Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Olivier Roy on the cartoon wars

Gershon Shafir drew my attention to this interview with the French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy. A number of points here are illuminating, and others are at least usefully thought-provoking. For example:
And secondly, the issue here in Europe at least is that the cartoons have been seen as discriminatory. Wrongly or rightly [wrongly, as a matter of fact], the idea is that the European newspapers could make fun of Muslims but they will not dare to make fun of Jews or Christians, at least as far as the respectable newspapers are concerned. To me, for the Muslims in the streets in Europe -- I am not speaking of the Middle East -- it has been experienced as discrimination more than blasphemy. [....]
If we leave Europe and if we look at riots in the Middle East, we can see that these riots are systematically linked with local political crises. So it is not the upheaval of the Muslim world against the West. It's the political exploitation of these cartoons by regimes or political organizations. [....]
So it's not the Muslim streets, the people. You have no big demonstration in Morocco, no big demonstration in Saudi Arabia. The Muslim people are not now in the street. In France, for example, there are no demonstrations. So what we have is a political exploitation of perennial crises. It's not new. We have the headscarf affair in France, the Rushdie affair in Britain. And it's the same issue. The Rushdie affair became a big problem because Ayatollah Khomeini [in 1989] took this opportunity to issue his fatwa [calling for Salman Rushdie's death after publication of "The Satanic Verses"]. The headscarf affair on the contrary has cooled down because there has been no political exploitation. [....]
Of course, none of this necessarily means that the storm will die down.
I think things will cool down in Europe. But I think in the short term, things might get worse in the Middle East because countries like Iran and Syria are playing on the crisis. There they have their back against the wall and they choose to play the crisis. Syria's regime has no choice. And in Iran they want to undermine the European position before the debate [over Iran's nuclear program] at the Security Council.
We'll have to see.

--Jeff Weintraub
========================
The Wall Street Journal Online
February 7, 2006 6:03 p.m.
The Illustrated Flashpoint of Religion and Politics
By Jennifer Sterling

The 12 cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad sparked controversy from the moment they were printed in a Danish newspaper last September. But the explosion of Muslim anger around the world came only last week, when several European papers reprinted some of the images in the name of press freedom and as secular forces in the Arab world took up the cause as a means to burnish their image as defenders of Islam.
The scale of violent protests targeting Danish embassies and other European missions has grown daily, from Afghanistan to Indonesia, Beirut to Tehran, in turn provoking indignation and fear among many in Europe and elsewhere in the West. The furor among Muslims stems from a traditional taboo against images of Muhammad, exacerbated by some of the cartoons' placement of the prophet in a terrorist context.
Olivier Roy, French author of "Globalized Islam" and "La Laicite Face a L'Islam" ("Secularism in the Face of Islam"), and one of Europe's leading authorities on Islamic studies, discusses the origins of the fierce reactions that have played out over the past week.

* * *
The Wall Street Journal Online: Is there anything written in the Koran that calls for this type of reaction if the prophet Muhammad is desecrated in print?
Mr. Roy: No, to my knowledge, no. It's a tradition among others. It's a tradition which is supported by some authors and varies according to time and place. We have found, we can find presentations of the prophet in the Muslim history.
WSJ.com: Why are the cartoons so offensive to some Muslims?
Mr. Roy: The main issue to me is not the presentation of the prophet. If the prophet were shown doing good deeds nothing would have happened. What is offensive is the association of the prophet with terrorism. So I think the most offensive cartoon was probably the one with the bomb in the turban of the prophet.
WSJ.com: Is this more offensive to Sunnis than Shiites or to certain Muslims more than others?
Mr. Roy: In a sense, yes, because in Shiism such representation is more often found. And secondly, the issue here in Europe at least is that the cartoons have been seen as discriminatory. Wrongly or rightly, the idea is that the European newspapers could make fun of Muslims but they will not dare to make fun of Jews or Christians, at least as far as the respectable newspapers are concerned. To me, for the Muslims in the streets in Europe--I am not speaking of the Middle East -- it has been experienced as discrimination more than blasphemy.
WSJ.com: To what extent, if any, is the Muslim furor a buildup from other events that have contributed to higher Western-Muslim tension in the post-9/11 era, including the war in Iraq, the headscarf ban in France and the pent-up social stress in France that led to the riots last fall?
Mr. Roy: If we leave Europe and if we look at riots in the Middle East, we can see that these riots are systematically linked with local political crises. So it is not the upheaval of the Muslim world against the West. It's the political exploitation of these cartoons by regimes or political organizations.
WSJ.com: So you've seen this building up for quite some time?
Mr. Roy: Yes, we have two issues here. One is that it's simply a political [exploitation of the anger]. The Syrian regime is using this to counterattack against the pressure to leave Lebanon. We should not look beyond that to understand what is going on in Damascus. This Syrian regime is a secular dictatorship which killed tens of thousands of Muslim brothers. So Bashar al Assad is not doing that to support Islam. He is doing that to punish the Europeans for having contributed to expelling the Syrian troops from Lebanon. So it's in the wake of the assassination of [Rafik] Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, by the Syrians. So the stake is not Islam here. [Note: The United Nations is investigating the Syrian role in the assassination and has issued statements critical of Damascus, but the investigation hasn't yet been completed.]
WSJ.com: Is that the second issue?
Mr. Roy: Yes, the second issue is the fact that the Europeans for the last two years had a more active profile in the Middle East than they had at the time of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The U.S. military intervention in Iraq had totally sidelined the Europeans. But what do we see now? The Americans are slowly stepping down, while the Europeans on the contrary are taking a far more active attitude. Then we have four other issues at work right now. One is the Iranian nuclear issue, and the Europeans are far more involved now than the Americans. The second issue is Afghanistan. The U.S. troops are slowly being replaced by NATO troops, which means European troops. The third issue is, as I said, Syria and Lebanon. France, for instance, took a leading role in blaming the Syrians for the Lebanese problem. And the last issue is the victory of Hamas, where the response of Brussels, of the European Union, was tougher than expected by the Palestinians.
WSJ.com: And so all these protests are a combination of these issues and pent-up anger?
Mr. Roy: Yes. So it's not the Muslim streets, the people. You have no big demonstration in Morocco, no big demonstration in Saudi Arabia. The Muslim people are not now in the street. In France, for example, there are no demonstrations. So what we have is a political exploitation of perennial crises. It's not new. We have the headscarf affair in France, the Rushdie affair in Britain. And it's the same issue. The Rushdie affair became a big problem because Ayatollah Khomeini [in 1989] took this opportunity to issue his fatwa [calling for Salman Rushdie's death after publication of "The Satanic Verses"]. The headscarf affair on the contrary has cooled down because there has been no political exploitation.
WSJ.com: Do the protesters represent the views of a majority of Muslims or those of a more vocal minority that can get a lot more television and other media attention?
Mr. Roy: Yes, of course it's a vocal minority. The majority of Muslims in Europe, certainly they feel offended. The same way that many Catholics were offended when [Martin] Scorsese released "The Last Temptation of Christ." The issue is not of being offended. Many people are offended every day. The issue is of making violent protests. And here we have just a vocal minority. It's not because you're offended that you go to the streets. But it is clear that many conservative religious milieus think that there is too much freedom of expression. The Catholic Church--the Vatican--has issued a communique, I think yesterday, saying that they understand the offense, that there is a feeling of being offended by the Muslims. What is important is the political dimension. Being offended--our secular society is a permanent offense for every conservative believer, Christian, Jew or Muslim. The problem is when politics do interfere, and here we have a clear politicization of the matter by regimes who could be [as secular] as Syria is.
WSJ.com: Is there a U.S. role in any of this?
Mr. Roy: The Europeans are the only targets of the protests, for the moment. The protest is clearly against the Europeans.
WSJ.com: Where do you see this going from here?
Mr. Roy: I think things will cool down in Europe. But I think in the short term, things might get worse in the Middle East because countries like Iran and Syria are playing on the crisis. There they have their back against the wall and they choose to play the crisis. Syria's regime has no choice. And in Iran they want to undermine the European position before the debate [over Iran's nuclear program] at the Security Council.

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