February 18, 2006

Clash of the uncivilised

Europe lives with twin fears: the loss of jobs because of Chinese goods and Indian services, and Muslim immigrants. Many European countries have a small but significant Muslim minority. And as Europe peers into the future and sees declining populations, the prospect of more immigrants (many of them inevitably Muslims from neighbouring regions) raises many doubts — as also questions about the implications of multi-culturalism. Assimilation then becomes the key word, because Europeans do not see their continent as a melting pot, nor as a cultural smorgasbord. Hence the French decision that schoolgirls cannot wear scarves to school because it is a religious symbol, any more than Sikh boys can wear turbans. Even the Danes, among the usually accommodative Scandinavians, have in recent years had to confront the issue, with immigration and assimilation featuring in the last election campaign. The Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed therefore have a history and background, and were a deliberate challenge; they were not an accident, nor the product of a loony editor. After all, many other publications on the continent chose to reproduce those cartoons, knowing that they would cause offence. The intention was to assert the right to free speech, in the face of political correctness, and to say that intimidation as a response from Islamists will not and should not lead to submission. From the Danish government's point of view, the doctrine of free speech could hardly be jettisoned, although the prime minister did eventually find it necessary to apologise.

In India, attuned as the system is to numerous cultural and religious influences over the centuries, and to making space for everyone so as to continue living together, no newspaper editor in his right senses would publish such cartoons — and not just because of the fear of riots. But the question does arise: why do depictions of Mohammed result in riots, and not the display of Shiva's likeness on women's underwear or shoes in America? Is it that the Hindu (despite memories of colonialism and disparagement of a patently rich culture) is more law-abiding and protests — as he does — within the constraints imposed by the law, or that religious passions are not so easily aroused, or that pundits/mahants don’t play the same role as mullahs?

It might be argued that, unlike India, the Islamic countries feel under attack and are in any case less successfully coping with the challenges of modernisation. There are the aggravations of Palestine and Iraq, with Iran now building up as a fresh flashpoint. Memories go back to the Crusades, and to the scant respect that Christian missionaries showed to native beliefs and cultures as they went around carrying the white man’s burden. But while it is easy to understand the anger on Arab street, the resulting outburst was not spontaneous because the cartoons were first published more than four months ago and no one initially took note. The eventual rioting and attacks on embassies, some reports have suggested, were egged on by governments in Syria, Iran and elsewhere — which have been under American pressure and which may therefore have welcomed a confrontation on this issue because it is to their advantage in terms of domestic mobilization of public opinion. In other words, this was a state response to the European challenge, carefully calculated. Viewed thus, the whole episode does begin to look like a manifestation of the long-forecast ‘clash of civilizations’. Except that it is not very civilised to deliberately offend another person’s religious feelings, or to go and burn down another country’s embassy.

No comments: