A simple recipe: don't insult one another
Enough time has passed since the scandal broke out over the political cartoons published in the Danish press. Now we can finally look at these events at some distance. It is quite clear that this was an act of provocation which resulted in a sharp deterioration of relations between the Moslem and Western worlds. One can harbor suspicions against all kinds of groups, since the scandal has served the purposes of very diverse forces.
Such things do not occur due to carelessness or inattention. Failure to think things through may lead to publishing a caricature and then to the building of the publisher being set aflame. What we are dealing with here is provocation which has been psychologically calculated so as to produce a snowball effect. As a result the world finds itself on the brink of religious war.
At first glance, the explosion of indignation among Moslems was inappropriate, not in keeping with the event. Even among us in the Western world, people thought twice and started asking questions. What is going on? The reaction of the Islamic world to the insult: was this a sign of high spirituality and true religiosity or stupidity and limited comprehension?
Rabble-rousers are saying: "we will show you how we can intervene in your affairs." They saw how Iraq could be occupied with the help of modern equipment. And they make it clear that with bare hands you can also do a lot, for example, by declaring a boycott which will come down hard on an economy and destroy relations between countries. The same logic is applied by suicide terrorists. They say: "There is a war going on. You have tanks and aircraft. We have only our lives and we will use them as weapons." This way you can get the whole world worked up, and it is very dangerous.
Now in the West many people are saying that nothing similar can happen here, since we are not that religious. But religion cannot be thoughtlessly disturbed. The response will be just that.
It is important to understand what the prohibition of depicting Mohammed is all about. It is a clear expression of monotheism - the belief in one God. Moslems see the danger of idolatry in every image relating to sacred history. The chief idea of Islam as created by Mohammed is that you must not worship idols. There is only one God. People are inclined to put persons or objects on pedestals, to invent saints, but Moslems fight against the cult of saints. They consider it to be a terrible sin that Christians have turned the Prophet Christ into an idol and have declared him to be God. From their point of view, that is a distortion of belief in God. Mohammed must not be portrayed, not because he is respected but because that presents the horrible manifestation of idolatry. We should remember that in Judaism it is prohibited to utter the name of God. While it is true that in the Moslem world there are occasionally illustrations of Mohammed's life, his face is always covered.
You can describe the Prophet in words as much as you like. In the heat of a polemic someone observed: everyone knows how Christ looked, but we don't know how Mohammed looked. That is not true. There is a whole literary genre which describes the appearance of the Prophet in detail. In Arabic you can read that he had black hair, a black beard and walked quickly...
Moslems have been seriously offended by this insult. We think their reaction has been inappropriate, but then the idea of drawing a caricature of the Prophet was also inappropriate. What we have gotten is a reaction to loutishness and not to excessive liberty. And this is not an isolated case. Mayor of New York Giuliani banned an exhibition of modern art in the Brooklyn Museum, because it showed the Crucifixion drawn in an unacceptable manner. He said that as a Catholic he cannot allow this and threatened to remove funding from the museum. Another manifestation of the same loutishness was the opening in Moscow of an exhibition which amounted to mockery of icons, and the loutishness of those who then tried to destroy it.
In the whole world there is now a sharp increase in the political exacerbation of religion. The division of church, state, and society is a great achievement of civilization; each should have its own niche. Religion is turned into a powerful weapon if it is used for political purposes. What we call Islamic fundamentalism or the Islamic threat is in fact no more terrible than any other fundamentalism, whether it be Jewish or Protestant...
Returning to the caricatures, there is in them an offensive element which must be mentioned. They contain a collection of standard defamations of Mohammed which exist in Christian civilization for a long time. They are false stereotypes. There is the portrayal of the Prophet as a simple, ignorant man. The second line is that Mohammed is just an imitator of the Jews. He is depicted like Moses. The third stereotype is that he is a bloody aggressor. There is the subject of oppression of women and accusation of sensuality and of putting the question of sex in first place....The collection of stereotypes which has existed since the time of the Crusades distorts the image of Islam. Moreover, there is the caricature which is identical to the anti-Semitic ones disseminated across Europe in the 1930's. An entire arsenal of insults which have been tested over time and practice was used here.
What are we supposed to do now? It is difficult to forecast what comes next. The conflict may die down, but it will not be forgotten and can flare up again at any time. The recipe is simple, one might say banal: we should try not to insult one another. The Intelligentsia has the task of preventing any heating up of the dispute. It should find paths for mutual understanding. This is an area of responsibility of scholars, humanitarians, the intelligentsia and journalists.
In the world there are many different religions and cultures and they give rise to serious problems. I deliver a course at the university on "Islam in the Context of European Culture" in which I try to show that Europe has adopted the distorted image of Islam which it created in order to unite during the Crusades and Europe later got excited when a distorted mirror image of itself arose in the East. The West never saw in the Orient what could be taken from there and used to great advantage. But in order to live together on this planet, we must understand that there is a difference in views, dogmas and principles. Just as in one country black is the sign of mourning, while in another it is white. You must not make fun of Mohammed just as you must not spit on the Cross. This has nothing whatever to do with freedom of the press.