OVER the last week, as the demonstrations against the blasphemous cartoons originally published by a Danish daily have increased in tempo and in violence, every kind of opinion on the subject has appeared in print and on the electronic media.

For me, the most trenchant comment came in the form of a cartoon sent by an American reader. In the first panel, a bearded man clad in the cartoonist’s version of shalwar-kameez is frothing at the mouth, shouting “Blasphemy! Death to cartoonists!”, while behind him a wall bears the legend: “Outrage over some cartoons”. In the next panel, the graffiti in the background says: “Outrage over the treatment of women, hostage beheadings, suicide bombings, honour killings.” Our bearded hero is shown here looking at his watch and mumbling: “Oops... Getting late. Gotta go.”

This just about sums up the attitude of a vast majority of Muslims: we get worked up over trivia, while pushing the real problems facing us under the carpet. Take this current furore over the Danish cartoons as an example. Firstly, most people forget that the stricture against depicting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in an illustration applies only to Muslims. Forbidding non-Muslims to do so would be tantamount to telling them to live under Shariah laws that are applicable to Muslims.

Secondly, the offending (and offensive) cartoons first appeared in September without provoking a reaction except for some mild protests. Indeed, hardly any of those marching today in the streets of the Muslim world, setting fire to embassies and dying in violent demonstrations, have actually seen the cartoons in question. Those manipulating the protesters are using them to lash out at the West.

It goes without saying that the publication of the cartoons was gratuitously provocative. Worse, it was in poor taste. And once they had been printed in Denmark, why should editors in other countries wish to compound the offence by reprinting them? Clearly, there are people who want to use their freedom of expression to provoke Muslims, while increasing their newspaper circulation at the same time.

But we need to ask why we get so easily provoked. After all, how does the publication of some odious cartoons in an obscure Danish newspaper affect those Muslims venting their anger and outrage across the world? In all probability, many of them have barely heard of Denmark. For their part, even sympathetic westerners are now viewing Muslims as hysterical and violent. As embassies go up in flames, who can blame them?

In all this heated talk of boycotts and bigotry, we are in danger of losing sight of the underlying reason for this reaction. Clearly, it is not just the publication of some insensitive and offensive cartoons in a small newspaper that is the only cause of the rage that is boiling over today. The entire incident has tapped into a deep reservoir of anger and subliminal hatred. Muslims are using this provocation to express their fury over centuries of real and imagined wrongs. In their eyes, they have been the victims of western aggression and arrogance over centuries, starting with the Crusades. With the mindset of the classic victims, they see any provocative act, whether deliberate or not, as yet another link in a long chain of dispossession and defeat.

Apart from history, culture and social customs distance the Islamic world from the West. Perhaps the single most divisive issue is the emancipation of women: while westerners see gender equality as something that is now a fundamental pillar of their society, Muslims have deeply ambivalent feelings on the subject. By basing male domination on one-sided interpretations of the scriptures, men have perpetuated centuries-old tribal customs long after they have ceased to exist elsewhere. Muslims are now deeply suspicious of attempts to promote women’s rights. In western hands, this is another stick to beat Muslims and Islam with.

These are some of the attitudes that underlie the tension between the two civilizations. The on-going protests over the Danish cartoons are just another manifestation of the millennium-old conflict. Since it is now unfashionable to say we hate each other because of religion, we tend to vent specific incidents and differences as excuses to indulge our prejudices.

Even highly educated and sophisticated Muslims I have talked to perceive some dark motive behind the publication of the cartoons in Denmark and elsewhere. For myself, I can see only crassness and poor taste. The defence based on the freedom of speech misses the central point that this freedom is never absolute. Even in the most liberated society, it is circumscribed by the laws of libel, contempt and confidentiality. For instance, would any western paper caricaturize a Jewish rabbi in an offensive political cartoon? Loud charges of anti-Semitism would be heard far and wide if an editor were to dare print such an image.

As somebody who has been writing for many years in different newspapers, I would be the first to defend the right to the free expression of one’s views. But I try not to offend individuals or groups gratuitously. Occasionally, things are written (or drawn) to provoke and make readers sit up and think. However, there is a narrow line between provocation and insult, and the editors of the newspapers carrying the offending cartoons certainly have crossed this line.

But surely, poor taste is not (yet) a crime that attracts the death penalty. This is what many of the protesting Muslims are calling for. The editor of the newspaper and the government of Denmark have apologized. Why not accept these expressions of regret and move on? What is to be gained by the continuing violence and hysteria?

In this space a fortnight ago, I had argued that Muslim clerics are ill-equipped to discuss and address the real problems facing their community. In order to divert attention from their lack of education, they constantly raise non-issues in their unceasing attempt to drag us back to the mediaeval era. To me, the current hue and cry over the wretched Danish cartoons smacks of these tried and tested tactics employed by our mullahs.

Mercifully, the reaction has been more muted in Pakistan than in other Muslim countries. People certainly have the right to voice their anger in the media and in the streets. But attacking buildings, threatening Scandinavians, and dying over the offensive contains strikes me as gross overreaction.

Updated Feb 11, 2006 12:00am

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