Constant Cynic

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Muslim world is in crisis but we've had a hand in it
The dust from killing fields far away drifting our way, says Haroon Siddiqui

Feb. 26, 2006

However much offence they might cause, cartoons don't kill. Yet Muslims have been on a rampage about the caricaturing of the Prophet Muhammad. Isn't their reaction wildly disproportionate?

And, why should the West take Muslims seriously when they routinely commit great crimes, such as blowing up the Shi'ite Golden Mosque in Iraq and killing Sunnis in retaliation?

The answer is that the Muslim world is in a deep crisis.

But Muslims alone cannot fix the mess, because it is not entirely of their making.

Most live in the Third World, much of it once colonized, and some of it still controlled by, Western powers. Not all Muslim shortcomings emanate from that but several do.

Millions of Muslims live in conflict zones, precisely in the areas of such meddling: Iraq (30,000 to 100,000 dead in the last three years), Afghanistan (an unknown number dead since the U.S. invasion), the Israeli Occupied Territories (one of the longest and most brutal occupations of modern times), and disputed Kashmir on the Indo-Pakistani border (65,000 dead since 1989).

Only the genocide in the former Yugoslavia (200,000 dead) and the Russian wars on Chechnya (200,000 dead) are not attributable to Western machinations though it must be noted that the latter has had the tacit support of the U.S.

Combined with the 1991-2003 U.S.-led economic sanctions on Iraq (at least 500,000 casualties), these conflicts have killed more than 1 million Muslims in the last decade and a half, and spawned the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Why are we surprised that Muslims are up in arms?

Nearly 400 million Muslims live under authoritarian and corrupt regimes, many of them U.S. proxies: from Egypt to the oil-rich oligarchies of the Persian Gulf to the military dictatorship in Pakistan. Not only are the people there disenfranchised but also destitute.

Why are we surprised that Muslims have turned to Islam?

Mosques are full. The use of the hijab is on the rise. Madrassas, religious schools, are packed. Zakat, Islamic charity, is at record levels, to serve desperate human needs.

The greater the repression, the bigger the religious realm. The greater the injustices in Iraq, Chechnya, West Bank, etc. the higher the antipathy against the West and sympathy for jihad.

Unelected governments lack the legitimacy to challenge such militancy. To divert domestic anger abroad, many allow or encourage people to rant at the U.S and rave at Israel, or just Jews.

Sometimes even the elected leaders join in, as has Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

In reality, most Muslim states are helpless to address Muslim grievances worldwide. They have little or no clout in the U.S., the only power that counts. Or they are dependant on Washington for their own survival.

Islam being their last zone of comfort, many Muslims react strongly, sometimes irrationally and violently, when the Qur'an is desecrated or the Prophet is mocked or Islam attacked. They react in ways the angry dispossessed do, riots being the voice of the voiceless, as Martin Luther King said.

Their foaming words and frenzied actions, too hot for the cool medium of television, engender even more hostility in the West — and embarrass some of the more educated Muslims, who, for reasons of principle or PR, desperately want to separate themselves from the mobs.

But the crowds rampage on, harming their own interests. The aid-giving European Union office in the West Bank is closed. Danish aid workers in Chechnya are withdrawn. Worse, some of the protesters themselves are killed, 48 so far.

As tragic as all this is, it pales in comparison to the million innocent Muslims killed, and millions more maimed, in the name of fighting terrorism or finding non-existent weapons of mass destruction or other excuses.

Those who in recent days have been lecturing Muslims about violence seem strangely out of touch with reality, or to be riding the high horse of hypocrisy.

They would have had greater credibility had they not been the cheerleaders of, or silent partners in, the creation of the killing fields whose dust now drifts our way every once in a while.


Haroon Siddiqui, writes Thursdays and Sundays.

Friday, February 24, 2006



Cartoon furor exposes double standards
Feb. 23, 2006

Gary Younge, the New York-based black British columnist, has written this about the Danish cartoon controversy in The Nation magazine:

"Muslims have, in effect, been vilified twice: once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them. Such logic recalls the words of the late South African black nationalist Steve Biko: `Not only are whites kicking us, they are telling us how to react to being kicked.'"

Confusion continues to mark the Western response to the issue. Some of this is because we are in uncharted waters. But something else is at work — double standards and insidious attempts at delegitimizing the Muslim protests.

Notorious British historian David Irving has just been sentenced in Vienna to three years for denying the Holocaust. Radical British Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al Masri has been jailed, among other things, for inciting hatred. About time.

Yet there's silence from freedom of speech advocates who were on their pulpits just days ago.

Denying the Holocaust is not the same as poking fun at a prophet, some might say. Muslims might respond that the cartoons contravened the historical fact that Muhammad was not a terrorist with a bomb in his turban.

Masri's case offers a better parallel. Besides terrorism-related charges, he was convicted of fomenting hate against Britons. Muslims said the Danish cartoons did exactly that to them. How does a democracy decide which hate is worse?

In France, the Catholic Church last year won a lawsuit against a fashion designer depicting The Last Supper with semi-nude women instead of the apostles. Where were the noisy advocates of freedom of speech then? Or, do they pop up only to claim the right to bash Muslims?

The cartoon episode has little or nothing to do with blasphemy. Some Muslims invoke it but that's a tangent democracies need no longer take.

The real issue is that freedom of speech has limits, by law and by social dictates (self-censorship).

Newspapers do not publish cartoons that may be hurtful, hateful, xenophobic or racist.

Do thinking people want to make the case for resurrecting the old caricatures of fat-lipped blacks, hook-nosed Jews or cross-eyed Chinese?

"I don't find the cartoons offensive," some people say. That's not the point. Nor is it that some Muslims think so. That's like invoking a lapsed Catholic to tell most Catholics what to think.

It's best in a democracy "to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo is not too onerous," writes Robert Wright in a thoughtful opinion page article in The New York Times. He is the author of The Moral Animal.

"Look, here's an old depiction of Muhammad," some others say, to discredit the assertion that Islam forbids depiction of the Prophet.

There's no denying such depictions exist. Miniatures featured Muhammad in various scenes but only a few showed his face, while others blanked out the space. Some centuries ago, Muslims came to a consensus against such depictions.

We risk breaking the democratic balance when we poke people in the eye about their beliefs. Doing so to Muslims in these tense times is especially reprehensible.

The worldwide protests are being portrayed as the work of radicals or of such governments as Iran and Syria. Some no doubt are. But manipulating the public is not the exclusive preserve of Muslim radicals or Muslim governments.

Suggesting that only the fanatics are upset is to minimize the offence caused by what the United Church has called an "incitement to racial and religious hatred."

Those defending the Danish newspaper keep saying it did not mean to offend Muslims. Really?

Here's Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the drawings, talking about Danish Muslims: "This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with modern secular society — how much does an immigrant have to give up and how much does the receiving culture have to compromise." And: "People are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that's 5,000 miles away."

Sympathy is also shown poor little liberal Denmark that can't quite believe its portrayal abroad.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is in a coalition with the People's party, which has called Danish Muslims "cancer cells" and "seeds of weeds." It is pondering a total ban on Muslim immigration. Just think: Keeping people out because of their religion, in western Europe, in 2006.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiq@thestar.cainterINI