It is my belief that the publication of the Prophet’s caricatures was a golden opportunity for Muslims to engage in an open debate regarding the role of Islam and Muslims in the newly emerging European Union. It was a rare opportunity for them to come with constructive and perceptive analysis as to how and why certain prejudices against Muslims in the West persist in existence. They could have insisted on the fact that they are a part of European cultural identity, which owes them a great deal for its very existence. European culture as it exists today among its formative sources has a Muslim element which has in its early beginning had a constructive role to play in the formation of values which today are known as modern. Somewhere along the road the influence of Islam in modern culture has been reduced to the bare minimum. The publication of the cartoons was an opportunity for Muslims to forcefully come into the scene again and assert the modern values as core values of themselves.
The way the publication of cartoons was handled by the majority of Muslims was a total failure and betrayed an insecurity as to which modern values they hold dear. It is of little interest and significance to speak of democracy as being compatible with Islam when the democracy’s potential is deployed to the ends which Muslims find offensive. What is democracy if not the readiness to accept the right of the others to express their beliefs and ideas freely without being intimidated or threatened. The publication of the cartoons was a provocation, but then if there are no provocations how do we expect the common public opinion to emerge. The publication of the cartoons could have been read, provided Muslims showed good will and charity, as a positive sign. I read it as an invitation to Muslims to include them in the democratic processes of building a common European culture which is inclusive of all. It seems to me a bit far fetched to presuppose that the publication of the cartoons was an indictment of the whole Muslim culture. Muslims are a part of Europe. As part of its cultural identity they have an obligation as all other denominations to contribute to the formation of public space which mandates respect for the freedom of expression. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that there are and will be people who find some cultural expressions of other people troubling. They will challenge them as they should if they really take seriously other people’s culture and beliefs. Those who find themselves under some form of attack, whether real or perceived, bear the burden of rectifying false allegations and providing through the use of the public reason a better picture of themselves.
Muslims response to the publication of the cartoons did not even consider the option of providing a better picture of themselves. Their response seemed to confirm even more that Muslims were indeed not ready to engage in a public debate and seek to win over the public opinion to their side. They simply alienated themselves even more.
I think that Muslims handled the cartoon controversy badly but that does not mean that they haven’t come out better prepared for future misunderstandings. If we find the courage to view the cartoon controversy as an isolated incident which caught Muslims off guard, we’ll come to see that Muslims are as able as all other groups to constructively participate in the creation of values shared by all.
Why Muslims are so easily offended by every criticism directed at their religion? What kind of wound does such criticism at Islam touch? There for sure is some wound in the debate between Islam and the West. The problem is that we haven’t been able to locate and isolate the wound. It seems everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Some speak of an anthropological wound. But what is really an anthropological wound? I think the wound has been opened by the colonial encounter between the Muslims and the West. Muslims were brutally awakened from their dreams, to find themselves in the grip of an efficient and brutal western domination. This colonial encounter hasn’t been symbolized properly. When it has been attempted such symbolizations have been biased, unscientific and displaying some of the worst forms of cultural chauvinism and hatred of the West. As far as I know there has never been attempted an ongoing cultural purification of the anti-Western prejudices found in the Muslim world. That may seem a trivial issue but its importance is enormous. Muslims who live outside the Western hemisphere are bound to have contact with the West in one form or another. This contact could be facilitated by the spread of knowledge regarding the West. The West of course is not a single ontological entity. It is a diffuse sociological concept. In the Muslim world however the West it is still viewed through the ideological lens of of the 19th century, the West of Colonialism.