Until late last month, when Salman Rushdie added his name to those of a few other like-minded souls and signed a statement attacking Muslims for having been outraged by a set of Danish cartoons depicting their prophet with satirical ridicule, something seemed amiss in that whole global uproar, writes Hamid Dabashi*
With Salman Rushdie’s signature at the bottom of a statement declaring a global proclamation against “Islamic totalitarianism”, in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon row, we have entered a new phase in what might be termed “Islam and globanalisation” — a twilight zone of uncertainty where we are all at the mercy of fastidious knowledge produced about bugbears of nightmarish proportions, in this particular case what Rushdie and his associates curiously call “Islam”.
“After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism”, Salman Rushdie and his colleagues have declared, “the world now faces a new global threat: Islamism.” How so, and by what authority? One looks in vain in the list of the statement’s twelve signatories allied with Rushdie for someone with the remotest sense of demonstrable knowledge about this goblin of their perturbed imagination that they keep calling “Islam” — and yet they do declare and designate this “Islam” as a global threat, next and akin to “fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism”. The world is now at the mercy of such proclamations — and Rushdie’s name does carry, what Kent detected and declared in Lear and called, “authority”. By what authority, how, when, what, and “who gave thee this authority” to declare such things — no one dares to ask.
“We, writers, journalists, intellectuals”, announce Salman Rushdie and his associates, “call for resistance to religious totalitarianism.” They can of course call for whatever they wish — but we are also entitled to ask “writers, journalists, intellectuals” of what particular and combined learning and erudition, knowledge and audacity, about the ghostly apparition that has disturbed their slumber. And why should the world attend and heed such proclamations? Is this thing they call “Islam” the faith of millions of people around the globe, or the bugbear of a band of neocon artists? It’s hard to tell.
The case of the Danish cartoon row, in the furious rapidity of world events already an old issue, might be considered as perhaps the best example of how a boisterous banality now governs the principal mode producing public knowledge and thus perceiving Islam and its contemporary historical whereabouts. The row has a history, and the domain of its import implicates Europe in its entirety. It is not just the Danish paper Jyllands- Posten that initially commissioned and published these cartoons. Editors of newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, in print and on the Internet, jubilantly joined their Danish counterparts in massively distributing these cartoons and thus registering their European solidarity in the matter. One such incident after another adds fury and momentum to the way an increasingly globalised audience, Muslim and non-Muslim, conceives and disposes of “Islam”.
Selected scenes from scattered Muslim reactions to the publication of these cartoons, pictorially staged and carefully choreographed by the leading European press to sustain their historical record of showing Muslims in the worst possible angle ever seen through a camera have been systematically characterised as yet another sign of a fundamental discrepancy between (this the most enduring binary opposition manufactured by Orientalists in the course of their prolonged services to colonial modernity) “Islam and the West”: clean-shaven, civilised white men properly attired in business suits posited against poor, enraged, and furious Muslims.
That some Muslims around the world are outraged and multitudes of them have gone out on a rampage is yet another example of how they misread the domestic affairs of Europeans and Americans and take them for a global assault on themselves. The primary and principal target of these cartoons, with the denigration of Muslims they entail, is in fact labour immigrants of Muslim descent suffering the racism of their host country in one shade, shape, and form or another. A similar misreading was exactly the case when Samuel Huntington issued his own proclamation a few years ago, positing Muslims and Islam as the principal threat to what he still insists on calling, “Western Civilization.” On that occasion too, Muslims around the world took Huntington’s prognostication to heart and thought he was talking to them, while he, along with a band of like-minded neocon artists like Francis Fukuyama and Alan Bloom, was in fact deeply troubled by massive demographic changes within the United States. By proposing that “Islam” posited a civilisational threat to “the West,” Huntington and Co sought to silence massive bodies of old and new, Arab and Muslim, immigrants to the United States demanding a pride of place in terms domestic to their cultural heritage and moral authority.
That the immediate target of the Danish cartoonists was not a remote abstraction called “Islam”, but an immediate leviathan appearing in the shape of immigrant communities of Muslim background in their own midst there is no doubt. What remains a puzzle is why leading European opinion-makers, led by a group of yuppie racist journalists, continue to be in a dire need of reminding themselves that they are God’s gift to humanity and that Jews and Muslims, the flipped sides of the same coin, or by extension Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans, have no place among them. It is here, and in the immediate vicinity of that question, that lapsed Muslims like Salman Rushdie become handy.
The leading European press (but by no means all) is now having an all-out orgy with its journalistic ethnic cleansing — and the bravura cannot be entirely explained by the fact that certain kinds of Europeans, carrying their Christianity up their sleeves or else brandishing their “Laïcité” like a saber of unmerciful certainty, do not wish to see any Jews or Muslims, Africans, Asians, or Latinos, among them. With some bizarre sense of irony, the colonial history of Europe, having plundered the globe many times over, has now brought millions of Muslims from Asia and Africa home to roost — and it would seem that some white Christian Europeans are frightened out of their wits. Oriana Fallaci is now chief among European soothsayers demanding the ethnic cleansing of her Europe. Between Fallaci and Berlusconi, the legacy of Mussolini’s fascism is no history — and Rushdie’s “Islam” no substitution.
In the midst of this row — militant Muslims and racist Europeans at each other’s throat — one cannot but wonder, with a modicum of reason, what is behind the quarrel. What we are dealing with here is the intersection of medieval signs and modern sensitivities, both brought to bear on a brutalised malignancy that resembles two belligerent and silly school children going at each other. To put things in perspective, one can of course begin with the inhibition of figurative representation in Islamic doctrinal disposition — a fact very much compromised by the range of Persian, Indian and Turkish miniature paintings, and by the effervescence of figurative royal paintings in the 18th and 19th centuries throughout much of the Muslim world.
Against the doctrinal inhibition of figurative painting, such paintings do in fact abound in Islamic art. This inhibition assumes a particularly curious turn when it comes to the figural representation of Prophet Muhammad that it might be quite instructive to know at this point. When the late Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, tragically killed in the course of a suicidal violence in Amman late last year, made a feature film on the career of Prophet Muhammad, The Message (1976), he opted, out of respect for Muslim sensitivity, not to show the face or figure of the Prophet and simply suggested his presence.
The evident presence of this doctrinal inhibition does not mean that pious Muslims the world over do not look for and produce pictorial representations of their holy men, including their Prophet. The Shias, in particular, have absolutely no qualms whatsoever having the images of Prophet Muhammad and their Imams depicted — painted on a canvas or woven into a decorative carpet — and sold in the markets of Najaf, Mashhad, Qom, or Beirut. Pious and believing Muslims buy these pictures and hang them proudly and reverentially in their homes or in public without any hesitation.
The question then is why when a Danish newspaper depicts Prophet Muhammad in a ludicrous manner, or previously when a Pakistani author goes on a fictive rampage denigrating the sacrosanct moments of a people’s history, some Muslims, particularly those suffering the terror of tyrannical rulers at home or else the indignities of labour migration abroad, are outraged. Career opportunist novelists or talent-less cartoonists, trying to make up for their lack of creative talent with scandalous marketing ruses, are of course entirely, unconditionally, and ipso facto entitled to make any fool out of themselves, for such acts of juvenile superciliousness are entirely within their civil and human rights, and no one is even in a position to grant or deny them such inalienable rights. But whence the anger, and whereby the fury?
This obviously is a clear case of the context and not just the text — when you have a representation of a prophet with headgear that looks like a bomb and a nose straight out of the old European racist apothecary boxes, and lay him out thick against the background of a systematic record of white supremacist, masculinist, and European racism against Jews and Muslims, then you have a different story on your hand.
The current anti-Muslim plague, running loose throughout Europe and the United States, banks on the white Christian repertoire of anti- Semitism that has now shifted its focal attention away from the Jews and re-directed itself towards Muslims. Under the guise of the freedom of expression, and positing their racist prejudices in colourful colonial Enlightenment shades, prominent European opinion-makers, as fully evident in their leading newspapers and magazines, are letting loose their racist bigotry in ways unprecedented since the horrid records of European pogroms that ultimately led to the Jewish Holocaust, as is exemplified in the Prophet Muhammed cartoon row or the front covers of The Economist and most other right-wing papers and magazines up in arms against “gypsies” swamping “their lands”, loudly declaring that “9 out of 10 asylum seekers are conmen,” and that they ought to be “kicked out”.
With a combination of mental laziness and a jaundiced visual imagination, these European newspapers are in fact regurgitating the selfsame anti-Jewish insignia definitive to their history and applying them to Muslims all over again. Contorted faces, prominent noses, frightful dispositions, angry demeanours, and grotesque postures have been and continue to be definitive to the way old-fashioned European racism sees Jews and Muslims alike. The self-inflicted surgical bodily mutilation of middle class Muslims — ranging from plastic surgery of the most grotesque sorts to removal of bodily hair to colouring their hair blonde and wearing colorful contact lenses — is the mirror image of the very same aesthetic hegemony of white Europeans.
What we are witnessing over the cartoons that the Danish Jyllands-Posten has commissioned and published, however, is not limited to a mere recycling of European anti-Semitism. There is a contemporary anxiety that feeds that pathological knee jerk. Placing headgear in the form of a bomb (a ticking bomb as Alan Dershowitz and Michael Ignatieff would say in the United States) on the head of Prophet Muhammad is the functional equivalent of placing a sign of a German concentration camp (the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” for example), or a sign of the massacre of Native Americans, or a reference to the My Lai massacre of 1968 in Vietnam, or a picture of Lynndie England in Abu Ghraib, over the head of Christ in a Crucifix. It is a matter of combining medieval icons and modern barbarities, fusing the two in order to implicate the sacrosanct icons of a people in their entirety in those acts of barbarity. Using the figure of Prophet Muhammad with a suggestion of terrorism, as it is defined by the US and its European allies (while they are systematically going around the world and torturing, maiming and murdering people on the assumption that they might be Dershowitz-Ignatieff ticking bombs), effectively implicates some 1.5 billion people of Muslim background around the world in such acts of degenerate violence — itself the continued reverberation of an entire history of European (and now American) colonial plundering of the globe.
Marking this event, two diametrically opposed reactions to the cartoon row now mirror and complement each other: first is the inexcusable anti-Semitic response of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, either denying the Jewish Holocaust, and thus belittling the unending suffering it has caused Jewish people the world over, or else encouraging anti-Semitic tirades in his homeland; and second a band of neocon artists, led by the functional equivalent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Salman Rushdie, branding a figment of their own turgid imagination “Islamism” and calling it “totalitarianism.” While in Iran, the legitimate and absolutely necessary criticism of the apartheid state of Israel has now degenerated into anti-Semitism, in Europe and the United States, a band of equally ignoramus career opportunists are denouncing what they call “Islamism”, a pathologically nervous hiding, and thus all the more revealing, of their own collective hatred of a people and their received notions of sanctity.
Initially published in Charlie Hebdo, a French weekly and one of the European papers to reprint the caricatures, the Rushdie and Co declaration warns that “after having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global threat: Islamism.” Thus in the esteemed estimation of these signatories, the imminent threat to humanity is not the environmental catastrophe posed by the gargantuan waste and abuse of natural resources by the US and the entire industrial calamity it represents; not the manifestations of obscene wealth, on the one hand, and unfathomable poverty, on the other, in the heart of Europe and the United States (remember hurricane Katrina); not the fact that according to the UN some 870 million people go to sleep hungry every night around the globe while the military budget of the United States between the year 2000 and 2008 is estimated at 32 and eleven zeroes in front of that figure; not the unconscionable destitution of innocent people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, all created and conditioned by the globalised capitalism over which presides the US and Western Europe; not the prevalent racism, sexism, and a whole gamut of transcultural manifestations of endemic patriarchy, economic inequality, social injustice, and gender apartheid; not the systematic eradication of civil liberties in the heartlands of their cherished “West”; not the widespread network of torture chambers in Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, Guantànamo Bay, and a whole subterranean labyrinth of CIA-run dungeons in Europe — no, none of these frightful facts, in the opinion of Salman Rushdie and his comrades, poses any threat to the globe, when compared to a handful of pitiful, scattered, and pathetic Muslim reactions, all out of fear, frustration, and despair, to the Danish caricature of their prophet.
This has of course been a long season of migration to the lucrative right, and not just sanity but sheer literacy has lost to self-promotion, conducted on the broken backs of poverty- stricken people. For while the varied forms of totalitarianism, fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism (all vintage European inventions) were state-sponsored ideologies that wreaked havoc first and foremost on citizens caught in the snare of their lunacy, what they call “Islamism” (out of sheer historical illiteracy of what has happened in and to Islam over the last 200 years) is a US-sponsored propaganda gadget manufactured to generate and sustain an illusory enemy to justify warmongering and global domination.
A band of supercilious journalists publish a number of cartoons in Denmark and scores of Muslims are killed while protesting in the US-occupied Afghanistan, its neighbouring Pakistan, a client-state of the selfsame US, and then in other parts of the Muslim world. Where, and at what level of a rudimentary political literacy, does Islamic “totalitarianism” enter this scene? The only country in the world that carries the epithet of an “Islamic Republic” — mirroring in its religious disposition the Jewish State, the US Christian Empire that supports it, and the Hindu Fundamentalism that aspires to its apartheid racism — is Iran, where the theocratic tyranny of a band of useless medieval jurists is systematically and valiantly contested by its own citizens. Whence and where did Islam become a “totalitarian” state apparatus like fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism? There is not a single so-called “Muslim country” the inhabitants of which are not actively engaging and challenging the most sacrosanct principles of their faith. Just in their modern history, and over the last two hundred years, Muslims themselves have turned their collective faith upside down questioning the most definitive aspects of their faith. In facing and opposing the unfathomable barbarity of European colonialism, Muslims have left not a single stone unturned in their own religious doctrines and dogmas — they did not and have no need to wait for a band of illiterate opportunists to tell them what is wrong with their faith and what they need to do. Nothing of that noble and continued history — of a people launched against themselves — is now a matter of global public knowledge, and yet the premise of everything said and conceived of Islam is precisely what illiterate prognosticators like Salman Rushdie and Co have deigned to tell their European and American clientele.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims the world over swallow their pride, turn their face from this ghastly European racism and go about their daily lives. Small bands of militant Muslims, angered by insults they think targeted against people they hold holy, go on a rampage and scores of them are beaten and even killed by the police in their respective countries. The very same press that started this horrid row takes pictures of these mobs and juxtaposes them against clean-shaven white European statesmen in their business suits and soft-spoken newspeak — thus triggering the hurried reaction of these “writers, journalists, intellectuals”, as they call themselves, self- promoting career opportunists as they are. Where did “totalitarianism” come into play? “Totalitarianism”, let it be remembered, is a state ideology, presiding over a massive military machinery, the way Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini did — all of them European, all of them white, all of them male, and yes, all of them Christian by birth and breeding.
To the everlasting shame of not just the signatories of this logically flawed and categorically racist document, signed and sealed by Salman Rushdie, but of every European who has remained silent or compliant in the course of the cartoon row, the principal target of this horrid act of racism remains not a stilted abstraction called “Islam”, nor indeed millions of Muslims living outside the European racist imaginary. The principal target of these cartoons was (and is) an Afghan woman teacher in Denmark, a Pakistani child on her way to school in Norway, an Algerian busboy hiding from the police in France, a Moroccan street sweeper on his way to work in Italy, an Iranian cab driver negotiating his way in a city in Holland, a Turkish illegal immigrant scared to open her mouth in Germany, an Egyptian student fearing for her future in Spain, a Syrian restaurant-owner wondering if he will have a customer somewhere in Sweden, and then millions of others like them suffering the indignities of desperate labour migrations into Europe and weathering the monumental manifestations of European racism on a daily and regular basis. Now enter Salman Rushdie and Co, putting their ignoble names to a document that seals their approval of global injustice and racism towards 1.5 billion people, imagining themselves the beneficiaries of a European Enlightenment that in its very philosophical inception denied them and their homelands and cultures entry even into the category of “human” and considered their entire pedigree beneath contempt.
Today signs of a horrid collective racism are becoming evident in post-war European cities and towns dangerously and conveniently forgetting the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust — when white European racist Christians sought systematically to eradicate an entire people on the single premise that they were Jews. Leading European newspapers have reprinted the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad not out of a ludicrous sign of solidarity with their yuppie and illiterate Danish colleagues, but to frighten millions of European Muslims into submission, shame, fear, and intimidation. Millions of Muslim children across Europe now go to school frightened, ashamed, feeling a false sense of guilt, and thus petrified out of their collective consciousness. What these newspapers are effectively doing is to make it impossible for Muslims to oppose violence and barbarity of all sorts, particularly those done in their name, in any way other than denouncing their collective faith, dying their hair blonde, bleaching their faces white, and thus metamorphosing into a walking denigration of themselves. Those children are the principal targets of every ghastly newspaper in Europe that reprinted those cartoons — to make sure that they are bullied in their schools and neighbourhoods, discriminated against in their future job markets, growing up ashamed of their culture and character, and obedient to a globalised and whitewashed Eurocentricity with which the classical European anti-Semitism now wishes to mark its history.
“Islam and globanalisation”, or giving European and American space to Muslim names to denounce their own Islamic phantasms, is a new phase in the social manufacturing of domination — using nominal Muslims against Islamic abstractions. This — pitting lapsed Muslims against Islamic sensibilities — is ultimately an exercise in futility. The fate of the globe, Europe included, is written elsewhere, somewhere between the lines of massive labour migration, on one side, and the global reconfiguration of the capital that systematically seeks to abuse it, on the other. The culture war this has occasioned in the meantime is a murderous nightmare for many, a lucrative pastime for some, a headache for others, and yet at the end an entirely negligible footnote to history.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (Second Edition, Transactions, 2006), and Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (Verso, 2001), the founder of “Dreams of a Nation: A Palestinian Film Project”, and the editor of Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (Verso, 2006). His forthcoming book, Iran: A People Interrupted , is scheduled for publication this year by the New Press.
BBC: Writers issue cartoon row warning