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Cartoon rows illustrate hard road to cultural understanding

By Paul Titus

The controversy over the publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed unveils the different roles religion plays in the West and the Islamic world, say scholars.

Dr Mohammed Musa co-ordinates the Mass Communication programme at the University of Canterbury. Mohammed says the Islamic world values religion more than anything, while in the West freedom is valued above all else.

“The journalist Robert Fisk has pointed out there is little Christianity left in the West,” Mohammed says. “The controversy has not been depicted as one between Christianity and Islam but between the West and Islam. Religion has not been ridiculed in the Islamic world as it has been in the West, and Muslims don’t want it to go that way.”

In regards to the cartoons themselves, Mohammed asks what the motive was to publish them. He believes it was reckless exhibitionism combined with an ignorance of Islam.

“There are two points. One is that the cartoons were originally published in Denmark in September. Why did other newspapers publish them in January and February? There was no news value left in the cartoons by then.

“Second, even if we respect the freedom of journalists, they must recognise their social responsibility. Journalists always have to ask what the implications of their actions are. In this case there was already evidence that publishing the cartoons would disrupt public peace but they still went ahead.

“Part of the problem is that there is genuine ignorance about Islam. Despite the large volume of information in circulation through the Western media, you soon discover there is systemic ignorance about the beliefs of Muslims. Because of that ignorance people base their perspectives on stereotypes,” Mohammed says.

Theologian Lloyd Geering agrees with Mohammed that the original publication of the cartoons was insensitive but has a different view on the decision newspapers around the world made to reprint them.

“In the West we feel we have the freedom to publish what we want and cartoonist can hold almost anything up to ridicule. We are used to it. The Islamic world isn’t,” Lloyd says.

“The West has been moving into these modern freedoms for 200 years so in some sense the Islamic world is 200 years behind. These are things that would have upset the Western world 200 years ago.

“Therefore the West has to develop a more sympathetic understanding of what makes the Islamic world tick. It is not a moral issue. It is a matter of courtesy.”

On the other hand, Lloyd says, the editors who reprinted the cartoons were justified. Muslim protestors were responsible for turning the cartoons into news, not the cartoonists. If those who were upset by the cartoons had said nothing, no one would have heard about it.

“For many Muslims the cartoons are offensive but they were a handy whipping horse that enabled the Islamic world to show its resentment towards the western world. There is justification in this. The West has treated Islamic world in a shocking way for the last 200 years. Only in 20th century did the Islamic countries win political independence from the western empires,” Lloyd says.

Canterbury University Religious Studies lecturer Dr Michael Grimshaw is writing a cartoon history of religion in New Zealand. He says cartoonists here have a long tradition of poking fun at Christianity and, more specifically, clergy. Other religions have been targeted too. At one time it was not uncommon to see anti-Semitic cartoons in state-controlled newspapers.

For Michael the current controversy not only illustrates the conflicting attitudes held by people of different faiths but also the conflicting attitudes that can occur within faiths.

“I support the editors’ decision to publish the cartoons and I support the protestors’ right to express their offence. By its very nature religion is offensive. It says ‘my beliefs are right and your beliefs are wrong’. And the public expression of religion is offensive to secularists.

“But this is not a clash between civilisations because there is plenty of conflict within civilisations. The Islamic world and the West are not monocultural blocs.”

Michael sites differences between Protestants and Catholics, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, and Ultra Orthodox and Liberal Jews to illustrate the point. And while there is disquiet about politicised Islam in the West, many Muslims too see politicised Islam as problematic.

At times diverse conservative religious groups join forces against those who believe religion is a private choice and democracy requires a secular public sphere. An example is the Jewish, Muslim and Protestant groups that supported the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the South Park cartoon that spoofs the Virgin Mary.

“In Denmark and other liberal European democracies there is now a convergence in secular left wing and secular right wing opinion about the large-scale immigration of Muslims. The right sees the end of Christian Europe’s supremacy and the left sees the end of liberal multi-cultural society.

“In some strong Muslim areas of France people are refusing to have their children taught by gay teachers. When do religious rights over-rule civil rights?”

Michael says the violent protests over the cartoons prove one point: at stake is the issue of who decides what is acceptable in our changing world. Society is becoming increasingly pluralistic, and, paradoxically, more secular and more religious at the same time. The question is how we hold society together in the face of this diversity.