Little Red Blogger

This blog looks at radical politics(with a libertarian socialist slant), music and culture. Marx to Mises, Girls Aloud to Steve Reich...

Location: Wiltshire, United Kingdom

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Europeans are From Mars, Muslims from Venus: How we Get the Islamic World Wrong part I

While watching the whole controversy over the Danish Muhammad cartoons evolve the reaction of the various different progressive factions within the western left has been interesting to observe. Aside from the typical internecine spats that the left is so good at one must look at the underlying issues behind the irruption of rage and the resultant counter-reaction by western ‘liberals’, old skool conservatives and the ‘decent’ left(Oliver Kamm and his ilk). What has been extant is the paucity of knowledge displayed by both left and right on Islam and its relation to Prophet Muhammad

The original offence was caused by the Danish paper publishing the cartoon depicting Prophet Muhammad as having a bomb in his turban. Muslims would of course find this offensive and the typical commentariat line taken on this is that it offends Qu’ranic injunctions about making images of the divine along with similar religious taboos. Western commentators do however miss another reason why Muslims would find this cartoon so offensive. Islamic culture has two main traditions for the transmission of religious and theological knowledge that of the Qu’ran and it’s surrounding exegesis and that of the Hadith. The Hadith are the collecting sayings and actions of the Prophet, at first transmitted orally and then written down and checked for their veracity.

The Hadith can in some respects be seen as analogous to the New Testament within Christian tradition. So what I can hear you asking do the Hadith have to do with the flare-up over the Danish Muhammad cartoons? Ordinary Muslims like their Christian counterparts have many different spiritual traditions some esoteric and based on mystical ritual(see the Sufis and Miester Eckhart), others more legalistic/philosophical i.e Augustine and the Islamic practitioners of Kalam. Both the philosophical and mystical sides of these religions tend to be elite projects; the ordinary believer will tend to evolve their own form of piety and relation to the overall mythos, a kind of ‘folk’ spirituality that identifies them with their religious tradition.

This ‘folk’ spirituality can be seen in Catholic devotion to certain saints and in Islam to Muslims focus on the life and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet Muhammad to many Muslims is to adapt a Shi’a phrase an ‘object of emulation’, thus if a Muslim was considering whether to perform a certain action first he may consult the Qu’ran and then the Hadith to see what Prophet Muhammad did in a similar situation. Emulating Prophet Muhammad for the ordinary Muslim is a way of expressing and acting out their spirituality. This perhaps explains why the Danish cartoons provoked such a strong reaction amongst ordinary Muslims. By insulting and caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad it is by implication an insult to the ordinary Muslim believer and the way he or she conducts their life.

The Danish cartoonists evidently did not consider how Muslims would react to these cartoons. They did not think how their depictions would be perceived by ordinary Muslims and had no appreciation of the wider cultural context in which these images would be received. This would seem to point to the Danish cartoonists giving no thought as to how easily images may be spread round the globe these days. Also like many of the liberal commentariat they gave no thought to how the West is perceived in the Islamic world and how this might affect how these cartoons would be received.

In part II of this post I’ll be looking at issues of free speech relating to the publication of the cartoons.