Huffington Post, Feb 7, 2006 by Gabriel Rotello
It's been a banner
week for Samuel Huntington. His thesis about an inevitable
"clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West was an idea
many progressives loved to hate, me included. But the so-called
'cartoon crisis' is forcing a lot of people to give his dire
warnings a second look.
been a bad week for thoughtful Islamic reformers.
If I read them
correctly, writers like Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam)
and Reza Aslan (No god but God) argue that Islam
cannot adapt to modernity unless it allows its followers to ask
basic questions and apply reason to religion. To do that, you
have to carve out a sphere in which it is safe to risk offending
the pious and committing so-called blasphemy. You can't do it
with a gun to your head.
Muslims used to
have such freedom. In its early Golden Age, Islam encouraged a
process of rational religious inquiry and debate called "ijtihad."
Those engaged in ijtihad could think and reason about religion
without fear of the blasphemy police. But about a thousand years
ago, Sunni leaders declared that everything about Islam and its
laws had been figured out. In one of religious history's most
ominous metaphors, they formally "closed the gates of ijtihad."
Piety was set in stone. As was blasphemy.
want to reopen those gates. Irshad Manji even proposes a whole
reform program called "Operation Ijtihad." But things seem to be
moving in the opposite direction. The great thrust of the
Islamic Reformation now sweeping the Muslim world is toward a
return to unquestioning orthodoxy, often enforced by the threat
In that sense, the
cartoon crisis is very bad news both for Islamic reformers and
for those in the west who would like to see them succeed.
It's bad news for
the reformers because the outpouring of outraged violence has
helped solidify the idea that to offend orthodoxy is not merely
to risk one's own soul, but to commit a crime. That should be no
surprise; in classic Sharia law both apostasy and blasphemy are
crimes punishable by death. But reviving that idea so powerfully
in 2006 hardly bodes well for free enquiry and rational
It's also bad for
progressives in the west because the reaction to the cartoons --
even by moderate Muslims -- implies that Islamic prohibitions
apply to everyone, not just Muslims. This is, by the way, a
fairly new wrinkle. Even the lamentable Rushdie affair could be
seen, at least in one sense, as a dispute within Islam, since
Rushdie was a Muslim. But the Danish cartoonists who have been
forced into hiding for committing an act of Islamic blasphemy
are not Muslims.
Many in the west
blame those cartoonists and their Danish publishers for
provoking the whole imbroglio. Former President Clinton called
the cartoons "appalling" and compared them to hate speech. The
Bush administration labeled them "unacceptable," while giving
tepid lip service to freedom of expression.
Maybe. But I think
we need to think this through.
Let's assume, for
the sake of argument, that the Danes were indeed out to provoke.
Bad, right? Sure. But the main Muslim argument against the
cartoons is not that they constitute provocative hate speech,
but that they constitute blasphemy; that it is forbidden to
depict Mohammed in any way, and that this prohibition applies
equally in Denmark and Dubai.
So let's also
imagine that sometime in the near future a serious western
scholar publishes a book that exposes major contradictions
within the Koran. Or a book that questions the authenticity of
many of the hadiths, the revered records of Mohammed's deeds and
words, upon which much of Islamic law is based.
This is exactly the
kind of free enquiry that sets minds free; the kind that Islamic
reformers pray for.
But such books
would profoundly offend orthodox Islam, which considers the
Koran perfect and Mohammed unassailable. So if such books
prompted protests and riots and death threats, where would
moderate Muslims stand? Would the US call such scholarship
unacceptable? Would Bill Clinton liken it to hate speech?
Maybe not. Maybe
the moderate voices of Islam were only offended by these
particular cartoons because their intent was to insult and
incite, whereas more serious and scholarly 'blasphemy' would be
But if that's the
case, they should say so loud and clear. Thus far they are not
So as it now
stands, the cartoon crisis has played deftly into the hands of
those who want to promote Huntington's clash of civilizations,
while dealing a serious blow to the reformers.
Indeed, with the
Danish cartoonists now in cowering in fear for their lives, the
forces of intimidation have already won. It's hard to imagine
anybody publishing anything that might offend pious Muslims in
the future, whether it's a snarky cartoon or a serious study.
Hiding from fatwas isn't fun.
Muslims can probably forget about reopening the gates of ijtihad
anytime soon. Instead, it looks like those gates may be closing
even here in the west.