Krista's Journal: Our Questions, Our Dilemmas

February 16, 2006

I first interviewed Vincent Cornell in the fall of 2004, when the news was full of kidnappings and beheadings as well as a deadly school siege perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in Chechnya. I wanted to speak with him again this week to peer across the chasm that has marked reactions to the Danish cartoons. Vincent Cornell's point of view is thoroughly Western, yet he is steeped in Islam's rich intellectual and spiritual tradition and is esteemed in global Islamic circles. In recent years and again in recent weeks, he has watched world events with a sense of religious and personal grief.

I knew that Vincent Cornell would decry the violence that has left embassies burned and protesters and security personnel wounded and dead. Violence is a betrayal of the very core of Muslim faith, he insists. But as soon as we began to speak — and this I did not expect — Vincent Cornell wanted to explain to me why the cartoons were deeply offensive to a moderate and intellectual Western Muslim like him. He spends the first part of this program describing four of these images. He points out details and symbolism that I simply could not see, with non-Muslim eyes, when I sought them out on the Internet. We have reprinted these four cartoons on our Web site this week alongside Cornell's descriptions of their nuance, his explication of their power to offend and inflame.

Cornell does, in fact, consider the cartoons — which he prefers to call "caricatures" — to be provocative images, meant to arouse and incite. If they had depicted Osama bin Laden, or a Muslim cleric in Denmark or elsewhere, he says, they would not have sparked such reaction. In talk shows last week, the most compelling analogies I heard about images that might incite protest and violence in our culture were racial rather than religious. As I listened to Vincent Cornell describe the love and admiration Muslims feel for the figure of the Prophet Muhammad — as a "paradigm of humanity in general, an exemplar of human behavior, an exemplar of virtue" — I began to understand that these caricatures could be seen to insult Muslims at the core of their identity and being.

Over a year ago, Cornell described to me a Muslim world on edge — from fault lines that have been building since the rise of Wahhabism in the 18th century, to the lingering wounds from a century of colonialism in virtually every majority Muslim culture. In the intervening months, Muslims' sense of being on the losing side of modernity has intensified with the ongoing war and chaos in Iraq, cultural clashes in Western Europe, and scandals like Abu Ghraib. At the same time, many Muslims feel betrayed by social inequities and political shortcomings in their own countries, Cornell points out, and social justice agendas fueled recent Islamist victories in Egyptian, Iranian, and Palestinian elections.

Given this state of the world we inhabit, Cornell insists, the Danish "cartoons" were tantamount to shouting fire in a crowded theater. Paradoxically, too, they played directly into the hands of the extremist Islam they purported to satirize. Violent leaders who propagate what Cornell calls a "radically superficial" version of Islam welcome and need such images to support their teachings that Western culture is incompatible with Islam, is indeed out to destroy Islam.

Returning to the image of the Prophet, Cornell describes how his moral example is critical as Islam undergoes a reformation. The Christian reformation — and the periods of fanaticism that preceded and followed it — was marked by bloodshed. But the Spanish Inquisition was not televised, nor were its atrocities available for viewing on the Internet. The "terrorizers" of the Thirty Years War did not have modern travel, communications, and weaponry at their disposal.

And so, in a very basic sense, the questions and dilemmas facing Islam address all of us. They are our questions, our dilemmas, as well. Vincent Cornell challenges himself and his fellow Muslims to examine their own shortcomings and to creatively rebuild and modernize the best of Islamic tradition. He leaves me to wonder how non-Muslims can support this challenge. The questions he poses cut against deeply ingrained Western civic assumptions, but perhaps we must ponder them nevertheless. In a pluralistic society, where does freedom of expression end and moral responsibility towards the other begin? How can we in the West proactively reckon with the dehumanizing legacies of colonialism, some of which are only now unfolding? Can we find concrete ways to reconcile this history together with the 1.2 billion Muslims who are members of our societies and with whom we share the world?

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is Professor of History and Director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas.