by Reda Benkirane
Doha Centre for Media Freedom, February 2009
The row over the Danish Mohamed cartoons was a tragedy for most people working on what unites people rather than divides them. The big TV networks unwittingly exaggerate religious and cultural differences. Instead of helping people understand 'the humanity of humanity' we fall into lazy mental habits of 'us and them' very comforting for Europeans to contrast their sleek image with scenes of the poor and disadvantaged, obviously being manipulated by others, furiously demonstrating in front of some European embassy. These disproportionate reactions give all societies a bad name when televised. People get the impression that the entire Islamic world (a fifth of humanity) is suddenly ablaze.
Nearly all societies, including in Europe, have sacred things that they defend. Have Europeans forgotten how the films of director Jean-Luc Godard ('Hail Mary') and Martin Scorsese ('The Last Temptation of Christ') in the 1980s provoked widespread demands to ban them, involving violent demonstrations, fire bombs, a cinema burned down and many people injured?
The issue is not so much whether freedom of expression should be total or partial or if we can make fun of everything, including religion, but the biased and unbalanced handling of freedom of expression, of humour and even by extension humanitarian and international rights. Double standards always win out over the egalitarian and universalist argument. The so-called universal values of the European elites are embarrassingly hard to pin down, and it is this constant hypocrisy that undermines them.
Can we really laugh at everything, even religions and their priests? Are we really sure? When for example the French cartoonist Dieudonné parodied a Jewish religious extremist on TV it sparked great outrage and emotion. The drawing has never again been shown or reproduced and the author has vanished from TV and now has a bad name. A parody of this kind is automatically treated as anti-Semitic, racist, even slightly pro-Nazi. But a cartoon associating the Prophet Mohamed with political violence and modern-day terrorism is treated as not being anti-Islamic at all and simply a matter of freedom of expression. A strange argument. So what about a cartoon linking the Prophet of Judaism to certain harmful stereotypes of Jews in Europe in recent tragic times? Why does humour or criticism automatically mean anti-Semitism and something degrading in this case, but 'artistic creativity', 'freedom of expression' when it comes to Islam or Muslims?
The same goes for democracy, which is said to be good and necessary for the Islamic world. But what do European elites have to say when Islamists win elections, as in Algeria (1990-92) or more interestingly what has happened or is happening with them today in Turkey, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and probably tomorrow in Morocco? Should one call for annulment of free elections when the winners don't fit the standard Western or American image? Should dictators and other mediocre rulers be propped up because they block the way to 'those people' who are supposedly calling for solutions that are not in line with the ideas of the 'Enlightenment' and which Europeans have sometimes got bogged down in (the many millions of bodies caused by the Holocaust and the ravages of colonialism in the 20th century)? Why, in fact, can't there be 'democratic Islamic' movements like the 'Christian democratic' movements that have been a driving force of European social and political development?
Are we allowed to laugh at everything? Certainly, but we have to be capable of laughing at absolutely everything. Are European elites ready for something that could be very destabilising for them? The now firmly multipolar and non-Judeo-Christian majority world is shaking with laughter and daring humour about the sated and ageing former colonial powers that are no longer a chosen yardstick and no longer have the means to impose their domination. Let's listen, and without arrogance or intellectual condescension, learn how to foster a sense of humour in the complex and plural world unfolding before us.