Same difference? The Danish cartoons and the Rushdie affair
09 March 2006

Bhikhu Parekh was Deputy Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality at the time of the declaration of a fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Now a member of the House of Lords, he compares the affair to the protests at the Danish cartoons today.

Although Muslim protests against the Danish cartoons are strongly reminiscent of those against Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, very little attempt has been made to compare the two, and to examine how Muslim self-consciousness has changed during the intervening seventeen years.

In both cases the situation was aggravated by the intransigence of the offending parties, and could have been resolved with a measure of good sense.

The similarities are fairly obvious. Both involved art, in the form of fiction in one case and cartoons in the other, and both raised issues relating to freedom of expression. In each case the protests occurred some time after the publication of the offending pieces, and gathered momentum only when they were internationalised after domestic pressure failed to deliver the desired results. In each case the Muslims who approached foreign governments – Khomenei in the former and the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in the latter – were condemned for national ‘disloyalty’. In both cases the situation was aggravated by the intransigence of the offending parties, and could have been resolved with a measure of good sense. Rushdie could have explained clearly what the book was about and expressed regret, as he did a year later; in the case of the cartoons, the Danish government could have been more receptive to the representations by Danish imams and Arab ambassadors, and suitably distanced itself from the Jyllands-Posten. In both cases the issues involved were articulated in abstract and absolutist terms that left no room for compromise. In each instance, many ordinary Muslims responded with violence and sometimes with insensitive slogans that did their cause little good. And in both cases, many Muslim leaders failed to urge restraint or express criticism or dissent and gave the false impression that Muslims were a solid, self-righteous and homogeneous group. Since no one had learned the lessons of the Rushdie affair, all involved repeated its mistakes.

Despite the similarities, the two incidents were also quite different. This is only to be expected as there have been great historical changes in the intervening period. The cartoons episode occurred against a background of the growing threat of terrorism, the wholly unjust second war on Iraq, and a growing Muslim sense of being under siege. Not surprisingly, the protests extended to about 30 countries, unlike the Rushdie affair that only involved about eight. The former led to the loss of 139 lives compared to about a dozen in the latter.

The Rushdie affair was largely centred on the integrity of Islam as a religion, and posed no obvious threat to Muslims’ self-respect and interests. Rushdie appeared to question the authenticity of the Koran, the moral and spiritual character of the prophet Muhammad, and used language that both Muslims and non-Muslims thought offensive. Since no one, rightly, questioned his literary calibre, the issue was seen as a clash between the claims of literature and religion, or between artistic freedom and religious sensibility. The dispute therefore had a moral and cultural depth, and raised important issues of principle.

They served no artistic or moral purpose and were, on all available evidence, designed to challenge and test Muslim commitment to freedom of expression

The Danish cartoons had a very different thrust. Although they too raised the question of freedom of expression, they did so in a marginal and distorted manner. They served no artistic or moral purpose and were, on all available evidence, designed to challenge and test Muslim commitment to freedom of expression. As the editorial in the Jyllands-Posten made clear, Muslims were being asked to prove that they were fully integrated and worthy of being members of liberal society by accepting its practice of ridiculing religious sensibilities. Around 40 artists were asked to submit cartoons depicting their fears and views of Muslims, and 12 did so. The cartoons had a clear political basis and orientation. They – and the subsequent discussion – presented Muslims as backwards, barbarians, unfit to live peacefully in a civilised society, and as sexually motivated seekers of martyrdom (as seen in the silly reference to running out of virgins in one of the cartoons). Unlike the Rushdie affair, the cartoons challenged not so much Islam as a religion but Muslims as a people and questioned their presence in Denmark.

Muslims concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the cartoons dehumanised them and legitimised the climate of hostility against them. This was why some of them invoked the parallel of the Nazi era. During that period, Jews were objects of the worst kinds of caricature, jokes, cartoons, etc. All this shaped German society’s perception of them and wore down such resistance to the Nazi propaganda as might otherwise have been offered. After Bosnia, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and so on, Muslims in Europe and elsewhere had begun to entertain such fears about themselves. The Danish cartoons fuelled that fear.

Muslims are increasingly taking Jews as their point of reference

This, at least partly, explains a dangerous tendency reflected in, and reinforced by, the cartoons. Muslims are increasingly taking Jews as their point of reference, copying their organisations, comparing their treatment to that of the Jews, and demanding the same degree of sensitivity. If the Independent cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon eating the head of a Palestinian child can provoke an outrage, or if an insensitive remark in the New Statesman results in an apology, Muslims think it right to demand the same in their case. If a Danish spokesman of Hizb-ut Tahir receives a two-month suspended prison sentence for referring to Jews as ‘a slanderous people’, Muslims ask why a Danish MP calling them a ‘cancer that should be operated away’ should go unscathed. This is a disturbing trend because it pits Muslims against Jews. And it has potentially frightening consequences if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets mapped on to it. During the Rushdie affair many prominent Jewish spokesmen, including Lord Jacobovitz, Gerald Kaufman and even Melanie Phillips, expressed public sympathy towards Muslims, and the two communities came closer. Although the Jewish spokesmen have largely remained neutral, the cartoons run the risk of generating the opposite trend.

During the Rushdie affair, I was Deputy Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. I defended publicly Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression, but questioned the wisdom of the way he had exercised it. I asked how any decent human being would feel if an author wrote a mocking and degrading novel about the helpless men and women in Auschwitz or any of the other concentration camps. That frightening nightmare came close to becoming a reality when the current President of Iran invited a competition for cartoons on precisely this subject. I am relieved that so far good sense has prevailed, but one can never tell how long it will last.

On the question of whether the Danish cartoons should have been published, the answer is clear. One has a right to express oneself, in any way, within the limits of the law. The issue, however, is twofold. First, legal limits are not the only ones that matter; there are also those imposed by norms of decency, likely consequences, and so on. Law lays down the outermost limits of what may not be said or done, but what one should or should not say or do is a matter of judgement. If one knows that a community feels besieged, insecure, restless, and is likely to explode under what might in other circumstances seem a small provocation, it is unwise, even foolish and self-defeating, to seek to test its tolerance by provocative remarks. Second, in a society where different communities enjoy unequal economic and political power, there is always the danger that some communities may never be touched while others remain constant targets of uninhibited freedom of expression. This leads to a deep sense of injustice and discontent. All communities therefore have a common interest in uniting in a spirit of solidarity and ensuring that equal sensitivity is shown to all.

Many people find Muslim fears and sensitivities incomprehensible. Muslims are in no obvious danger in the west, cartoons and other such forms of ridicule are too trivial to do any damage, and Muslims should stop being hypersensitive. Hindus are often taken to offer a striking contrast. By and large, they seek no special treatment, draw little attention to themselves, don’t care if their gods and goddesses are mocked and their practices ridiculed, and remain the politically most invisible minority in the west. They have quietly got on with the task of building successful lives, and are everywhere one of the highest achievers in educational, scientific, economic and other areas of life.

Tolerance of criticism is neither innate in the human psyche nor inherent in a community’s culture

Although different communities can and should learn from each other, the Hindu strategy of settlement cannot be held up as a universal model. It has its advantages as well as disadvantages, and grows out of Hindu history and traditions. For all kinds of reasons that have to do with them and the wider society, the Muslim pattern of settlement is different. They are marginalised in several areas of life, and the deeper their sense of insecurity, the greater their sensitivity to how others represent them. Tolerance of criticism is neither innate in the human psyche nor inherent in a community’s culture. It comes from material and moral self-confidence and the conviction that one is a fully accepted and valued member of society. How to develop both so that Muslims can treat the likes of the Danish cartoons with the disdain they deserve is one of the important challenges of our time. And the answer depends as much on them as on the wider society.

1 Comment
I consider Bhikhu Parekh's article to contain some very salient points and arguments. However, I feel obliged to raise concerns regarding two aspects of his thinking that in my view distorts his judgement. I feel that he underplays the responsibility of Muslim leaders; religious and political, in provoking the crisis for clear ideological and political ends. His critique of the actions of European media and political agencies, whilst on the whole fair, overplays their role in the crisis. I feel that Parekh writes in a way that is underpinned by an implicit Eurocentricism because he seeks to locate the primary cause of the crisis within the cosmopolitan centre and in the process emphasises the victim-hood of Muslims, in spite of his efforts else where in the article to argue against their essentialist and reductionist representation. Having followed events through the filter of the Media I was struck rather by the way in which the affair was transformed into political and cultural capital by Arab and Muslim leaders to further ends that have little to do with the issue of representation of Muhammad. In fact Muslim leaders appeared quite happy to escalate the crisis and in the process to effectively globalise the very images that they ostensibly sought to censor. There is a clear issue of bad faith that Parekh fails to comment on. The second point I would like to raise concerns the way in which he relates the experience of Muslims to those of Jews. He fails to clearly point out that the comparisons that Muslims make with Jewish experience are part of a wider discursive field that has at its centre a virulent anti-Semitism that is continually evoked to mobilise support for disparate malign political and social agendas. Although he hints at this when he discusses the Iranian Presidentís invitation to produce satirical cartoons regarding the holocaust, he does not seek to use this as a means of un-reading the simple cause and effect explanations that have been presented by Muslims Leaders and protestors and the European Right that has hypocritically jumped upon freedom of speech bandwaggon. Whilst it may be reasonable to criticise Europeans where they fail to act with good sense and pragmatic judgement his article still reads like an apology and a slightly patronising one at that, for the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of much leadership within the Muslim world.
Darren Wilson
15 March 2006

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Limits of free speech? Catalyst looks back at issues raised by the Salman Rushdie affair.

Bhikhu Parekh: The Guardian Profile from 2000.

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