The fractures exposed by the Mohammed affair
LE MONDE | 20.02.06 | 13h31
The clash of civilizations? It is certainly taking place, but who is involved? Three weeks after the outbreak of the troubles that transformed the controversy of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in to a spiral of violence across the globe, the debate has gone beyond the simplified theory of a clash between Islam and the West. In displaying the progression of values in Europe and in the United States, it exposes two other fractures: one in the midst of Western society and the other between the Muslims of Europe and those of the East, whether moderate or extremist.
Like the debate on the Muslim headscarf in French schools two years ago and like the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands in November 2004, the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed go directly to the heart of questions raised by the demographic transformations which Europe has undergone in the last twenty years. Muslims are now a crucial element of our societies: fifteen million Muslims now live in the European Union. France alone is home to nearly five million. But since September 11, 2001, the rules of this cohabitation obey other constraints.
The United States has not digested this evolution. At first, the reactions of governments and Western media revealed a profound gap between Continental Europe and the United States which later actions have not covered over. Moved by its neoconservative convictions, the Bush Administration spontaneously and clearly expressed its religious solidarity with the Muslims, offended by the caricatures and its regret at their publication in Europe. The reaction can be considered startling, given that the First Amendment permits one to say and to write more or less anything one wants --more so than in Europe. But the expression of solidarity comes from a country where religious expression is increasingly a constituent element of public discourse and where the status of the Fourth Estate has been seriously eroded over the last five years. London, where religion is less in decline than in France, reacted in the same way. Neither the British press nor the authorities wished to jeopardize the fragile truce which has reigned among its different communities since the bombings of July 2005. It was only several days later that Condoleezza Rice (who is not a Neoconservative), who, noticing the political exploitation of the scandal on the part Damascus and Tehran, began to denounce violence of the reaction in the streets of several countries instead of the publication of the caricatures. But from Bill Clinton to The Washington Post, the American establishment, including the Democrats, continued to condemn the publishing of the Danish cartoons.
In Continental Europe, several newspapers, from the shores of the Atlantic to the Ukraine, published some or all of the Danish cartoons; governments were clearly more attuned to the defense of freedom of the press. Influenced by its Voltairean culture and its ancient tradition of freedom of anticlerical criticism, France took up the challenge. And despite Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s bitter assessment of foot dragging by his counterparts in offering a public expression of solidarity, on February 16th he received the explicit support of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who vigorously defended European “values” in an interview with the International Herald Tribune: We cannot accept fear in our society, he said.
RESPECT FOR A GOVERNMENT OF LAWS
To the West, the cartoon scandal raised the question of a government of laws as a democratic value. Entangled in the effort to strike a balance between freedom and responsibility, the public authorities, both national and international, preferred to forget that laws in a democracy are meant to be enforced. Washington condemned the publication of the cartoons –which were certainly offensive– but perfectly legal in the country where they were published. But it did not say a word on the flagrant violation of international law constituted by the attacks on diplomatic delegations and the lack of protection. Anxious to cool things off, Javier Solana, High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, departed on a tour of the Arab world and commented favorably on a draft amendment by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conferences to be presented to the United Nations making “defamation of religions and prophets incompatible with the right to freedom of expression”. But just how many countries respect “the right to freedom of expression”? And how many journalists are in jail? What is the significance of existing law within the Western democracies represented in the United Nations?
On another front, the debate has excavated a trench between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims and between European and Eastern Muslims. Researcher Olivier Roy underscores that major Muslim organizations in Europe have distanced themselves from the tempest unleashed by the cartoons: It is in the disconnection between Islam in Europe and crises in the Middle East where the key to the management of inevitable tensions should be sought, he wrote in the Le Monde on February 9th. It is necessary to “treat the Muslims of Europe like citizens, as we do with Christians and Jews, even if it is necessary to regularly issue a reminder on the principles of freedom of expression and secularism."
Contrary to the impression created by the images of radical Islamists demanding the death of the cartoonists during a demonstration in London, Islam in Europe is essentially moderate. In Germany, where most Muslims are Turks, in Spain, in France and in Great Britain, calls for calm have multiplied. The effort of several European Muslim organizations to bring the matter before a court of law represents the desire to obey the law in the societies in which they live and to make use of their lawful institutions. Those who are organizing the violent protests show that their complaint is not based in respect: what they demand is to impose Muslim rules (Mohammed may not be drawn) on secular societies. It is up to the Europeans to encourage Western Muslims and to give them the chance to integrate themselves fully into European society. By its excess and its violence, the reaction to the cartoons of Mohammed have at least helped us to illuminate the landscape.