FRACAS OVER CARTOONS: A CASE OF OVER-REACTION, OR A CLASH OF IDEALS?The recent publications of anti-Islamic caricatures targeting the Prophet, published by a Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten, has incensed and enraged the Islamic community. The resulting fiasco began to snowball into a political crisis, as Muslim leaders from leading Muslim countries came forth and voiced their displeasure with what has been deemed as “blasphemy” against the Prophet Muhammad.
The re-publication of the caricatures by other European newspapers have further stoked the flames of infamy, with protests reported from many Islamic countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
While the debate rages on, the issue of these supposedly harmless caricatures have caused widespread protests, with many Islamic fundamentalists baying for the blood of those responsible for this supposedly "blasphemous" insult.
A LIBERAL EUROPEAN CONTINENT
The resulting fracas can best be described as a clash between old world- ultra-fundamentalist views of Islamic nations versus liberal, democratic doctrines prevalent in European countries.
In many European countries, freedom of speech is guaranteed and upheld by the respective governments, placing particular emphasis of secularity of state governments and a distinct Separation of Church and State.
The European Continent was not always as liberal as it is today. In medieval Europe, there was much rivalry between Kings and representations of the Catholic Church. In many cases, Kings required the blessings and approval of the Church before they could rule their respective kingdoms. Charlemagne (742-814), son of King Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, had to be crowned by Pope Leo III before he could reinitiate his reign as King of the Franks. The British Monarchy has traditionally required the auspices of the Church of England, with elaborate ceremonies held for each ruling monarch that has ever ruled England and her respective colonies.
Under the rule of theocracy, old Europe was pretty much a continent of superstition. Laws prohibiting blasphemy against the Church and its doctrines was common place; a charge for blasphemy could spell a death sentence preceded by torture, and even during the Renaissance period from the 13th to 15th century, one could be charged even for the harmless act of being a vegetarian.
Separation of Church and State first surfaced in 1905 as legitimate law in France, and heralded the beginnings of a more liberal and less theocratic Europe. In many countries, such as Sweden and England, freedom of religion and speech was guaranteed, despite official religions being subscribed. As such, religion took a back seat, and with the increasing secularity of European nations, laws pertaining to theocracy, such as blasphemy, had been annexed, and the resulting prevalent attitudes have become such that mocking religions, in written, spoken or any other forms, are considered expressions of the freedom of speech guaranteed by law.
THE ISLAMIC WORLD: OLD WORLD VALUES
One man’s honey, another man’s poison. Indeed, what is viewed as largely a legitimate expression of free speech may be taken more seriously in strictly, fundamentalist Islamic nations. In countries such as Pakistan, one could be sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy.
Anti-religious satire has traditionally not gone well with Muslim leaders. Salmon Rushdie had to suffer the ignominy of a religious fatwah, or death sentence, after his infamous book, “The Satanic Verses” was published in 1988. The fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who deemed the book so blasphemous that he offered a US$3 million bounty on his head. Even though the Ayatollah is now six feet under, the fatwa still hangs over his head.
There is a prevailing sense of indignation amongst those in the Muslim community that the cartoon caricatures published by the Danish newspaper is an outrage against Islam, and a ploy by the West to undermine Islam as a religion. What is really misunderstood is that most newspapers have a high autonomy of freedom granted and guaranteed by law: Political leaders of all shapes and sizes are equally juicy targets, and satires mocking Christianity as well as other religions are not uncommon in western journalistic circles.
Given the well-documented feuds between old Catholic Europe and Islam in the form of the Crusades, the caricatures may well be misinterpreted by Muslims as a direct confrontation and re-confirmation of yet another Europe-Islam rivalry.
Such an archaic, old-world point of view is not only misleading, it also suggests that Europe is still very much influenced by the Catholic Church. While many European nations still adopt some form of national religion, religious beliefs amongst Europeans have plummeted in recent decades, and the Catholic Church does not wield an ironhand over Europe as it did in the times of the Inquisitions.
Rather than a old-Europe vs the Islamic World contest, this is largely a clash of ideals: The right to the freedom of speech vs Religious fundamentalism.
CURTAIL OF WESTERN MEDIA?
Given the unnecessary furore raised over yet another minor issue, the question is, should religious sensitivities be given priority over freedom of speech?
Obviously, this is a question that most European governments will have to grapple with. It will be a crying shame, however, if Danish and other European journalists will have to be subjected to censorship on such frivolous grounds.
Europe's increasing secularism is testimony to what has been done right: Separation of Church and State, and freedom of the press. With freedom comes progress, and liberation from religious oppression.
Western media must never be held at ransom by fundamentalist louts, who, in the name of religion, seek to prevent others from voicing out their opinions.