PHILADELPHIA: In recent years, the anti-globalization movement has rallied against symbols of alleged American hegemony: the golden arches of McDonald’s, bodacious Baywatch babes and shadowy cigar-chomping oil tycoons with 200-foot yachts. In the Muslim world, Islamists - those who believe in ordering modern life according to the precepts of the Koran - have been at the forefront of this opposition. Yet, as the controversy over a Danish newspaper’s decision to publish satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed shows, globalization is equally responsible for the growing influence of radical Islam. Globalization deserves the credit for another image increasingly familiar from London to Jakarta: that of the enraged Muslim protestor.
In the past two weeks, slogan-chanting mobs in Damascus and Beirut have razed embassies, masked Palestinian gunmen have occupied offices in the Gaza strip and protestors, often assembled through SMS text messaging have clogged streets as far apart as London, Beirut and Kuala Lumpur. A massive boycott across the Arab world saw Danish products pulled off supermarket shelves and three Arab ambassadors recalled from Copenhagen. Amidst a barrage of death threats, some of the offending artists went into hiding. All this over a dozen relatively innocuous, though admittedly tasteless, cartoons in a newspaper that was virtually unheard of outside Denmark.
The controversy began with the newspaper, “Jyllands-Posten,” learning of the difficulty faced by a local writer in finding an illustrator for his children’s book on the Prophet for fear of violent reprisals by Muslim extremists. In September 2005, as an exercise to test whether fear had fostered a climate of self-censorship in Denmark, the newspaper published the cartoons. One shows the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse. Another shows him in heaven turning away a long line of still-smoking suicide bombers with the words, “Stop, stop we ran out of virgins,” a reference to the popular belief that the bombers are motivated by a promised reward of 72 beautiful virgins in paradise. A third depicts a cartoonist sweating with fear and glancing nervously over his shoulder as he sketches the Prophet.
Predictably, the cartoons offended Muslim sensibilities. For one, Sunni Islam prohibits all images of the Prophet—let alone satirical ones. The cartoons also reinforced what many Muslims see as the unfair stereotyping of their faith as sympathetic to terrorism and oppressive toward women.
Even so, the uproar was far from spontaneous. In November and December a delegation of Danish imams toured the Middle East with a 43-page binder that included not only the Jyllands-Posten cartoons but others which insulted Islam and the Prophet in far more graphic and sexual terms. They found a sympathetic audience at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning, and among officials of the Arab League. In late December, the League criticized the Danish government. Four weeks later, the boycott of Danish products began in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait before quickly escalating into protests around the Muslim world.
Ironically, Islamic globalization employs the same technologies - among them the Internet, satellite television and desktop publishing - as its much-derided American counterpart. The ancient Islamic goal of creating a unified community of believers, or ummah, long symbolized by the annual haj pilgrimage, is now being achieved by wireless bank transfers and text messaging. It’s no coincidence that the anti-Danish protests were publicized widely on pan-Islamic television channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Al Manar and websites like IslamOnline.net. Or that the person who called on Muslims to mark an “international day of anger” after Friday prayers on February 03 was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian-born cleric and talk show host associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a global Islamist movement whose ideological offshoots range from Hamas in the Palestinian territories to the hardline Justice and Prosperity Party in Indonesia.
Over the past several decades, Saudi Arabia, buoyed by its enormous oil revenue, has emerged as the principal backer of transnational Islam. The Saudis follow Wahhabism, a puritanical and intolerant strain of the religion alien to the vast majority of Muslims. In Saudi Arabia women aren’t allowed out of the home without a male guardian and the practice of no faith other than Islam is permitted. The Koran serves as the constitution. Only about 2 percent of the world’s Muslims are Wahhabis, yet as custodians of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, the Saudis wield outsized influence.
In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia welcomed Muslim Brotherhood ideologues fleeing secular Egypt, and once there they quickly came to dominate universities that educated a generation of literalist Muslims, many from poor countries in South and Southeast Asia. The spike in oil prices following the OPEC crisis of 1973 added dramatically to Saudi clout. According to the Center for Security Policy, a Washington think tank, between 1975 and 2002 the Saudis spent $70 billion on “overseas aid,” which for the most part meant bankrolling mosques and madrassas. The Saudi-sponsored organizations responsible for propagating a Wahhabi worldview include the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the International Islamic Relief Organization and the Al-Haramain Foundation.
Part of this vast pool of Saudi money washed up in Europe. Children of Muslim immigrants, cut off from the traditions of their parents, often drifted toward the muscular, back-to-basics of Wahhabism. This has helped create a small but highly visible cohort of disaffected youth, at times as much at odds with their own families as with the easygoing secularism of the societies where they live. The right to satirize Islam has become a recurrent flashpoint. In 1989, Muslim extremists in Britain publicly burned Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” for allegedly insulting Islam, and backed Iranian calls for his assassination. Fifteen years later, a Dutch Moroccan stabbed and shot to death filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam. Riots in France and bombings in London and Madrid have added to the tensions between Muslim immigrants and their European hosts.
Europe, of course, is proud of its unfettered freedom of speech; the right to criticize church dogma was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment. Danish laws, among the most liberal in the world, have long shielded the hard-core pornography industry and the right to exhibit controversial films such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which includes a scene in which Jesus Christ makes love to Mary Magdalene.
In launching their cartoon jihad, Islamist leaders such as al-Qaradawi have chosen their battle shrewdly. The universal veneration of Muslims for the Prophet makes the cartoons a highly emotive issue, an effective wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. The leaders may also have figured that with only 5.4 million people Denmark was small enough to bully.
If so, they have miscalculated. By and large, Europeans, recognizing the principles involved, have rallied behind the Danes. Norwegian, German, Belgian, Icelandic, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Swiss and Portuguese papers have published the cartoons. The blogosphere has exploded with sites proudly showing the cartoons and encouraging viewers to neutralize the Arab boycott by buying Danish products. The prominent Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has called on European Muslims “to understand that laughing at religion is a part of the broader culture in which they live.” Having triumphed over the church, it appears unlikely that secular Europe will now allow itself to be cowed by the mosque.
Sadanand Dhume is a former correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is writing a book about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia.