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How to become a real Muslim

How to become a real Muslim

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Published by: WorldReport on Apr 24, 2011
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46 ISSUE 5 Independent World report
n Ireland, seven people are arrestedover an alleged plot to kill Swedishcartoonist Lars Vilks, who had depictedprophet Muhammad with the body of a dog in
Nerikes Allehanda
. In Aarhus, aSomalian axeman tries to hack down KurtWestergaard, the most controversial of the
cartoonists. In London,Faisal Yamani, a Saudi lawyer, threatensto use Britain’s notorious libel laws to sueten Danish newspapers that publishedthe cartoons in the name of all 95,000
descendants of Muhammad.
Five years after
 published its now-notorious caricatures,the reverberations are still being felt. Andnot just by the cartoonists. The threatsand violence that continue to surroundtheir publication have had a chillingimpact upon writers, publishers, galleryowners and theatre directors.Two years ago, US publishing giantRandom House dropped
The jewel of 
, a breezy, romantic tale aboutAisha, prophet Muhammad’s youngestwife, after fears that it might proveoffensive. When, last year, Yale UniversityPress published
The cartoons that shookthe world
, Jytte Klausen’s scholarly studyof the cartoon controversy, it refused,much to her disgust, to include any of thecartoons. When the free speech magazine
Index on Censorship
, published an interviewwith Klausen about Yale’s decision, it toorefused to show any of the cartoons.“You would think twice, if you werehonest,” said Ramin Gray, associatedirector at London’s Royal Court Theatrewhen asked if he would put on a playcritical of Islam. “You would have to takethe play on its individual merits, but giventhe time we are in, it is very hard, because you would worry that if you cause offencethen the whole enterprise would becomeburied in a sea of controversy. It doesmake you tread carefully.”In June 2007, the theatre cancelleda new adaptation of Aristophanes’
, set in Muslim heaven, forfear of causing offence. Another Londontheatre, the Barbican, carved chunksout of its production of 
Tamburlaine theGreat 
for the same reason, while Berlin’sDeutsche Oper cancelled a production of Mozart’s
in 2006, because of itsdepiction of Muhammad.Three years ago, the Gemeentemuseumin The Hague removed an exhibition of photos by the Iranian artist Sooreh Herathat depicted gay men wearing masksof Muhammad. “Certain people in oursociety might perceive it as offensive,”said museum director Wim van Krimpen.
 De Volkskrant,
a left-wing Dutchnewspaper, praised the museum forits
 great professionalism
in excising theimages. Hera herself received deaththreats. Tim Marlow of London’s WhiteCube art gallery suggested that such self-censorship by artists and museums wasnow common, though “very few peoplehave explicitly admitted [it].”For many, all this suggests a
fundamental conflict between the
values of Islam and those of the West.Christopher Caldwell in his controversialbook,
 Reflections on the revolution in Europe
,published last year, argues that Muslimmigration to Europe has been akin to aform of colonisation.“Since its arrival half a centuryago,” Caldwell observes, “Islam hasbroken – or required adjustments to, orrearguard defences of – a good many of the European customs, received ideasand state structures with which it hascome in contact.” Islam “is not enhancingor validating European culture; it issupplanting it.”This idea of a
clash of civilisations
first mooted twenty years ago in the wake
of the Salman Rushdie affair by historianBernard Lewis and popularised a few years later by political scientist SamuelHuntingdon. Today, it has becomealmost common sense. “All over again,”as novelist Martin Amis has put it, “theWest confronts an irrationalist, agonistic,theocratic/ideocratic system which isessentially and unappeasably opposed toits existence.”Yet, even as he goes along with theclash of civilisations thesis, Caldwellreveals its inadequacies. “What secularEuropeans call ‘Islam’”, he points out, “isa set of values that Dante and Erasmuswould recognise as theirs.” On the otherhand, the modern, secular rights that nowconstitute “core European values” would“leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered.”In other words, what we now regardas
western values
– individual rights,secularism, freedom of speech – aremodern values, distinct from those thatanimated European societies in the past.And it is not just medieval Europeans whowould reject contemporary Europeanvalues. Many contemporary Europeansdo too.British writer Melanie Phillips ismilitantly hostile to what she sees asthe “Islamic takeover of the West” andwhat she calls “the drift towards socialsuicide” that comes with acceptingMuslim immigration. Yet, she is deeplysympathetic to the Islamist rejection of secular humanism, which she thinks hascreated “a debauched and disorderly
culture of instant gratification, with
disintegrating families, feral children andviolence, squalor and vulgarity on thestreets.” Muslims “have concluded thatthe society that expects them to identifywith it is a moral cesspit,” Phillips argues.“Is it any wonder, therefore, that theyreject it?”Caldwell, too, thinks that while theWest’s current encounter with Islam maybe “painful and violent,” it has also been,“an infusion of oxygen into the drab,nitpicking, materialist intellectual life of 
How to become a real Muslim
Censorship, Muhammad caricatures, the Rushdie affair...
By Kenan MalikESSAY
Independent World report ISSUE 5 47
 Far from Islam having always forbidden representations of Muhammad, it was common to portray him until comparatively recently. Here, the prophet can be seen on his steed, Buraq. Dated 1514, this artwork (ink and gold on paper) from Bukhara, Uzbekistan is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
48 ISSUE 5 Independent World report
the West,” for which we need to expressour “gratitude.”There is, in other words, no single setof 
 European values
that transcends historyin opposition to
Islamic values
. Nor indeedis there a single set of 
western values
today.The very values against which radicalIslamists rail – the values of secularhumanism – are the very values that sodisgust some of Islam’s greatest critics.If there is no such thing as a set of 
 European values
that transcends time, thesame is true of 
Islamic values
. Islam, like allreligions, comprises both a set of beliefsand a complex of social institutions,traditions and cultures that bind peoplein a special relationship to a particularconception of the sacred.Over the centuries, those institutionsand cultures have transformed thereading of the
and the practise of Islam. Religions, like all social forms, cannot stand still. Islam today can no morebe like the Islam of the seventh centurythan Mecca today can look like the city of Muhammad’s time.Islam has been transformed not justthrough time but across space too. Thespread of the faith from the Atlanticcoast to the Indonesian archipelago and
beyond incorporated peoples who fitted
into Quranic scripture many of their oldreligious and social practises.What Pakistani
see astraditional Islam is very different fromthat of North African
. Andwhat British
see as traditional isdifferent from the traditions of 
 still in Mirpur.“The key question,” French sociologistOlivier Roy points out, “is not what the
actually says, but what Muslimssay the
says.” Muslims continuallydisagree on what the
says, he addsdryly, “while all stressing that the
 is unambiguous and clear-cut.”Even a tradition as seeminglydeeply set and unyielding as the one atthe heart of the controversy over theDanish cartoons – the prohibition onthe pictorial representation of prophetMuhammad – is in truth neither deeplyset nor unyielding. Far from Islam havingalways forbidden representations of theprophet, it was common to portray himuntil comparatively recently.The prohibition against such depictionsonly emerged in the seventeenth century.Even over the past four-hundred years,a number of Islamic, especially
,traditions have accepted the pictorialrepresentation of Muhammad.The Edinburgh University Library inScotland, the Bibliotheque National inParis, New York’s Metropolitan Museumof Art and the Topkapi Palace Museumin Istanbul, all contain dozens of Persian,Ottoman and Afghan manuscriptsdepicting the prophet. His face can beseen in many mosques too – even inIran. A seventeenth-century mural onthe Iman Zahdah Chah Zaid Mosque inthe Iranian town of Isfahan, for instance,shows a Muhammad whose facial featuresare clearly visible.Even today, few Muslims have aproblem in seeing the prophet’s face.Shortly after
publishedthe cartoons, the Egyptian newspaper
 Al Fagr 
reprinted them. They wereaccompanied by a critical commentary,but
 Al Fagr 
did not think it necessary toblank out Muhammad’s face, and facedno opprobrium for not doing so. Egypt’sreligious and political authorities, evenas they were demanding an apology fromthe Danish prime minister, raised noobjections to
 Al Fagr’s
full frontal photos.So, if there is no universal prohibitionto the depiction of Muhammad, whywere Muslims universally appalled by thecaricatures? They were not. And thosethat were, were driven by political zealrather than theological fervour.The publications of the cartoons inSeptember 2005 caused no immediatereaction, even in Denmark. Only when journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of 
 for their response, did Islamists begin torecognise the opportunity provided not just by the caricatures themselves butalso by the sensitivity of Danish society totheir publication.
Among the first contacted was the
controversial cleric Ahmad Abu Laban,infamous for his support for Osama binLaden and the 9/11 attacks. He seizedupon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims.Yet, however hard he pushed, he initially
found it difficult to provoke major outrage
in Denmark or abroad.It took more than four months of oftenhysterical campaigning, and considerablearm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, tocreate a major controversy. At the endof January 2006, Saudi Arabia recalledits ambassador from Denmark andlaunched a consumer boycott of Danishgoods. In response, a swathe of Europeannewspapers republished the cartoons in
It was only now that the issue became
more than a minor diplomatic kerfuffle.
There were demonstrations and riotsin India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt,Libya, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Palestine,Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Danishembassies in Damascus, Beirut andTehran were torched. But, as Jytte Klausenhas observed, these protests “were notcaused by the cartoons, but were part of 
conflicts in pre-existing hot spots” such
as northern Nigeria, where there existsan effective civil war between Muslim
and Christians.The violence surrounding the cartoon
conflict, Klausen suggests, has been
as expressions of spontaneousviolence from Muslims “confrontedwith bad pictures.” That, she insists, “isabsolutely not the case.” Rather “theseimages have been exploited by political
groups in the pre-existing conflict over
Islam.”Why did journalists contact Abu
Even today, few Muslims have a problem in seeing the prophet’s face. Shortly after Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons,the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr reprinted them. They were accompanied by a critical commentary, but Al Fagr did not think it necessary to blank out Muhammad’s face, and faced no opprobrium for not doing so.Egypt’s religious and political authorities, even as they weredemanding an apology fromthe Danish prime minister,raised no objections to Al Fagr’s full frontal photos.

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