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Contesting what is sacred
Karen Armstrong - The Age - Mon 20th, March 2006
The CRISIS occasioned by the Danish cartoons, which depicted the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, has become a microcosm of the wider conflict between Islam and the Western world. It also represents a clash between two competing conceptions of the sacred. The sacred, of course, does not necessarily imply an external deity. The sacred symbolises that which is inviolable, non-negotiable, and so central to our identity that, when it is injured in any way, it seems to vitiate the deepest self. For the Muslim protesters, the figure of the prophet is sacred in this way; for the supporters of the cartoons, free speech is the sacred value.

Freedom of expression is both a product and a prerequisite of modernity. In the pre-modern world, social order was regarded as more important than freedom of thought. It was not feasible to encourage people to have original ideas or to criticise established institutions in the hope of improving them, because agrarian-based society lacked the resources to implement many new notions. But independent thinking became essential to the modern economy; society could only become fully productive if inventors and scientists were able to pursue their ideas without the supervision of a controlling hierarchy. Our right to free speech and free thought has been hard won, and Western civilisation could not function without it. It has become a sacred value, symbolising the inviolable sovereignty of the individual.

Nevertheless, we should not be surprised and affronted if people challenge it. Culture is always contested. Today all over the world religious conservatives and secularists feel deeply threatened by one another; they all fear the destruction of sacred, fundamental values. As a result, the modernisation process has been punctuated by such conflicts as the Scopes trial of 1925, when Christian fundamentalists in the US tried to ban the teaching of evolution in state schools, and the Salman Rushdie affair, when Muslims felt mortally wounded by Rushdie's portrayal of their prophet.

These conflicts both began with what was perceived as an aggressive assault on religion by the proponents of free speech. But they ended by making the religious contenders more extreme. In other traditions too, the militant piety that we call "fundamentalism" has developed in a similarly symbiotic relationship with a liberalism or secularism that is experienced as hostile and invasive.

The cartoon crisis is simply the latest of these disputes, and as such could be seen as part of the bumpy process whereby societies at different stages of modernisation gradually learn to accommodate one another. But in the present political climate, we can ill afford this increase in tension. On both sides, the conflict has been fuelled and exploited by radicals, who do not represent the majority.

At the meeting of the Alliance of Civilisations, a UN initiative with the mandate of drawing up a list of practical guidelines for member states to prevent the acceleration of hatred and misunderstanding, we were given the result of a recent poll of Muslim youth. This showed that 97 per cent of the young people surveyed deplored the violence and rhetoric of the Muslim protesters, even though they had been offended by the cartoons. A delegate reported that while most Danish people defended free speech, they were distressed that the cartoons had so heedlessly trampled on Muslim sensibilities.

On both sides, the radicals have tried to eliminate the middle ground, and this is extremely dangerous. The Muslims who damaged embassies and brandished placards vowing to execute the cartoonists have fulfilled the stereotypical view of "Islam" in the West: a religion seen as violent, fanatical, self-destructive and atavistically opposed to freedom. At the same time, those who aggressively support the repeated publication of the cartoons embody the view many Muslims have of "the West": as arrogant, disdainful of religion, chronically Islamophobic, and guilty of double standards - proudly boasting of its tolerance, but not applying it to anything Islamic. When the dust has settled after the crisis, these negative stereotypes will be more entrenched, to the detriment of a final reconciliation.

Many have been alarmed by the increase of the Muslim population in Europe, which seems inimical to Western values. They are naturally defensive and apprehensive; the cartoons can be seen as an expression of this anxiety and as a blow for freedom. But they also revealed the darker side of the culture they purported to defend, and have a grim precedent. Historically, Europe has found it extremely difficult to tolerate minorities.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an indispensable member of our alliance group, spoke from personal experience of the abiding pain felt by people who see their traditions consistently scorned and ridiculed by an imperialist power. When people hurt in this way, he said, it only takes a little thing to push them over the edge.

When Islam was a major world power and Muslims were confident, they could take insults about their religion in their stride. But today, fearful of the hostility in Europe and bombarded with images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, many experienced the gratuitous vilification of their prophet by the Danish cartoonists as the last straw.

Hatred of the West is a relatively recent prejudice in the Islamic world. A hundred years ago, every single leading Muslim intellectual, with the exception of the proto-fundamentalist al-Afghani, saw Western modernity as deeply congenial and, even though they hated European colonialism, many wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. Relations soured not because of an inherent "clash of civilisations", but because of Western foreign policy, which continues to fuel the crisis.

How do we move forward? Washington's threatening posture towards Iran can only lead to an increase in hostility between Islam and the West, and we must expect more conflicts like the cartoon crisis. Instead of allowing extremists on both sides to set the agenda, we should learn to see these disputes in historical perspective, recalling that in the past, aggressive cultural chauvinism proved to be dangerously counterproductive. The emotions engendered by these crises are a gift to those, in both the Western and the Islamic worlds, who, for their own nefarious reasons, want the tension to escalate; we should not allow ourselves to play into their hands.

Karen Armstrong is author of 19 books on religion. Her latest is The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah.
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