Robert Fisk: Don't be fooled, this isn't an issue of Islam versus secularism

'The Koran does not forbid images of the Prophet but millions of Muslims do'

The Independent

Published: 04 February 2006

So now it's cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed with a bomb-shaped turban. Ambassadors are withdrawn from Denmark, Gulf nations clear their shelves of Danish produce, Gaza gunmen threaten the European Union. In Denmark, Fleming Rose, the "culture" editor of the pip-squeak newspaper which published these silly cartoons - last September, for heaven's sake - announces that we are witnessing a "clash of civilisations" between secular Western democracies and Islamic societies. This does prove, I suppose, that Danish journalists follow in the tradition of Hans Christian Anderson. Oh lordy, lordy. What we're witnessing is the childishness of civilisations.

So let's start off with the Department of Home Truths. This is not an issue of secularism versus Islam. For Muslims, the Prophet is the man who received divine words directly from God. We see our prophets as faintly historical figures, at odds with our high-tech human rights, almost cariacatures of themselves. The fact is that Muslims live their religion. We do not. They have kept their faith through innumerable historical vicissitudes. We have lost our faith ever since Matthew Arnold wrote about the sea's "long, withdrawing roar". That's why we talk about "the West versus Islam" rather than "Christians versus Islam" - because there aren't an awful lot of Christians left in Europe. There is no way we can get round this by setting up all the other world religions and asking why we are not allowed to make fun of Mohamed.

Besides, we can exercise our own hypocrisy over religious feelings. I happen to remember how, more than a decade ago, a film called The Last Temptation of Christ showed Jesus making love to a woman. In Paris, someone set fire to the cinema showing the movie, killing a young man. I also happen to remember a US university which invited me to give a lecture three years ago. I did. It was entitled "September 11, 2001: ask who did it but, for God's sake, don't ask why". When I arrived, I found that the university had deleted the phrase "for God's sake" because "we didn't want to offend certain sensibilities". Ah-ha, so we have "sensibilities" too.

In other words, while we claim that Muslims must be good secularists when it comes to free speech - or cheap cartoons - we can worry about adherents to our own precious religion just as much. I also enjoyed the pompous claims of European statesmen that they cannot control free speech or newspapers. This is also nonsense. Had that cartoon of the Prophet shown instead a chief rabbi with a bomb-shaped hat, we would have had "anti-Semitism" screamed into our ears - and rightly so - just as we often hear the Israelis complain about anti-Semitic cartoons in Egyptian newspapers.

Furthermore, in some European nations - France is one, Germany and Austria are among the others - it is forbidden by law to deny acts of genocide. In France, for example, it is illegal to say that the Jewish Holocaust or the Armenian Holocaust did not happen. So it is, in fact, impermissable to make certain statements in European nations. I'm still uncertain whether these laws attain their objectives; however much you may prescribe Holocaust denial, anti-Semites will always try to find a way round. We can hardly exercise our political restraints to prevent Holocaust deniers and then start screaming about secularism when we find that Muslims object to our provocative and insulting image of the Prophet.

For many Muslims, the "Islamic" reaction to this affair is an embarrassment. There is good reason to believe that Muslims would like to see some element of reform introduced to their religion. If this cartoon had advanced the cause of those who want to debate this issue, no-one would have minded. But it was clearly intended to be provocative. It was so outrageous that it only caused reaction.

And this is not a great time to heat up the old Samuel Huntingdon garbage about a "clash of civilisations". Iran now has a clerical government again. So, to all intents and purposes, does Iraq (which was not supposed to end up with a democratically elected clerical administration, but that's what happens when you topple dictators). In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 per cent of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections. Now we have Hamas in charge of "Palestine". There's a message here, isn't there? That America's policies - "regime change" in the Middle East - are not achieving their ends. These millions of voters were preferring Islam to the corrupt regimes which we imposed on them.

For the Danish cartoon to be dumped on top of this fire is dangerous indeed.

In any event, it's not about whether the Prophet should be pictured. The Koran does not forbid images of the Prophet even though millions of Muslims do. The problem is that these cartoons portrayed Mohamed as a bin Laden-type image of violence. They portrayed Islam as a violent religion. It is not. Or do we want to make it so?