Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 6 February 2006

A plunge in Western-Muslim relations

The publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohamed in European  newspapers has caused a further significant deterioration in relations between Western countries and the Muslim world.  Perhaps the Western editors are ignorant of what constitutes an insult to Muslims, or perhaps they consider this secondary to their sacred principle of press freedom.  The consequences are serious indeed.


The controversy over cartoons of Prophet Mohamed in European newspapers shows up what some Europeans call a “clash of cultures”, but what is actually a lack of sensitivity, respect and tolerance for the beliefs and religions of others.

Publishing the original cartoons in a Danish newspaper last September was bad enough.   What sparked off the protests and demonstrations last week was the re-publishing of the cartoons by other newspapers, including mainstream ones, in many other European countries such as Germany and France.

There was already an outcry from Muslim groups when the cartoons were first published.  The re-publishing by major newspapers in other countries was done as a deliberate manifestation of “press freedom” and “freedom of speech.”

This principle is held as something very dear to many Westerners, and many take this to include the right to make a satire of religion and religious figures.

The fact that this may be taken as an insult by others who believe in the religion is seen as secondary by these people who profess to hold to the candle of free speech.

The cartoon incident could not have come at a worse time, as relations between the West and the Muslim world were already plummeting in recent days.

First was the stand-off between Iran and the West over the former’s nuclear research which the latter claims is aimed at building atomic bombs.  Last Saturday there was a new turn when the Western countries succeeded in getting the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer the issue to the UN Security Council.

That issue has already highlighted the double standards in which those who already have nuclear weapons can keep or increase them, while those that do not must not develop any capability for having them. 

In the Middle East itself, why is there no Western action to get Israel to declare that it has such weapons and then get it to disarm, when there is such intense effort to get Iran to stop uranium enrichment research that might give it the capability to develop a nuclear weapon?

Second was the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections.  The Western countries, and the United States in particular, have been campaigning to get democracy (especially elections) take root in the Arab countries.

They now seem to be thinking twice whether this is such a great idea, because free elections could well lead to Islamic parties and movements taking power in many Arab states, and the new governments may not be amendable to toeing the Western line.

How the Western powers are going to deal with a Hamas government is going to be closely watched.   Will they give it a chance to show how well it can govern, or will obstacles, such as withholding of aid, be put in its place?

Third is the continuing occupation of Iraq and the equally continuing resistance.  As long as the occupation forces remain, there will be a deep sense of injustice and resentment, not only by the Muslim world, but by many others worldwide (including in the West) who have opposed the war and are opposing the occupation. 

And fourth, there is a growing sense of unease and insecurity among Muslims who travel to Western countries, and especially Muslims who live there.  They feel they are under suspicion for being possible or potential terrorists. 

They feel they are victims of stereotyping.  Many Muslims who are migrants are also economically as well as socially marginalized in some European countries, giving rise to resentment which for example led to the spate of riots in Paris just a few months ago.

This already explosive situation makes for very fragile Western-Muslim relations, and insensitive acts are like tinder that can easily set off more fires.

The stance taken by European newspapers, that they not only have the right but that they must make the point that they can publish cartoons even if many Muslims find them offensive, is one such insensitivity that is now leading to protests around the world, and a significant worsening of Western-Muslim relations.


Press freedom is of course not absolute, even though editors especially in the West may sometimes like to profess or to think that it is.

There are double standards in this regard practiced in the West too.   As pointed out in a letter in an English paper, the US and UK papers comply with requests not to publish photographs of dead bodies of American and British soldiers killed in Iraq, nor even to highlight the return home of these dead bodies.  The governments don’t want such photos to further affect public opinion against the war and occupation.

Western newspapers are very careful not to publish articles that can be construed to be anti-Jew.  If they do, it is almost certain they will come under attack for being anti-Semite and would probably have to apologise.

There are guidelines, whether formal or informal, that have journalists and editors avoid being insulting to women or gays.

But when it comes to the cartoons of and making use of the most revered figure in the Islamic religion, the editors of some of the most establishment newspapers of Europe see fit to make a point that they have the right to publish in the name of freedom, and so what if some Muslims take it as an insult.

Most Westerners probably don’t even know that the depiction of images of the Prophet is itself prohibited by the religion.  They are used to having pictures, statues and sculptures of Jesus and saints in churches. 

The cartoons of the Prophet, including some depicting him with guns under a turban, or welcoming Muslims to Paradise with virgin women, can of course be only expected to be extremely provocative and insulting to most Muslims.

Perhaps the editors based in Europe do not know that.  In which case their ignorance is dangerous.  Or knowing, they do not care. Worse, they know and they deliberately decide to provoke.  Which is even more dangerous.

Someone once gave me an interesting and useful working definition of freedom of speech.  “The freedom of your arm to swing around ends at the point when it touches my nose.”

Individual liberty and the freedom of speech and press are fine principles but they are not absolute, for one person’s freedom may affect another person’s freedom.

The freedom of someone to say or do something insulting may affect the freedom of someone else to be free from being insulted or provoked.

And thus sensitivity towards others, tolerance for their beliefs, and avoidance of speech or words or cartoons that can hurt or insult others is a key complement that tempers the freedom that an individual or a newspaper has. 

If this is not put into practice, and even into law, then the social contract that exists, formally or informally, breaks down.

This is something understood in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia.  We are far from perfect in this regard, and certainly not free from controversies from time to time.

But there is something the Western nations can learn from our country on this complex and emotive issue.