The uproar over the Jyllands Posten "Muhammed cartoons" is the latest chapter in the tragic-comic deterioration of relations between "the Islamic world" and "the West." At this point questions about the right of Jyllands Posten to publish the cartoons and the nature of the response in the Islamic community have been discussed ad absurdum in the blogosphere and beyond. Having come to this party too late and having too little of profit (or Prophet) to say, I must restrict my comments to the "Western" reaction to this fracas. Violence and death threats are obviously a vile response to a series of cartoons, but little progress will be made by fighting intolerance with more intolerance. Though I sympathize with the civil-libertarian impulses behind a website like The Face of Muhammed,it does little to foster mutual understanding. Pronouncements like-
For 1400 years, Islam has waged war on all surrounding non-Muslim civilizations. During the course of history, Christianity was reformed, Europe colonized the world and set it free again, dictators lived, reigned and died, and totalitarian regimes emerged and vanished.
But Islam stayed, unreformed. And today, it imprisons more than 1 billion people, moderate and radical souls alike, in a huge gap of difference to the rest of us. Across political divides, across national boundaries, across various degrees of freedom, across race, people or religion, black or white, rich or poor; it stands out as our opposite. Only Muslim reformists seek to lessen the gap. And their voices are quickly silenced.
In modern times, waves of immigrants from Muslim countries have entered Europe. All European countries have been subject to islamization; the process of slowly incorporating Islamic values and Muslim customs into our way of life. Far East countries like India, Thailand, Indonesia and China are experiencing the Muslim Jihad. Israel lives with it. America feels it. Africa suffers from it, and is too weak from disease and poverty to resist.
It is suddenly coming to our attention that Islam is not, cannot, and will not be integrated or assimilated to the values of freedom and democracy. Islam is not only a religion; it is a totalitarian and expansionistic political ideology.
-harken back to hysterical 19th century rhetoric against the "Yellow Peril" or the "Elders of Zion." The idea that Europe and Christendom have evolved and changed while Islam has remained static is fundamentally ridiculous, as is the notion that while Islam "has waged war on all surrounding non-Muslim societies" Europe has only been so benign as to "coloniz[e] the world and set it free again." One would imagine that the Crusades had never happened and the British Raj was a giant tea party.
Only marginally better are more academic flights of ethnocentrism like this one by Theodore Dalrymple:
Anyone who lives in a city like mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannot help wondering whether, deeper than this immediate cultural desperation, there is anything intrinsic to Islam—beyond the devout Muslim’s instinctive understanding that secularization, once it starts, is like an unstoppable chain reaction—that renders it unable to adapt itself comfortably to the modern world. Is there an essential element that condemns the Dar al-Islam to permanent backwardness with regard to the Dar al-Harb, a backwardness that is felt as a deep humiliation, and is exemplified, though not proved, by the fact that the whole of the Arab world, minus its oil, matters less to the rest of the world economically than the Nokia telephone company of Finland?
I think the answer is yes, and that the problem begins with Islam’s failure to make a distinction between church and state. Unlike Christianity, which had to spend its first centuries developing institutions clandestinely and so from the outset clearly had to separate church from state, Islam was from its inception both church and state, one and indivisible, with no possible distinction between temporal and religious authority. Muhammad’s power was seamlessly spiritual and secular (although the latter grew ultimately out of the former), and he bequeathed this model to his followers. Since he was, by Islamic definition, the last prophet of God upon earth, his was a political model whose perfection could not be challenged or questioned without the total abandonment of the pretensions of the entire religion.
This kind of pseudo-historical analysis falls flat on many fronts, foremost of which is the latent assumption that a comparison between Christianity and Islam can account for the sum total of the human experience. Many, many societies and cultural traditions did not develop a "distinction between church and state." China did very well without it until 1911, Judaism was no different than Islam in this regard (Moses provided the model of a prophet-king Dalrymple perceives in Muhammed).
Moreover, Dalrymple vastly overstates the positive light in which Christianity and "Western" society may rest after a genuine historical comparison to Islamic civilization. Dalrymple complains of a lack of seperation between church and state in Islam, but temporal and religious authority were much more distinct in the Islamic caliphate of medieval Spain than in the Christian kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabella which succeeded it. The caliphate saw a golden age of interfaith tolerance and flourishing humanistic culture, the Christian era brought forced conversion, expulsion, and the Inquisition.
Indeed, for most of the past millenium Islamic societies were far more open and tolerant of religious and intellectual diversity than those in the "West." Conversion under threat of death made sense within a Christian theology, as the flames of Hell awaited infidels sooner or later. By contrast Muslims were specifically forbidden to use such methods upon "People of the Book," a designation originally meant for Jews and Christians but ultimately extended to Zoroastrians and Hindus.
"Westerners" are prone to adopt an air of superiority because the forces that condition global modernity- industrialization, nationalism, market capitalism- first took root in Europe and the Americas. But a complacent feeling of superiority conveniently overlooks the facts that a)none of these "Western" achievements would have been possible absent much that was learned or acquired from Asian, African, Native American and Islamic civilizations; b)these forces have transformed the world at a terrible cost. The same societies that cultivated the "freedom of the press" so vaunted (and so abused) by Jyllands Posten also gave rise to the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Holocaust, two World Wars, the Soviet Gulag, the massacre at Srebenica, etc., etc., etc. It is difficult to find a crime committed by an Islamic society to match the worst offenses of "the West." The economic and technological conditions of Islamic societies may have changed more slowly than those of "the West," but at the same time their histories have been marked by less violence. Where is the Islamic Antietam or Verdun? "The Face of Muhammed" would label Islam a lumbering, changeless monolith, but can its author have forgotten that some of the worst totalitarianisms produced by "Western civilization" only fell 17 years ago?
Finally, all of the lamentations about poor, changeless Islam ignore the intense diversity of Islamic communities around the world today. The most egregious violence engendered by "Cartoongate" has transpired in the Arab world, but that community houses less than 1/4 of the world's Muslims. The largest Muslim communities in the world are in South and Southeast Asia (in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia...), and in those societies the response to the Jyllands Posten flap has been far less extreme. Do these responses manifest Islam's incompatibility with modernity? Of course not. The Jyllands Posten cartoons, all considerations of "religious taboos" aside, were genuinely offensive. The kind of anger on display in much of the Islamic world is not far from what a series of cartoons featuring hook-nosed, money-counting rabbis would occasion in the world Jewish community.
Reductionist analyses like those of "The Face of Muhammed" or Theodore Dalrymple recapitulate the same error of the original Jyllands Posten cartoons. To caricaturize Islam as regressive or incompatible with modernity is to play into the hands of those who would truly like to make it so. If Europeans and Americans keep sermonizing Muslims about their chronic inferiority, more and more of them, out of sheer exasperation, will turn to those like Osama bin Laden who will feed them equally ridiculous pabulum about Islamic superiority. To deny that some aspects or segments of the current Islamic community should change would obviously be wrong, but insisting that Islam itself precludes any community from ever changing is patently ridiculous. No one living in Ferdinad and Isabella's Spain could ever predict that that society would embrace the liberal ideals championed by Jyllands Posten. Declaring any culture or society absolutely incapable of change is to deny the humanity of its inhabitants, and dehumanizing others is the surest route to strife and sorrow.