The extreme reaction
Each day last week I’ve heard something about these cartoons. One day the Arab world is boycotting Danish products, the next day Europeans are being warned that they are not safe in the West Bank and ambassadors have even been withdrawn. Then a bunch of Norwegian peacekeepers were bailed up in their compound in Afghanistan. I’m sure many of us are throwing up our hands and saying “There go the Muslims again” but there’s something deeper happening here. We’ve all seen behaviour that, from our cultural background, seems irrational but to those from a different background it is perfectly natural. This is what we have here. Now, not every Muslim has reacted violently. There haven’t been mass protests in my largely Muslim suburb but that doesn’t mean the Muslims around me aren’t true believers. I expect many are angry, shocked and disappointed but have not taken to the streets to express their feelings. The protests, however, have been consistent, strong and well supported from the Muslim community right across world, so obviously something has touched a nerve.
Free speech and post-modernism
It’s common in the post-modern, western world for people to openly challenge what is sacred, what is assumed and to speak on topics that are taboo. This is less common, generally speaking, in the Muslim world. I am used to seeing biased views, factually incorrect statements or satires on my faith and so I challenge them where I can, using my same right to express an opinion, but at the end of the day I know that people will always challenge what others believe. I am used to it but I doubt they are. To someone in a country without the right to free speech it would be even less common. It is countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan where free speech is not in the common psyche that have reacted strongest. One can look at the response of the Turkish community in Germany, the Lebanese community in Australia and the Muslim community in the U.K. and see that those in countries with free speech have reacted in a different manner.
Effective (and ineffective) Cross Cultural Communication
Globalisation is a reality. My car is assembled in Thailand, my computer is designed in the USA and assembled in India. My shirt is made in China. The global neighbourhood is becoming smaller. If you want to communicate with someone in England you do so in the English language so that they have the best chance of understanding you. If Fijian tribal tradition requires you to wear a green hat when speaking in public, you wear a green hat so that you maximise your chance of being heard. Now, if the Muslim community wishes to communicate effectively with Denmark, the E.U. and the west on this issue they should do so in a way that maximises their chance to be heard. I doubt most people have a problem, conceptually, with people reacting or being angry with someone offends them. I doubt most people would have a problem with a street protest. People do, however, have a problem when people are threatened and people are killed. I, for one, find it utterly bizarre that people are resorting to acts of violence to protest against images of a bomb-carrying prophet. It hardly endears me to their cause.
The focus of the protest
“Blasphemy! Blasphemy!”. If the Islamic community wishes to actually make progress in matter of these cartoons rather than simply let off steam, they should change the focus of their protests. This “blasphemy” is a natural by-product of free-speech just like parliamentary elections are a by-product of democracy. If you wanted to purge your country of elections, start talking about why democracy is bad. If you’re unhappy with the “blasphemy”, start talking about whether free-speech is appropriate in it’s current form. For every person shouting “Blasphemy!” there is one shouting “This is free-speech - if you don’t like it, don’t read it”. Shouting at one another generally achieves very little. If you want to be heard and make your point, focus on the root issue rather than it’s by-product.
Can something constructive come from this?
There is great potential for a constructive, inter-cultural dialogue to come out of the publishing of these cartoons and the response to them. There is also the potential for this to be just another case that increases the divide between the Western and Islamic world. I do hope that the constructive contributions from the rest of the world are heard over the violent, sensational protests that the media loves to focus upon. I also hope people present clear and concise points of view that make everyone stop and think, even if we then return to where we were. At least there will be a greater level of understanding and appreciation of the other… or are we just more interested in shouting at each other and making ourselves feel better?