Beware bigotry: Free speech and the Zapiro cartoons

Published on Pambazuka, by Mahmood Mamdani, June 3, 2010.

Zapiro’s controversial cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohamed, published in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, prompts Mahmood Mamdani to ‘reflect on times and places when humour turned deadly’. Speaking at the University of Johannesburg, Mamdani explores the relationship between ‘two great liberal objectives, freedom of speech and civil peace’. Zapiro’s cartoon, Mamdani argues, has misread the real challenges we face today: The intellectual challenge of distinguishing between ‘two strands in the history of free speech – blasphemy and bigotry’, and the political challenge of building ‘a local and global coalition against all forms of bigotry’. We need to learn ‘how not to respond to a changing world with fear and anxiety, masked with arrogance, but rather to try a little humility so as to understand,’ Mamdani writes … // 

… Can we deal with hate speech by legal restriction? I am not very optimistic. The law can be a corrective on individual discrimination, but it has seldom been an effective restraint on hate movements that target vulnerable minorities. If the episode of the Danish cartoons demonstrated one thing, it was that Islamophobia is a growing presence in Europe. One is struck by the ideological diversity of this phenomenon. Just as there was a left wing anti-Semitism in Europe before fascism, contemporary Islamophobia too is articulated in not only the familiar language of the right, but also the less familiar language of the left. The latter language is secular. The Danish cartoons and their enthusiastic re-publication throughout Europe, in both right and left-wing papers, was our first public glimpse of left and right Islamophobia marching in step formation. Its political effect has been to explode the middle ground. Is Zapiro asking us to evacuate the middle ground as testimony that we too possess a sense of humour?

If so, Zapiro has misread the real challenge that we face today. That challenge is both intellectual and political. The intellectual challenge lies in distinguishing between two strands in the history of free speech – blasphemy and bigotry. The political challenge lies in building a local and global coalition against all forms of bigotry. The growth of bigotry in Europe seems to me an unthinking response to two developments: Locally, the dramatic growth of Muslim minorities in Europe and their struggle for human and citizenship rights; globally, we are going through an equally dramatic turning point in world history.

The history of the past five centuries has been one of western domination. Beginning 1491, Western colonialism understood and presented itself to the world at large as a civilising and a rescue mission, a mission to rescue minorities and to civilise majorities. The colonising discourse historically focused on barbarities among the colonised – sati, child marriage and polygamy in India, female genital mutilation and slavery in Africa – and presented colonialism as a rescue mission for women, children, and minorities, at the same time claiming to be a larger project to civilise majorities. Meanwhile, Western minorities lived in the colonies with privilege and impunity. Put together, it has been five centuries of a growing inability to live with difference in the world, while at the same time politicising difference. The irony is that a growing number of mainstream European politicians, perhaps nostalgic about empire, are experimenting with importing these same time-tested rhetorical techniques into domestic politics: The idea is to compile a list of barbaric cultural practices among immigrant minorities as a way to isolate, stigmatise, and frame them.

But the world is changing. New powers are on the horizon: Most obviously, China and India. Neither has a Muslim majority, but both have significant Muslim minorities. The Danish case teaches us by negative example. To the hitherto dominant Western minority, it presents a lesson in how not to respond to a changing world with fear and anxiety, masked with arrogance, but rather to try a little humility so as to understand the ways in which the world is indeed changing.

There is also a lesson here for Muslim peoples. The Middle East and Islam are part of the middle ground in this contest. Rather than be tempted to think that the struggle against Islamophobia is the main struggle – for it is not – let us put it in this larger context. Only that larger context can help us identify allies and highlight the importance of building alliances. Perhaps then we – and hopefully Zapiro – will be strong enough to confront organised hate campaigns, whether as calls to action or as cartoons, with a sense of humour. (full long text).

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