Please Smile While Under the Boot

Mulham Assir, Al-Ahram Weekly
Posted: 8 Safar 1427, 8 March 2006

The self-righteous arrogance with which the West feigns shock at Muslim reactions to humiliation reveals how deeply the colonial attitude runs in the Occident, writes Mulham Assir.

"Not only have the whites been guilty of being on the offensive, but by some skilful manoeuvres, they have managed to control the responses of the blacks to the provocation. Not only have they kicked the black, but they have also told him how to react to the kick... He is now beginning to show signs that it is his right and duty to respond to the kick in the way he sees fit." -- Steve Biko, freedom fighter against Apartheid, killed while under police arrest.

The Western world -- commonly referred to in its own media as the "civilised world" (CW) -- has been shocked by the anti-Islamic cartoons debacle. Well, not exactly shocked by the cartoons, but by the Muslim world's reaction to them. The cartoons represent a simple exercise in free speech by the artists who created them, do they not? Not quite. Not so much a spontaneous expression of free speech as a command performance: the cartoons had been commissioned with what seems to be a deliberate intent to provoke.

Many opinion pieces -- "civilised" opinion pieces that is -- remind us by way of contrast of the open-mindedness with which Christians are willing to mock their own religious icons and do so freely. That is the proper and -- pardon the repetition -- "civilised" way to react. After all, can one be civilised and object to free speech? It is true that these symbols are a bit shop-worn and the aura of inviolability that used to surround them has thinned as new symbols worthy of worship and taboo protection have emerged, like the Holocaust dogma. Free speech clearly has its restrictions: there are several people at this very moment in the CW's prisons for questioning the literal dogma of the Holocaust.

Beyond the gratuitous, bigoted insult, the cartoons specifically equate Islam with terrorism (the Prophet shown wearing a bomb with a lit fuse as a turban) and also ascribe resistance to the occupation of Islamic nations to "Islamic fundamentalism" (toting the old "99 virgins" Zionist misrepresentation of the purpose of the Palestinian struggle). Nonetheless, these notions do not shock a Western audience that has been systematically exposed to anti-Arab and anti-Islamic bashing for decades; a campaign exacerbated after the little American holocaust, "9/11".

Demonisation of Islam and the "clash of civilisations" supposedly instigated by Islam are propaganda measures meant to choke off inquiry into the causes of Muslim anger. President Bush's commission on public diplomacy noted in 2003 that in nine Muslim and Arab nations only 12 per cent of respondents surveyed believed that "Americans respect Arab/Islamic values." It recommended spending a few million dollars on ... propaganda.

Occasional mealy-mouthed statements by President Bush -- he of the "crusade" gaffe -- that "turro'rists" misrepresent Islam are undercut by his highest honchos. General William Boykin, undersecretary at the Defense Department, infamously stated publicly that when faced with a Muslim "I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol" and that America's enemy was a "spiritual enemy ... called Satan". His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, refused to condemn Boykin's statements, claiming, "We're a free people."

They would have all cued up at the mike to condemn as "virulently anti-Semitic" a cartoon showing, say, Moses with a Dimona diadem, holding aloft Tables that read "Thou shall expel/imprison/kill them and Thou shalt grab every hilltop, every village."

The Western media continue to focus precisely on what the cartoons sought to provoke: Muslim anger. Why the riots, the violence, the damage to property? Martin Luther King Jr, who knew a thing or two about the topic, said that riots are the voice of the voiceless. There is no powerful Muslim lobby to flex its muscles, to choreograph an organised protest, to corral advertisers, to threaten any given newspaper with financial ruin, much less to use the levers of government to demand the world's vigilance against the grave danger of anti-Islamism (the phrase anti-Semitism cannot be used by other Semites; it is occupied lexical territory).

There is, however, another kind of Muslim reaction in the CW: the repeated walk to Canossa of "Muslim community leaders" who are expected to publicly repudiate every incident of "Muslim violence" on the planet. They are what might be called "Muslims on parole". They express regret, disavow "terrorism" (the freelance variety, not state terrorism, which is a civilised necessity leading to democracy) and actually attempt to explain Islam to the viewer. It is a debasing exercise that serves to enhance the Western audience's perception that religion is the root problem; almost never does it touch on the real causes of anger among the millions who happen to be Muslim: oppression, humiliation, demonisation, occupation, expropriation of land and resources, ethnic cleansing, colonialism.

The ignorant arrogance, bigotry and immorality of the Islam bashers should not be downplayed but the propaganda that sustains it from the top cannot dissimulate the fact that the Western world's clash is not truly with Islam. The CW will clash with any people who: (1) inhabit a land rich in vital natural resources, notably oil, or coveted by land grabbers, or deemed a suitable strategic bridge for world domination; (2) reject so-called civilisers even when they bring the "democracy" gift; (3) have the temerity to contemplate trading in euros instead of dollars. Such people cannot avoid entering a collision course with the CW. They may be Catholic for all the good it does them. Ask Chavez of Venezuela. He also refuses to react properly when being kicked.

How Muslim of him!

The writer is a Lebanese political commentator.

Copyright: (Al-Ahram Weekly)