How to identify Islamophobia: Larry David, Danish cartoons, Rushdie, Hitchens and South Park

I hate to mention them twice in a row, and I really have no intention of picking on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), but I noted their recent statement expressing outrage at a new episode of Larry David’s occasionally brilliant HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which David is apparently depicted as inadvertently urinating on a painting of Jesus. The Christian American right is up in arms, as always (remember the whole Andres Serrano "Piss Christ" flap from the late 80s?), but why would the Muslim American right want to join them in this?

Well, for one thing, it gives them an opportunity to reinforce the little understood veneration for Jesus, although not as God or the "son of God," Muslims share with Christians but not with Jews, atheists or agnostics. So it’s an opportunity to show solidarity with the majority community over an issue of apparent sensitivity, and an understandable act of political opportunism that probably also reflects genuine Muslim religious sensitivities.

But there might be something somewhat more troubling at work here: that is a sense shared by both Catholic and other Christian extremists and the Muslim right that there ought to be a special zone of protection for religion and religious ideas in the public discourse in which satire, blasphemy and harsh criticism, even if it is in good faith, of religious ideas cherished by millions is simply out of bounds even in societies that cherish free speech and are constitutionally secular. The Organization of Islamic Conference is even trying to push this horrible idea, under the guise of a ban against religious "defamation," at the international level, presenting a vote at the UN General Assembly for November.

On his blog at the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg suggests that had Larry David inadvertently urinated on the Quran In his program rather than a painting of Jesus, he would be facing threats of violence rather than expressions of outrage. Internationally, there’s some evidence for that, but thankfully here in the United States no one has ever reacted violently (as far as I can tell) to satire or blasphemy aimed at Islam. But there have been plenty of misguided efforts to equate such perfectly legitimate if provocative and even outrageous speech, satire and blasphemy with genuine Islamophobia, which I believe is a very serious intellectual and political error.

Opposing efforts to stigmatize and spread fear and hatred of entire communities and promote bigotry and even violence is essential, and has been a major part of my own life’s work. Adopting, on the other hand, a puritanical, humorless, oversensitive and anti-intellectual attitude serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever, and can only stigmatize and undermine efforts to combat real hate speech. Moreover, the censorious position is almost always the losing one in the American context: one can demand and battle for fairness and against stigmatization, defamation and hate speech; but one cannot legitimately or successfully demand and battle for the right not to be offended, provoked or angered. This is a very important distinction that I think has eluded much of the Muslim and Arab-American communities to date, in which I think needs to be the centerpiece of any successful campaign to combat the Islamophobic and anti-Arab racist discourses that have become the biggest single problem our communities face in the United States.

There is an all-important consideration for those who would oppose Islamophobia with honor and with effect: it is vital to accept and put into practice a distinction between combating Islamophobia as a form of anti-Muslim hate-speech designed to promote intolerance and bigotry (which is a threat that must be answered in the strongest possible terms) and responding, for those who care do so, to serious if critical engagements with Islamic texts, doctrines and practices (which constitute perfectly legitimate interventions in public discourse).

To take an obvious case in point, Rushdie’s brilliant novel The Satanic Verses (Viking Press, 1988), which does engage in a kind of satire (although not a blasphemous one) of early Islamic history re-created in the mind of a degenerating mental patient, is not in any sense Islamophobic, nor would it have been even if it had been a blasphemous satire. Expecting all representations to be respectful is both unrealistic and inconsistent with free speech and free inquiry. Moreover, Ayatollah Khomeini’s outrageous and criminal “fatwa” against Rushdie and all connected with the novel was much more a source of, than a response to, Islamophobia. It was a cynical and opportunistic effort by a politician who had been mercilessly lampooned by a satirical novelist to both take advantage of a misguided firestorm of criticism against the novel to establish and extend his authority as a political and religious leader amongst those resentful of the West — particularly beyond his more typically Shiite constituency — and to take personal revenge for the marvelous and biting caricature of his own personality in Rushdie’s novel.

It still stands as perhaps the most repulsive, unjustifiable and inadmissible abuse of the natural impulse on the part of many devout Muslims to assertively respond to perceived Western denigration of Islam. Similar cynical efforts by political forces in the Islamic world to use the Danish cartoon scandal for political purposes are another important example of the abuse of these sentiments. Protests coordinated, if not manufactured, by the Syrian and Iranian governments against the cartoons were clearly intended to promote their “Islamic credentials” while antigovernment forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India similarly manipulated crowds and mobs in an effort to channel outrage to their own political purposes. It is imperative that those who would critique and resist Islamophobic discourse categorically oppose the misapplication of this term to respectable speech like The Satanic Verses and the cynical political manipulation of defensive populist sentiment among Muslims in both that case and the Danish cartoon issue.

A television cartoon satire such as South Park, which has mercilessly lampooned all major American religions on a routine basis, cannot be described in any meaningful sense as Islamophobic since it does not single out Islam or Muslims for any particular vilification, and therefore will not complicate or compromise the ability of Muslim Americans or the Muslim-American community to build a healthy, productive and fully-realized life in the United States. The same can be said of generalized critiques of religion such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: how religion poisons everything (Twelve Books, 2007), which subjects Islam to the same rationalist and skeptical interrogation as other major religions such as Christianity and Judaism. (Bill Maher’s terrible film Religiulous could be argued to have crossed the line, however, by being insufficiently fair, or rather quite detectably biased, in its framing of the relative problems facing various faith traditions and, as a fellow agnostic, I couldn’t imagine a worse advertisement for my own persuasion — so even in the world of satire and rationalism it is entirely possible to cross the line).

However, one cannot object to The Satanic Verses, South Park or God is Not Great without essentially holding that satire or rationalist critique of religions are impermissible. Opponents of Islamophobia, if they seek to be socially or politically effective and intellectually defensible, cannot allow themselves to adopt such an oppressive, censorious and ultimately inadmissible position. On principle they should not be inclined to try to suppress, or even denounce as repugnant, perfectly legitimate, albeit challenging or disrespectful, speech. These distinctions are more manageable in practice than they might first appear in theory.

To return to the Danish cartoons scandal, which originated outside the United States but had a major cultural impact regarding the discourse about Islamophobia in this country, the Jyllands-Posten images were essentially a mixed bag. Some of them were deeply offensive, portraying profoundly racist stereotypes of Middle Easterners and reflecting a very crude form of bigotry against Arabs and Muslims that can only serve to stigmatize the vulnerable Muslim communities now growing in countries like Denmark. Others are merely stupid. A few were actually interesting. In other words, some qualify as genuinely Islamophobic and others do not, and one ought to be willing to judge them each on their own merit and qualities.

To demonstrate how such distinctions might be made in practice, it’s worth considering a number of these cartoons individually. First, however, it is necessary to reassert that simply representing the image of the Prophet Mohammed is neither Islamophobic nor inimical to all forms of Islam. While Islam in the Arab world has generally considered representations of Mohammed to be unacceptable, lest it lead to heretical idolatry, this has not been the case in many other parts of the Muslim world. (And, one can argue that this prohibition of graphic representations of the image of the Prophet has actually resulted in more rather than less idolatry and fetishism of this mortal personage in practice, and therefore has had the opposite of its supposed intended effect).

As Wijdan Ali has pointed out, “There were many illustrations of the Prophet in early Mongol manuscripts from the Ilkhanid Dynasty down to the Ottoman period.” (see: Ali, Wijdan, “From the Literal to be Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Muhammed’s Portrayal from 13th Century Ilkhanid Miniatures to 17th Century Ottoman Art,” EJOS, IV (2001).) Ali notes that while a majority of Muslims consider figurative images of the Prophet to be “a taboo,” and a minority even rejects figurative representation of all kinds, nonetheless there are important traditions in the Islamic world of representations of Mohammed. Therefore, the mere act of representation itself, while it is considered by many Muslims to be a taboo, is not even outside of the scope of the range of Muslim traditions, let alone conceivably by definition a form of Islamophobia.

As to the the Jyllands-Posten images (for those who can bear to look at them, and I strongly encourage you to do so, so that we all know exactly what we’re talking about, click here [I don’t endorse anything at all about that page, its just a readily available archive of the 12 images in question]).

Some are plainly Islamophobic or anti-Arab by any reasonable standards. One features Mohammed with a halo that forms a pair of diabolical horns, clearly suggesting a link between Islam and demonic forces. Another is an image of Mohammed wearing a turban that that is also a bomb with a lit fuse, creating a generalized connection between Islam as a religion and terrorism that is a hallmark of almost all forms of contemporary Islamophobic discourse.

Most patently offensive of all, one cartoon depicts Mohammed as a stereotypical Arab male holding a gigantic dagger with two fully veiled women standing behind him peering out from their eye holes. A black strip of similar size covers his own eyes, creating an ironic symmetry between three figures. This cartoon combines many of the most damaging stereotypes in the Islamophobic canon. First, the caricature is less of Mohammed himself then it is a generalized racist portrayal of a generic “Arab male” with his requisite angry expression, violent countenance, beard, turban and dagger. Moreover, he is blinded by his own innate sexism and rage. It is an image that stigmatizes entire ethnic and religious groupings, and not a historical figure as such. Second, it reproduces the most negative stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women, featuring them as fully veiled, silent, in the background, and implicitly subject to polygamy. This image, taken overall, says virtually nothing about Mohammed as a figure, but rather is a fairly standard reproduction of the crudest forms of anti-Arab and Islamophobic caricature that can only have the effect of reflecting negatively upon large groups of living people.

Other images in the group are borderline, in which a case could be made that they have crossed some line, but are also plausibly defensible. The best example of this among the cartoons is an image in which an idealized, and rather benign, version of “the Prophet” is greeting a long line of suicide bombers arriving at the clouds of heaven with the disappointing news that, “stop, stop, we ran out of virgins.” The case could be made that this image links Islam and terrorism in an unfair manner, and many people have taken it that way.

However, the case could also be made that this is not in fact a satire against Mohammed or Islam in general (that is to say, mainstream Islam) – which in itself would not necessarily be Islamophobic – but rather a satire of the belief by some extremists that this kind of heavenly reward awaits those who would sacrifice themselves in some kind of misguided holy war. This obviously would not be about mainstream Islam, which makes no such claim, but rather the perceptions of extremists. The “joke,” such as it is, seems to be mostly about the large number of individuals, at the time of its publication fully on display during the Iraq conflict, who were willing to become suicide bombers (for the most part killing other Arabs and Muslims) for the most misguided reasons. In other words, it is entirely possible to read the message of this cartoon as, “suicide bombers, whatever they think they are pursuing, are certainly going to be disappointed."

Reader response is particularly crucial in the effect that this cartoon is likely to have on its audience: some may take it as reinforcing unfair negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in general, while some may understand it as lampooning an extremist fringe that is by all means fair game on these grounds. In the case of borderline speech, the default certainly ought to be sympathetic, and the burden of proof has to be on claims of Islamophobia. In order to be truly damaging, and hence truly objectionable, phobic speech cannot be multivalent, ambiguous or subtle, and objections ought to be reserved for what is obviously outrageous.

Some other images printed in the newspaper do not seem to be offensive in any meaningful sense. One of these simply shows a bearded man, presumably Mohammed, in what is presumably meant to be 7th-century Arabian garb, leading a donkey bearing goods through a desert landscape. Other than the observations that Mohammed was a man, and a man of his time, (neither of which any Muslims would disagree with) or the simple act of representing him, there does not seem to be any other clear message in this cartoon. Another shows an image of a bearded man with a turban with a crescent moon forming one side of his jaw and a star forming one of his eyes; a conflation of an image of Mohammed with the traditional “crescent and star” image often adopted by Muslim institutions. It is difficult to see any serious problem with that, silly and pointless though it plainly is.

Perhaps the most interesting image of them all shows a young, vaguely Middle Eastern looking man (without beard or turban) wearing jeans and a soccer jersey pointing at a blackboard, with the Danish words “Mohammed the Schoolboy, 7A” written next to the figure. The cartoonist, Lars Refn, appears to have played a double-joke on the newspaper, as the words written on the blackboard in Farsi have been widely translated to read “Jyllands-Posten journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” In other words, Refn seems to have been using the opportunity to mock the intentions of the newspaper while at the same time participating in its page caricaturing Mohammed. The joke in his cartoon, if any, is plainly at the expense of Jyllands-Posten, and not anyone else.

As this brief review of some of the different elements in the usually casually lumped-together “Danish Mohammed cartoons” demonstrates, it is not only possible, but necessary to carefully consider the specific elements of any instance of speech to determine whether or not it has Islamophobic characteristics – even if some of its elements, or, in the case of representations of Mohammed, its very existence – makes some Muslims uncomfortable. Moreover, perhaps the most Islamophobic, or at least prejudiced and deeply damaging, aspect of the whole “Danish cartoons” controversy was the assumption, common on both or many sides of the issue, that the rioters who violently objected to the publication of the cartoons somehow spoke for “the Muslims” of the world or were expressing some kind of majority sentiment.

Another important example of what might make some Muslims uncomfortable but which cannot be considered in any way Islamophobic is scholarship that examines early Islamic texts with a critical eye towards developing secular knowledge about the codification of the Quran, Hadith, etc., even when proven to be erroneous. Books and articles critiquing some doctrines that really are believed in by many Muslims regarding, for example, the status of women in society, or various indefensible practices in some Muslim societies, are not, in most cases, Islamophobic. All of these are legitimate, respectable commentary, and the best way to engage them is to subject them to serious scrutiny and nuanced debate.

It ought to be entirely possible, even though the task is subjective and value-laden, to generally distinguish between expressions designed to investigate, study and challenge, or even lampoon, Islam and the attitudes and behavior of Muslims one the one hand, and those that egregiously seek to denigrate them in order to promote fear and hatred on the other. Similar judgments are made all the time about commentary and public interventions regarding other racial, ethnic, sexual and religious minorities. Of course there will always be differences of opinion, but more often than not agreement and a consensus position among those of good will who are committed to both tolerance and free speech can be found. It is not that difficult, once the distinction is accepted on all sides, to distinguish between speech that is intended or inevitably will have the effect of being hateful and malevolent versus speech that is within the bounds of respectable discourse, even if it is offensive to some.

In holding people to account for Islamophobia, one cannot imply that others must always be nice or speak well of to Islam and the Muslims. It cannot mean that some or even many people should never be disturbed or offended by speech, or that speech cannot be provocative and challenging. Those who would challenge Islamophobia, cannot come across as calling for the de facto censorship of speech some find disturbing or offensive. In the United States, a censorious position is, and should be, the losing position. In addition, recent experiences with speech codes and other forms of censorship suggest that any restrictions on free speech will be enforced first on the powerless and marginal and not on dominant forms of discourse emerging from the mainstream even if they are reckless, irresponsible and indefensible. Efforts by some feminists to restrict certain forms of pornography in recent decades in the United States and Canada illustrate both points decisively.

Obviously, in a free society and in light of the first amendment, there will be forms of speech that many Muslim-Americans don’t like that will have to be tolerated and cannot automatically or accurately be called “Islamophobic” if the term is to have any effective political meaning in our society. There will be blasphemy, satire, apostasy, challenges to the tenets of the faith or aspects of collective or individual Muslim behavior from commentators, politicians, scholars, adherents of other religions, secularists and others. Unless these cross some narrowly defined red lines, such speech should be challenged and rebutted by those who disagree with or disapprove of it, but not be denounced as bigoted or stigmatized as incompatible with basic standards of decency in public discourse.