by Sami Zubaida, Emiritus professor of politics and sociology, Birkbeck College, London (open democracy website)
Apart from the debatable wisdom, good taste or motives for publishing the offending cartoons, the episode does raise important questions. The denunciations of the cartoons are couched in wider demands: that we should all be bound by Muslim religious prohibitions regarding portrayals of the prophet, as well as showing respect.
In Egypt, which is supposedly a pluralist society with room for different religions and for secularism, Islamist demands have long amounted to censorship and persecution of cultural and scholarly expressions. A few years ago a European lecturer at the American University in Cairo was hounded from his job for assigning as class reading a chapter from Maxime Rodinson's biography of Muhammad, a piece of respectable academic history. A student found the portrayal of the prophet not sufficiently respectful and at variance with "orthodox" narratives, so complained to his journalist uncle, who, in turn, wrote an article, which led to a campaign.
The lecturer was sacked, Rodinson's book was removed from the library, which was also the cue for a censorship committee to review the contents of the library and jettison a number of books, including some modern classics of Arabic literature. All this with the full cooperation of the American university management: not a word of protest.
Also at issue is the extent to which the Muslim scriptures and prophetic narrations are to be considered part of world culture, and as such resources for literature, humour and fantasy. Salman Rushdie's offence was doing just that.
Some Christians and Jews may object to some of the uses of Biblical themes and characters (One is reminded of the "song of the laughing Jesus" in James Joyce's Ulysses), but their objections are usually within the realm of polemic discourse, and in some instances, litigation (always bizarre). Some Christian fundamentalists are now encouraged by the example of Muslim successes, as we saw in the case of the campaign against the BBC showing of Jerry Springer – The Opera. These are serious challenges to a secular and free society.
While sensationalised works of fiction, film or journalism in the west have aroused campaigns of outrage and violence, obscure works of scholarship on Islamic history have escaped notice. One wonders, however, the extent of self-censorship in all these fields, for an easy life. All the more important for political and cultural milieus to make a clear stand against these campaigns of intimidation, even when they are directed at expressions which one may not find worthy.