The Indonesian political magazine Tempo recently published a satirical version of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Instead of Jesus it showed ex-President Suharto, who died late January, having dinner with his six children. Catholic groups protested and asked the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs to look at Blasphemy charges under the Indonesian Criminal Code. The magazine offered an apology. The Indonesian Bishops Conference and Communion of Churches then declared the case closed.
Indonesian journalist Pak Nurrohman asked how blasphemy can be a crime when the Indonesian constitution guaranteed religious freedom and freedom of expression. Journalist Samsudin Berlian argued Tempo should not have apologized, that Church leaders who called the case closed should note that no serious or mature conversation about religion can take place under threat of “people power to silence others.
Christian and Muslim communities are both confronted with occasions where freedom of expression for secular society can result in images, especially via cartoons and films, which some religious people find very offensive. The earlier movie “The Life of Brian” was a satire on the life of Jesus Christ, but was generally perceived in Western society as quite funny. This did not provoke rioting, although some people were offended.
The Danish cartoons, including a satirical presentation of the head of Islam’s prophet with a turban designed to look like a bomb with a lit fuse, published by Jyllands Posten in September 2005, created a bigger international row than the Last Supper in Tempo or “The Life of Brian. Protesters died in Afghanistan and Somalia, while Danish and EU embassies and offices were attacked in Syria, the Gaza Strip, Iran and Lebanon. Danish products were boycotted in some Muslim countries.
Jyllands Posten reprinted the cartoons February 13 this year, after three men were arrested on suspicion of plotting to kill the cartoonist. A dozen Danish papers reprinted the cartoons in support of press freedom, this time to mixed reactions from Muslims.
There are several reasons why reactions were different from September 2005.
First, the cartoons have become part of history and will end up in history books and museums, including the Danish Royal Library and Danish Media Museum.
Second, the cartoons are all over the internet and on prominent sites like Wikepedia, the web based Encyclopedia. In 2005 they were printed in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Norway and in 2008 in Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain. Now there is much wider access to news on the cartoons for millions of people by computer.
Third, the climate has changed in Denmark, the Muslim world and globally. The key players (and activist imams) who led and internationalized the protest in 2005 have gone. Syrian born Naser Khader, head of a new centrist Party, says Muslim leaders now speak more moderately, reject violence and live in harmony with Danish law.
The renewed calls for economic boycott are having some short term impact and being widely circulated by Muslim students on the web but the global reaction to re-publication is more measured than the first time. Any serious boycott movement against Denmark could be raised within the EU and lead to EU counter measures. In 2006, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson made it clear that a boycott of Denmark would be regarded as a boycott of the EU. At the moment support for a new boycott call in 2008 is not so strong as to cause a major political or trade problem.
Although some local Muslim pressure groups such as the Danish Muslim Society led by Kasem Said Ahmad regards the re-publication as provocative they have resolved to ignore future provocations. Other groups like the British Muslim Initiative reportedly exist to campaign against Islamophobia but are not likely to initiate large scale protests.
More seriously, Islamic leaders are debating Islamaphobia at the 57 nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Dakar, Senegal, on 13th & 14th March. The OIC will discuss the Danish cartoons issue and the proposal of Netherlands Parliamentarian Geert Wilders, to make an anti Muslim film portraying the religion as fascist.
The cartoon issue gets to the root of the clash between increasingly strongly secular societies, including many religious people who prefer secular values, as opposed to the strong feelings of more orthodox religious leaders and followers or of those who espouse religious identity politics to rally against the West.
The secular side see blasphemy charges as an assault on freedom of expression and the free press and believe that religious activists are politically motivated to take away their freedom and bring in religious censorship. The religious activists believe freedom of speech is not absolute and should not be used as an excuse to defame religions or religious symbols. The Egyptian Ambassador to Indonesia pointed out in the Jakarta Post on Tuesday 11th March that the context for debate is an upsurge in racism, xenophobia and discrimination against members of religious communities.
The OIC should certainly be concerned at the rise in Islamaphobia. This reflects the political fall out of 9.11 and the mishandling of the war on terrorism, particularly by President Bush, but it also reflects more fundamentally the growing social and cultural fall out of globalization and migration. This has provoked a strengthening of right wing political parties in the EU, sometimes parallel to greater solidarity between EU liberals and leftists with Muslim countries and communities against US foreign policy.
The OIC is not seen as a particularly effective organization in terms of global outreach, especially towards non Muslim countries, and it will be interesting to see how it reacts, tactically or more strategically to the growth of Islamaphobia.
The more skilful reaction would be to build coalitions with people of other faiths, especially its monotheistic cousins, Christianity and Judaism, by trying to identify some common religious values and sensitivities about religious symbols and by making it clear that similar attacks on Christian or Jewish symbols were also to be regarded as offensive. Then to reach out to the secular society by supporting press freedom and freedom of expression, but asking for some understanding and some reasonable limits to its exercise. However such skilful diplomatic moves would require dialogue, even with strong secular groups, and more than the usual set speeches.
Even more fundamentally the weakness in the Muslim case emanates from two main sources. Firstly the post 9.11 association between Islam, Muslim culture and terrorism has been simplistic and vastly exaggerated with intellectually inconsistent definitions of terrorism including everything from Al Qaeda, to political and tribal militias, sectarian factions and local separatist and resistance movements, some of which have spent more time fighting each other than the West. These associations are still made in spite of the evidence offered by opinion polls and democratic election results. A recent survey of world Muslim opinion confirmed less than 10% of Muslims felt any sympathy with Islamist movements , militancy or terrorism. Recent elections in Pakistan and Malaysia, along with earlier elections in Turkey and Indonesia confirmed strong trends towards modernization, increasingly led by non sectarian, secular or multi cultural parties.
Second, there is a more fundamental weakness which the OIC must address which is the lack of sufficient progress in the modernization of Muslim countries, which leads Islam and Muslim culture to be overly linked to backwardness and underdevelopment, which in turn undermines attempts to be taken more seriously as a force for modernization and moderation at global level. In mid March 2008 Indonesia is hosting the 7th E-9 Ministerial Review Meeting of Education for all (EFA) focusing on 70% of world illiteracy located in just nine countries – Bangladesh, Brazil , China , India, Mexico, E
gypt , Nigeria , Pakistan and Indonesia. Four out of the nine are large and Muslim led, two more with large poor Muslim populations. The Muslim world remains disproportionately poor and illiterate.
It is almost a decade since the charge of terrorism was thrown at Muslim society and there are at last some signs that Muslim communities are now beginning to feel more confident about their own identities and aspirations. The Malaysian elections were a wake up call that old fashioned religious identity politics are not enough and that the rising Muslim urban middle class and internet generation want faster progress and a new synthesis between Islam, Muslim modernization and global economics and politics.
It is not ritual conflict over cartoons that will improve the world climate for Muslims , but the assertion of countervailing power based on growing economic and political strength, and increasing acceptance that Muslim can mean moderate and modernizing.
If the OIC wants support from its own grass roots to help attract more international respect for Islam and its symbols, and for Muslim cultures and communities, then it also has to connect better with the economic and social aspirations of the Muslim street and the small business backbone of the Muslim world, and make better use of Islamic finance, alongside Western funds, to finance social infrastructure and reduce the gaps between the haves and have nots. This will help provide the mainstream global Muslim leadership that has been sadly lacking and help fill the gaps which are otherwise filled by radical groups.
Dr Terry Laceyis a Jakarta-based commentator on Muslim issues.