Muslims and the West: A Culture War?
By John L. Esposito**
Islamic Studies – Georgetown University
Newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad have set off an
international row with dangerous consequences, both short and long
term. The controversial caricatures first published in Denmark and
then in other European newspapers, target Muhammad and Islam and
equate them with extremism and terrorism. In response to outcries
and demonstrations across the Muslim world, the media has justified
these cartoons as freedom of _expression; France's France Soir
and Germany's Die Welt ass\erted a "right to caricature God"
and a "right to blasphemy," respectively.
One of the first questions I have been asked about this conflict
by media from Europe, the US, and Latin America has been "Is Islam
incompatible with Western values?" Are we seeing a culture war?
Before jumping to that conclusion, we should ask, whose Western
democratic and secular values are we talking about? Is it a Western
secularism that privileges no religion in order to provide space for
all religions and to protect belief and unbelief alike? Or is it a
Western "secular fundamentalism" that is anti-religious and
increasingly, post 9/11, anti-Islam?
What we are witnessing today has little to do with Western
democratic values and everything to do with a European media that
reflects and plays to an increasingly xenophobic and Islamaphobic
society. The cartoons seek to test and provoke; they are not
ridiculing Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi but mocking
Muslims' most sacred symbols and values as they hide behind the
façade of freedom of _expression. The win-win for the media is that
explosive headline events, reporting them or creating them, also
boosts sales. The rush to reprint the Danish cartoons has been as
much about profits as about the prophet of Islam. Respected European
newspapers have acted more like tabloids.
The cartoons drive a wedge between the West and moderate
What is driving Muslim responses? At first blush, the latest
Muslim outcries seem to reinforce the post 9/11 question of some
pundits: "Why do they hate us?" with an answer that has become
"conventional wisdom": "They hate our success, democracy,
freedoms…"—a facile and convenient as well as wrong-headed response.
Such answers fail to recognize that the core issues in this "culture
war" are about faith, Muhammad's central role in Islam, and the
respect and love that he enjoys as the paradigm to be emulated. They
are also more broadly about identity, respect (or lack of it) and
public humiliation. Would the mainstream media with impunity publish
caricatures of Jews or of the holocaust? As France's Grand Rabbi
Joseph Sitruk observed: "We gain nothing by lowering religions,
humiliating them and making caricatures of them. It's a lack of
honesty and respect," he said. He said freedom of _expression 'is
not a right without limits'." (AP Feb 3)
A recently completed Gallup World Poll, that surveyed Muslims
from Morocco to Indonesia, enables us to find data-based answers
about Islam by listening to the voices of a billion Muslims. This
ground-breaking Gallup study provides a context and serves as a
reality check on the causes for widespread outrage.
Freedom of religion in a pluralistic society ought
to mean that some things are sacred and treated as such.
When asked to describe what Western societies could do to improve
relations with the Arab/Muslim world, by far the most frequent reply
(47% in Iran, 46% in Saudi Arabia, 43% in Egypt, 41% in Turkey,
etc.) was that they should demonstrate more understanding and
respect for Islam, show less prejudice, and not denigrate what Islam
stands for. At the same time, large numbers of Muslims cite the
West's technological success and its liberty and freedom of speech
as what they most admire. When asked if they would include a
provision for Freedom of Speech, defined as allowing all citizens to
express their opinion on political, social and economic issues of
the day if they were drafting a constitution for a new country,
overwhelming majorities (94% in Egypt, 97% in Bangladesh, 98% in
Lebanon etc.) in every country surveyed responded yes, they would.
Cartoons defaming the Prophet and Islam by equating them with
terrorism are inflammatory. They reinforce Muslim grievances,
humiliation and social marginalization and drive a wedge between the
West and moderate Muslims, unwittingly playing directly into the
hands of extremists. They also reinforce autocratic rulers who
charge that democracy is anti-religious and incompatible with Islam.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Islamophobia should be as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, a
threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life.
By the US' seeking to more closely incorporate Europe in its
hegemonic designs in the Muslim world, and Europe’s seeming
readiness to do so, the West would be greatly enhancing the dominant
view among many that this is in fact a clash of civilizations and an
anti-Islamic crusade that is guided by an Islamophobic West. Recent
revelations involving the degradation of the Koran by US
interrogators in Guantanamo Bay and the EU’s absurd display of
solidarity with Denmark in the recent cartoon controversy which
inflamed Muslim passions, is further proof, in the eyes of many
Muslims and Westerners alike, that a clash of civilizations is being
fueled by the West.
This is further augmented if one notes how Rumsfeld described
Europe and the US during the Munich conference not only as partners
with common strategic interests but rather as the “civilized world”
and as “a community, with shared histories, common values, and an
abiding faith in democracy” facing a war that was declared by forces
wishing to establish “a global extremist Islamic empire.”
Rumsfeld’s whimsical, self-serving depiction of the conflict
leaves no room for any criticism of the West. In fact, during his
speech at the Munich conference we do not see any attempt made to
distinguish between the goals of various Islamic movements nor do we
see any acknowledgement of America’s failed policies in Iraq or the
role that the West had historically played in creating many of the
legitimate grievances that Muslims repeatedly mention. Instead,
Rumsfeld reiterated the convenient, self-gratifying cliché that the
conflict is within the Muslim world, as Muslims are
constantly depicted as hopelessly struggling to come to terms with
the benevolent message of freedom that the West is supposedly busy
The US’ newly declared strategic posture aims at the
liquidation of whatever is left of the concept of national
Core principles and values, like freedom of speech, cannot be
compromised. However, freedoms do not exist in a vacuum; they do not
function without limits. In many countries, hate speech (such as
holocaust denial, incitement to racial hatred, advocating genocide)
is a criminal offense prohibited under incitement to hatred
legislation. Our Western secular democracies represent not only
freedom of _expression but also freedom of religion. Belief as well
as unbelief needs to be protected. Freedom of religion in a
pluralistic society ought to mean that some things are sacred and
treated as such. The Islamophobia which is becoming a social cancer
should be as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, a threat to the very
fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life. Thus, it is
imperative for political and religious leaders, commentators and
experts, and yes, the media, to lead in building and safeguarding
our cherished values.
And what about Muslim responses? Muslim leaders are hard pressed
to take charge, asserting their faith and rights as citizens,
affirming freedom of _expression while rejecting its abuse as a
cover for prejudice. A sharp line must be drawn between legitimate
forms of dissent and violent demonstrations or attacks on embassies
that inflame the situation, and reinforce Western stereotypes. The
many Muslim leaders, from America and Europe to the Muslim world,
who have publicly urged restraint and strongly condemned violence,
play a critical role.
Globalization and an increasingly multicultural and
multi-religious West test the mettle of our cherished democratic
values. As the current cartoon controversy underscores, pluralism
and tolerance today demand greater mutual understanding and respect
from non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
**John L. Esposito is Professor of Religion and
International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown
University. He is the founding director of the Center for
Muslim-Christian Understanding, a consultant to the Department of
State as well as corporations, universities, and the media
worldwide. He is also author of What Everyone Needs to Know about
Islam, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, and
co-author of the forthcoming, "Can you Hear Me Now: What a
Billion Muslims are Trying to Tell Us."