The Cartoon Jihad: 'Satanic Verses Taught us a Lesson'

In her work as a social anthropologist, Professor Pnina Werbner of Britain's Keele University, has written extensively about the "Satanic Verses" affair and the tumult Salman Rushdie's novel created between western and Muslim cultures. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE she compares the greatest literary debate of our time to the outrage over Danish caricatures of Muhammad.

Werbner on "Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie: There is a difference between a novel of great merit and cartoons of little merit."
REUTERS

Werbner on "Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie: There is a difference between a novel of great merit and cartoons of little merit."

SPIEGEL ONLINE:

How does the current outrage over the Danish cartoons compare to the uproar in the Muslim world over Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses"?

Werbner: There are some lessons (the British) learned from "The Satanic Verses" that I'm afraid others in Europe still need to learn. One of them is the simple lesson that blasphemy is a double-edged sword. If the intention is to critique Islamic radicalism, that aim has certainly not been achieved by the Danish cartoons because it is the radicals who have benefited from the fact that passions are inflamed. If the intention on the Muslim side is to censure authors or writers, that too fails. Calls for the death of the writer in the "Satanic Verses" affair created enormous publicity for the novel. Indeed, Rushdie became a very wealthy man as a result of the affair. But there was no gain on either side in terms of reaching mutual tolerance or understanding. The novel just inflamed peoples' feelings -- Muslims felt they had been disrespected and their feelings disregarded. If Rushdie was seeking to create a more enlightened Islam, he certainly didn't achieve that goal with his book -- (Muslims) did not and could not understand the complex meanings of the book. The Satanic Verses affair taught people in Britain a lesson about the depth of religious feelings among Muslims. Although the affair died down, it remains an underlying, painful memory for British Muslims even today. 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: After the publication of "The Satanic Verses" in the 1980s, a book store was bombed and the Japanese translator was murdered. Now we have groups of people boycotting goods, protesting violently, and burning down buildings in response to a set of caricatures.  What explains these vehement reactions?

Werbner: I don't think this is simply a response to blasphemy, although it is true that according to Islam it is prohibited to reproduce images of the Prophet. The crucial point is that the Prophet has been depicted as an aggressive terrorist and the cartoons vilify and mock him. This was also at the heart of the Rushdie affair, the supposed attack on the Prophet. Muslims regard Muhammad as the perfect man. He is believed to be flawless, he emanates light and grace. For Muslims, he was in his life as close to perfection as any human being could get, and only modernist interpretations are willing to concede that he was any way imperfect. He is treated with great veneration. Indeed, for many Muslims who follow Sufi traditions he is still alive. Rushdie's novel depicted the Prophet as as great man, but nevertheless a real man, full of base desires and passions. That offended Muslims who were not interested in the complex symbolic interpretation of the novel. Nevertheless, the Satanic Verses was in many ways a great novel. It had artistic value in its own right. There's a difference between a novel of great merit, seen within a particular western tradition of novel writing, and a series of cartoons that are in many ways trivial, have little artistic merit and are deliberately provocative and gratuitous. The Danish caricatures, although perhaps entertaining to non-Muslims, made banal points about Islamic terror and the status of women in Islam.  

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But at the core of both controversies is a debate about the right to free speech.

Werbner: Perhaps, but there is a big difference between the two events. Rushdie, who was born in India, wrote his book at a time when peoples' freedoms in Iran were under threat because of the Iranian revolution and after General Zia had seized rule in Pakistan in a military coup and was threatening hard won freedoms with his Islamic reforms. Rushdie feared the consequences for intellectuals within the Muslim world of the rise of the Islamists. Freedom of speech was genuinely under attack. I don't see that the Danish cartoonists had any real sense that their freedom of speech in Europe was being threatened. Even if an artist had failed to find someone to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals, this does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech. It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

During the Rushdie affair, there was also a major discussion about the limits of freedom of speech. The debate made it clear that despite our invocations of freedom of speech, even in the West freedom of speech is not absolute. After all, limits are set on pornography, for example. Freedom of speech today is to a large extent exercised through self-censorship -- not only through legislation, but by commercial interests, such as newspapers and publishing houses. They constantly make decisions about what should or shouldn't get publicized -- partly in response to audiences, partly in response to commercial interests, partially in response to the sensibilities of their viewers or readers. You can say what you like in the privacy of your own home, but if you try to get it published, to get your voice heard in public, you will find that your opinions may be unacceptable for purely commercial or pragmatic reasons.  

In attempting to placate Muslims, you could try to argue that these cartoons are making a serious point -- not so much about freedom of speech, but about the way some Muslims are currently interpreting Islam. You could argue that the artists are trying to say, "there are people in your community who are commiting suicide in the name of Islam, who have hijacked Islam for their own purposes." But trying to make that valid point by depicting a bomb-wearing Muhammad is an unnecessarily offensive way of doing so.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should there be legal limits to free speech such as Tony Blair's recently failed legislation that would have banned religious hate speech? Some say the law in its original form might have made it illegal to satirize religions.

Werbner: I don't think there should be legislation against blasphemy, religious offense or religious hatred. It is a matter of having some kind of voluntary understanding -- one that says that the price one pays for a sort of entertaining bit of journalism is not worth it because there are people who will feel genuinely offended. It is difficult for us Westerners with our secular upbringing to understand and sympathize with the depth of feeling of believers. Their passionate belief is puzzling and alien to us. But we have to understand that, precisely because ordinary Muslims are also deeply offended, for that reason such apparently light-hearted satire will play into the hands of the extremists, the very people whom these cartoons were meant to criticize. They are the ones who are benefiting most from the cartoons. For them, this is a huge PR coup, which enables them to recruit young people to the radical cause of Islam. In this sense the publication of the cartoons has backfired and that, I think, is the real indictment of the cartoonists. They've mobilized people all over the Muslim world against the West.

This is what I mean when I say that blasphemy is a double-edged sword. Britain learned its lessons from the "Satanic Verses" affair. That is why you find that no newspaper in Britain has published the cartoons and why even British Muslims themselves have criticized publicly the verbal violence of a small minority of Muslim extremists in Britain as being unrepresentative of the community.

Interview conducted by Susan Stone.

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