Just got off the phone from a radio show with Susan Arbetter's Round Table on WAMC, the local NPR station, about the cartoons crisis. I made a couple of basic points which echo what I've written here the last two days.
First, the papers had the right to publish the cartoons, but probably should have considered how they would insult Muslims; and that Muslims had the right to be upset, to boycott, to write letters, to demonstrate, but not to engage in violence. This seems to me a reasonable middle ground. Framing it as "freedom of speech vs respect for religion" doesn't quite make sense to me - I would prefer to see moderation and empathy tempering both absolute principles.
Second, the media is playing a really negative role, whether al-Jazeera or CNN, by buying so easily and quickly into the "clash of civilizations" trope. By emphasizing angry voices on both sides, but especially on the Muslim side, the media is playing into the hands of extremists. It's typical of the media- sensationalism sells papers, and gets viewers. But it isn't constructive. When Qaradawi says that Muslims should be angry and should boycott, but should not engage in violence, don't report the first and ignore the second.
Third, this is not a clash of civilizations, and we should stop treating it as such. Yes, most Muslims I know are angry and genuinely offended, but they aren't violent about it. If a similar cartoon had been run about Jesus, or Anne Frank (and I blasted the Iranians for their part in this StupidStorm), or Martin Luther King, lots of Americans would be angry and genuinely offended. By focusing on the extreme voices, the media really does an injustice to the legitimate, human feelings and ideas of that vast majority of Muslims who deserve the right to be heard without being reduced to some cliche of Muslim rage.
Fourth, in response to a caller question, I said that I hoped this could be a "learning opportunity", but I feared that it would teach the wrong lessons. It's up to the media, I think, to let reasonable voices talk it out rather than to pander. Don't let the extremists dominate the public space.
Last, I got to put in a plug for Abu Aardvark, much to my surprise - the host actually asked me to spell out www.abuaardvark.com on the air, so hopefully some folks will remember it and come check it out. If you did find Abu Aardvark from the radio, drop me an email or leave a comment and let me know!
The worldwide uproar over the cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, printed in a Danish newspaper and reprinted across Europe, has little to do with what's in the headlines. In fact, those obscure the real—and critical—issues at stake. We read that the affair pits the strictures of Islam against Western freedom of expression. In fact, most Muslims are neither more nor less concerned about abuses of that freedom than Christians or Jews. Except for a small fringe of radicals who presume to speak for Islam, mainstream Muslims, especially in Europe, have reacted with impressive moderation to what they rightly see as an outrage. There have been no huge demonstrations on the Continent, no calls for boycotts, no sit-ins, no incitements to violence. There is, however, intense anger—and it's important to understand it.
The worst lesson to draw from last week's brouhaha has already become the most common—that it represents a deep "clash of civilizations." Not true. Instead of demonstrating the unity of the Muslim world, the protests underscore its division: a recidivist old guard determined to protect its power and hidden interests versus the growing community of modernist Muslims. They consider themselves first and foremost to be Europeans—and they quite simply do not want to be treated as immigrants, or insulted.
UPDATE: Mona Eltahawy today, channeling the aardvark (not that she needs the help): "This is not a clash of civilizations but a battle between the extremists - Muslims and non-Muslims alike - and the rest of us who refuse to allow them to speak for us."