I get a bit wearily annoyed when I turn on NPR, hear a story about the ongoing reaction to cartoon representations of Muhammed, and hear a kind of obligatory explanatory closure to the news story that “Muslims oppose iconic or visual representations of the Prophet, believing them to be idolatry”. As if that explains anything. It projects backwards into history a blanket, generic statement about Islam and its relationship to iconic forms of representation that is roughly as simplistic as saying, “Christians believe in the literal truth of the Bible” or “Christians believe in the trinitarian divinity of Jesus”. Either statement describes some or many Christians, but not all, in the present. Either describes a common area of overlapping belief and debate within the history of the religion. They’re useful simple glosses of the religion, but not useful explanations for how Christians as believers manifest as a social or political force within particular contexts. Neither would be a terribly good reason to explain why, for example, some American Christians might have been found angrily protesting outside a showing of “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
Certainly the given religious logic of the attitude toward iconic representations of the Prophet within many Islamic traditions is almost actively contradicted by the riots and protests directed at the cartoons. What is that reaction but idolatry, the mistaking of the human, the temporal, for the divine, the elevation of Muhammed and representations of him to the level of God? Isn’t that one of the clearest and most unambiguous instructions within the Qu’ran and later interpretative traditions, to not mistake the Prophet for God Himself?
That is an argument which will convince no one, because none of this is really about the substance of a belief about iconic representation and idolatry. As is so often the case, those of us observing or following the news only see and worry about the people drawn into furious action, and casually mistake them for the whole. This point is sometimes made as a kind of banal scolding about the dangers or rudeness of stereotyping: I offer it as a much more straightforward and value-neutral sociological observation. You can’t know what people who do not riot or protest or offer furious denunciations might think or feel: this is true for all visible political action. Is it the tip of an iceberg, or is what you see all that there is? I’m part of a group of scholars who recently drafted a petition (on a completely different issue from what I’m writing about here). I declined to sign. It would be a mistake to see that as an opposition to the argument of the petition or even an aggressive opposition to the tactic. It’s more an ambivalence, a feeling of being perpendicular or undescribed by the available public stances taken.
The visible protests are, however, a social fact of serious import, whatever their relation to larger, less visible publics. Juan Cole’s injunction to Westerners to try and understand the extent to which many Muslim publics are working out a deeply historical sense of humiliation and ill-treatment is important. Derisively dismissing that structure of feeling as ill-founded, or suggesting that people just get over history, is about as useful as trying to talk about the actual meaning of “idolatry”. Anybody who has ever seriously participated in processes of negotiation knows that actively humiliating someone in such a process, or failing to take feelings of humiliation seriously, is a recipe for failure. If you’re going to block all avenues that allow a losing party to save face, you’d better be damn sure you’ll never need that person or that interest ever again, in any way. (As Cole observes, most of us figured this out while learning interpersonal dynamics in kindergarten.) If superficial unipower triumphalists haven’t yet grasped that American hegemony, like most hegemonies and empires before it, has serious capacity limits and depends very much on the grudging consent of at least some of its subjects, then they’re stupid enough that they deserve whatever consequences might be coming their way as a result. A pity that the rest of us will suffer as well.
However, the problem is that the story of the “clash of civilizations” is not just a story told by Western intellectuals or political leaders: a parallel version has its intellectual history within some contemporary Islamicist movements as well. We might protest that it is a false story, and in many respects it is. But it is now a persuasive narrative framing of some of the global conflicts we face, and as such, a structure of meaning that will continue to motivate and shape what is to come. Nor is it wrong to say, on some level, that “they” hate “us” for our freedoms, as long as we’re clear about which “they” is being referred to. A rioter in Afghanistan may be settling local scores, acting in local frameworks, and some Danish cartoons merely provide a sort of focal point, as did The Satanic Verses in northern Nigeria some years ago. In that case, it’s a mistake to see what’s happening as having much to do with global issues or “their” hate for “our” freedoms.
In other cases, however, what is being aligned against the publication of the cartoons is a fairly deliberate and in many cases consciously manipulated alliance between states and fractured publics in parts of the Muslim world, where a fundamental proposition is being offered: that states should have authority over cultural representation, that the public sphere and civil society are extensions of the state rather than separate from it, that the realization of a national and religious community can be achieved only with that melding of state, religion and people, and that what is most objectionable about the cartoons, deep down, is not what they represent about the faith of Muslims but their instantiation of a form of state-society relations that both vested interests and popular consciousness within some Muslim nations find ultimately dubious.
The vested interest part is easy to imagine a quick polemical response towards, but the deeper layers are harder to access, harder to see in transformative terms. In a parallel case, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that the deep inclination of some southern African publics to favor an indirect and conspiratorial understanding and framing of political causality and political speech is in my view an undesirable ordering of the political sphere. That takes me no further than having an opinion: deeply nested conceptions of speech, propriety, political power, and everyday understandings of causality are not readily substituted for one another. Habitus is not found in op-ed pieces or the fulminations of bloggers, nor swayed by same.