barrier to dialogue is not the necessary antagonism of two diametrically opposed value systems. Nor is the real question at hand one of whether freedom of speech should be curtailed by the demands of religious dogma. Rather, for us as Westerners, the question is whether we will continue to be complicit or to acquiesce in the denial of freedom to others. Declining to publish the caricatures, in light of the political context in which this issue has arisen, would not be a compromise but an affirmation of the values we in Europe purport to uphold.
(1) See “American Holocaust“ by David E. Stannard
(2) For the Huntingdon quote, Akbar and Ashoka see “The Argumentative Indian” by Amartya Sen. For Islamic history see “Islam: A Short History” by Karen Armstrong. For the liberal, arguably pre-democratic aspects of indigenous culture in the Americas and Africa see Stannard and “The Good Empire” by Vivek Chibber, Boston Review February/March 2005
(3) “Year 501: the Conquest Continues” by Noam Chomsky
(4) For British relations with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern autocracies, and for Western ties to the Iranian Shah’s infamous SAVAK secret police and more on the Iranian coup, see “Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World” by Mark Curtis.
(5) See Stannard for a thorough discussion of the dehumanisation of non-Christian indigenous societies in the Americas and the central role this played in their eradication by European colonial forces from 1492 onwards.