Beware Bigotry – Free Speech and the Zapiro Cartoons: Mahmood Mamdani

Text of talk on receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Johannesburg, 25 May, 2010

MAHMOOD MAMDANI, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

This text was sent to us by Sujata Patel

It warms my heart to see these flowing gowns. I congratulate you on work accomplished! For over a millennium, these gowns have been a symbol of high learning from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. Should anyone ask you where they came from, tell them that the early universities of Europe – Oxford, Cambridge, le Sorbonne – borrowed them from the Islamic madressa of the Middle East. If they should seem incredulous, tell them that the gown did not come by itself: because medieval European scholars borrowed from the madressa much of the curriculum, from Greek philosophy to Iranian astronomy to Arab medicine and Indian mathematics, they had little difficulty in accepting this flowing gown, modeled after the dress of the desert nomad, as the symbol of high learning. Should they still express surprise, ask them to take a second look at the gowns of the ayatollahs in Iran and Iraq and elsewhere and they will see the resemblance. Education has no boundaries. Neither does it have an end. As the Waswahili in East Africa, which is where I come from, say: elimu haina muisho.

Today, I want to talk to you about the core value of the liberal university, critical thought, not just any thought, but thought which dares to stand up to the dictates of power and to the embrace of wealth, even to the seduction of popular prejudice.

Yesterday, when I was in Cape Town, a friend gave me the week’s edition of Mail and Guardian. I went straight for my favorite section, the cartoon by Zapiro. To my surprise, Zapiro featured a cartoon of Prophet Mohamed, agonizing: “OTHER Prophets have followers with a sense of humour! …” I want to take this opportunity to reflect on times and places when humour turned deadly. Such a reflection should allow us to think through the relationship between two great liberal objectives, freedom of speech and civil peace. Since Zapiro seems to present his series of cartoons as a second edition of the Danish cartoons, I shall begin with a reflection on the original.

When the Danish cartoon debate broke out I was in Nigeria. If you stroll the streets of Kano, a Muslim-majority city in northern Nigeria, you will have no problem finding material caricaturing Christianity sold by street vendors. And if you go to the east of Nigeria, to Enugu for example, you will find a similar supply of materials caricaturing Islam. None of this is blasphemy; most of it is bigotry. It is well known that the Danish paper that published the offending cartoons was earlier offered cartoons of Jesus Christ. But the paper declined to print these on grounds that it would offend its Christian readers. Had the Danish paper published cartoons of Jesus Christ, that would have been blasphemy; the cartoons it did publish were evidence of bigotry, not blasphemy.

Both blasphemy and bigotry belong to the larger tradition of free speech, but after a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide, we surely need to distinguish between the two strands of the same tradition. The language of contemporary politics makes that distinction by referring to bigotry as hate speech.

Just a few weeks after the Danish cartoons were published, the German writer Gunter Grass was interviewed in a Portuguese weekly news magazine, Visão. In that interview, Gunter Grass said the Danish cartoons reminded him of anti Semitic cartoons in a German magazine, Der Sturmer. The story was carried in a New York Times piece, which added that the publisher of Der Sturmer was tried at Nuremberg and executed. I am interested less in how close was the similarity between the Danish and the German cartoons, than in why a magazine publisher would be executed for publishing cartoons. One of the subjects I work on is the Rwanda genocide. Many of you would know that the International Tribunal in Arusha has pinned criminal responsibility for the genocide not just on those who executed it but also on those who imagined it, including intellectuals, artists and journalists as in RTMC. The Rwandan trials are the latest to bring out the dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice.

To understand why courts committed to defending freedom of speech can hold cartoonists responsible for crimes against humanity, we need to distinguish between bigotry and blasphemy. Blasphemy is the practice of questioning a tradition from within. In contrast, bigotry is an assault on that tradition from the outside. If blasphemy is an attempt to speak truth to power, bigotry is the reverse: an attempt by power to instrumentalize truth. A defining feature of the cartoon debate is that bigotry is being mistaken for blasphemy.

The history of blasphemy as a liberating force is particularly European, not even American.

To understand the political role of blasphemy in Europe we need to appreciate the organization of the Church as an institutional power. Institutionalized religion in medieval Europe was organized as a form of hierarchical power, with an authority from the floor to the ceiling. Institutional Roman Catholicism mimicked the institutional organization of the Roman empire, just as the institutional organization of Protestant churches in Europe borrowed a leaf from the organization of power in the nation states of Europe.

The European example was not emulated in the United States of America. Though blasphemy marked the moment of birth of the New World, the New World was not particularly receptive to blasphemy. The big change was political: Puritans and other Protestant denominations were organized more as congregations and sects, more like voluntary associations, than as hierarchical churches. There was also a change in religious practice: the puritans shifted the locus of individual morality from external constraint to internal discipline, displacing both the Pope and the Scriptures with inner conscience. Pioneered by the Quakers, the Christ of scriptures became the “Christ within”. Unlike in Europe, religion in the rapidly developing settler democracy in the United States was very much a part of the language of the American Revolution and of the public sphere. The European experience has to be seen more as the exception than the rule.

And yet, the European experience is not without a lesson for the rest of us. It is precisely because of a history of opposition between organized religion and political society, and the consequent history of religious civil wars, that compromises have been worked out in Europe both to protect the practice of free speech and to circumscribe it through laws that criminalize blasphemy. When internalized as civility, rather than when imposed by public power, these compromises have been key to keeping social peace in European societies.

Let me give two examples to illustrate the point.

My first example dates from 1967 when Britain’s leading publishing house, Penguin, published an English addition of a book of cartoons by France’s most acclaimed cartoonist, Siné. The Penguin edition was introduced by Malcolm Muggeridge. Siné’s Massacre contained a number of anticlerical and blasphemous cartoons, some of them with a sexual theme. Many book sellers, who found the content offensive, conveyed their feelings to Allan Lane, who had by that time almost retired from Penguin. Though he was not a practicing Christian, Allen Lane took seriously the offense that this book seemed to cause to a number of his practicing Christian friends. Here is Richard Webster’s account of what followed “One night, soon after the book had been published, he [Allen Lane] went into Penguin’s Harmondsworth warehouse with four accomplices, filled a trailer with all the remaining copies of the book, drove away and burnt them. The next day the Penguin trade department reported the book ‘out of print’.” Now, Britain has laws against blasphemy, but neither Allan Lane nor Penguin was taken to court. Britain’s laws on blasphemy were not called into action. I want to point your attention to one issue in particular. Allan Lane was not a practicing Christian but he had internalized legal restraint as civility, as conduct necessary to upholding peaceful coexistence in a society with a history of religious conflict. To put it differently, the existence of political society requires the forging of a political pact, a compromise.

My second example is from the United States. It concerns a radio show called Amos ‘n Andy that began on WMAQ in Chicago on 19 March 1928, and eventually became the longest running radio program in broadcast history. Conceived by two white actors who mimicked the so-called Negro dialect to portray two black characters, Amos Jones and Andy Brown, Amos ‘n Andy was a white show for black people. Amos ‘n Andy was also the first major all-black show in mainstream U.S. entertainment. The longest running show in the history of radio broadcast in the U. S., Amos ‘n Andy gradually moved from radio to T.V. Graduating to prime time network television in 1951, it became a syndicated show after 1953.

Every year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested against the racist character of the portrayal that was the show. Giving seven reasons “why the Amos ‘n Andy show should be taken off the air,” the NAACP said the show reinforced the prejudice that “Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest,” that every character in the all-Black show “is either a clown or a crook.” “Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves,” Negro lawyers “as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession and without ethics,” and Negro women “as cackling, screaming shrews … just short of vulgarity.” In sum, “all Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.” But CBS disagreed. You can still read the CBS point of view on the official Amos ‘n Andy website which still hopes that Black people will learn to laugh at themselves: “Perhaps we will collectively learn to lighten up, not get so bent out of shape, and learn to laugh at ourselves a little more.” I was reminded of it when I read the Zapiro cartoon in Mail & Guardian yesterday.

The TV show ran for nearly 15 years, from 1951 to 1965. Every year the NAACP protested, but every year the show continued. Then, without explanation, CBS withdrew the show, in 1965. What happened? In 1965 the Watts riots happened, and sparked the onset of a long, hot summer. The Watts riots were triggered by a petty incident, an encounter between a racist cop and a black motorist. That everyday incident triggered a riot that left 34 persons dead. Many asked: What is wrong with these people? How can the response be so disproportionate to the injury? After the riots the Johnson administration appointed a commission, called the Kerner Commission, to answer this and other questions. The Kerner Commission Report made a distinction between what it called the trigger and the fuel: the trigger was an incident of petty racism, but the fuel was provided by centuries of racism. The lesson was clear: the country needed to address the consequences of a history of racism, not just its latest manifestation. Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, wrote about the Watts riots in his book From Ghetto to Glory. He compared the riots to a “brushback pitch” – a pitch thrown over the batter’s head to keep him from crowding the plate, a way of sending a message that the pitcher needs more space.

CBS withdrew Amos ‘n Andy after the long hot summer of 1965. The compelling argument that the NAACP and other civil rights groups could not make, was made by the inarticulate rioters of Watts.

Why is this bit of history significant for us? CBS did not withdraw Amos ‘n Andy because the law had changed, for no such change happened. The reason for the change was political, not legal. For sure, there was a change of consciousness, but that change was triggered by political developments. CBS had learnt civility; more likely, it was taught civility. CBS had learnt that there was a difference between black people laughing at themselves, and white people laughing at black people! It was like the difference between blasphemy and bigotry. That learning was part of a larger shift in American society, one that began with the Civil War and continued with the civil rights movement that followed the Second World War. This larger shift was the inclusion of African-Americans in a re-structured civil and political society. The saga of Amos ‘n Andy turned out to be a milestone, not just in the history of free speech, but in a larger history, that of black people’s struggle to defend their human rights and their rights of citizenship in the U.S.

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 civilizing and a rescue mission, a mission to rescue minorities and to civilize majorities. The colonizing discourse historically focused on barbarities among the colonized – 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 civilize 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 politicizing 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, stigmatize, 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 organized hate campaigns, whether as calls to action or as cartoons, with a sense of humour.

40 thoughts on “Beware Bigotry – Free Speech and the Zapiro Cartoons: Mahmood Mamdani”

  1. Mamdani’s position is fairly typical of a lot of Islamic “intellectuals”. The assumptions he seems to be proceeding from, are of course absolutely questionable: hate speech has been punished in the past (as in Nuremburg) – so it should be punished today (which is not true). On two instances legal restrictions were side-stepped and individuals, out of their own will, chose to retract “offensive” material – and therefore all individuals should do so (there is no reason for them to).

    And what’s with his bigotry-blasphemy distinction? Am I prohibited from saying anything against another religion just because it is not from “within” – and am I given full license to say what I want to about my own? Moreover how do you categorise non-practising members of religions, such as Salman Rushdie is? If a tag on my birth certificate can give me license to speak my mind or otherwise I am very sorry for the future of freedom of speech.

    “Hate speech” is a very diffuse tag. This covers abuses against cricketers of the opposite side as well as incitements to violence against the opposite sect. What needs to be seen is the EFFECT, both intended and actual, of a particular set of words. If they are of a nature as to create a public disturbance – not by being “offensive” to people but by turning one person against the other – should it be banned. Merely categorising a work as “offensive” can in no way amount to a justified restriction on the right to free speech. As Dworkin says, any government that takes rights seriously can never cite merely utilitarian goals as sufficient cause to withhold these rights.


    1. First, Mamdani is a legit intellectual, so we can dispense with the obnoxious quotation marks around “intellectual”. Second, the bigotry-blasphemy distinction is an analytic. You are not prohibited from saying anything by being outside a religion, you may however perhaps feel obliged to observe a principled silence. This is not a concern about freedom of speech, but the kairos of a speech act, i.e. the timeliness and appropriateness of a particular decision to open your mouth. It’s just a matter of taste, a matter of context. So stop hiding behind the facile defense of right to free speech, for it is nowhere near to being threatened. In a public culture where the garrulousness of the plebs is currency, perhaps we need a new debate not just about the right, but the obligation to remain silent in the particularity of a moment.


  2. Arani, you are of course entitled to your opinion but to label Mamdani an “Islamic” intellectual is strange, no? How can a person with a ‘Muslim’ name ever be secular, democratic or liberal. No, not even Mamdani!


    1. dear aditya
      may be idea wise your position is correct but its inherent essentialism discounts equiivocality., ambivalence and the pluralism , which human consciousness can knowingly or unknowingly follow . its is quite mechanical to
      deny the possibility of following secularism and Islam in one’ own life world . and it is to depreciate the inherent possibilities of having irreconcilable and contradictory world – view(S).
      i thought you are a good reader of human consciousness and shall poignantly address the phenomenon of mutually contradictory ideological positions in ones consciousness with much more compassion . I think you also know there are persons who follow both the negative theology and Islam simultaneously and don’t bother about irreconcilable absolutes . I know that you know that one may be schizophrenic in resorting to doxa(S).
      can we enter into a dialogue where we can address the irreconcilables in ones life world .


  3. My apologies – when I said Islamic I should have more properly said Muslim. Dubbing an intellectual “Islamic” would involve obviously more analysis than a single blog post – and to be fair to Mamdani his views are meant to be seen from a secular viewpoint.


  4. There is an other side to the so called islamophobia and that results in satanizing the west and USA.Mamdani does not even acknowledge its presence.I am not convinced by his arguments because he refuses to tackle the core issues on freedom of expression. Chruch did not like Da Vinci Code but it issued no fatwa against the author. One has to contrast this with the response to Danish Cartoons. Even today there are groups in India that protest against
    Rushdie visiting India. One cannot ignore these facts and hide behind islamophobia and lecture about western dominance. Criticising or ridiculing Jesus Christ is possible in the west and there is enough space there for Russels and Satres.
    Through his hair spliting arguments about bigotry and blasphemy he is trying to evade the issues.
    ‘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, stigmatize, and frame them’
    This is silly because feminists and human rights groups have addressed these issues without any nostalgia about Empire. He is clever by half.


  5. An excellent article which introduces me to a brilliant Mahmood Mamdani.

    However Arani rebuttal is valid too. The only problem is he has not understood the gist of the article.

    The point about the “Spark” and the “Fuel”. Its not about free speech, but about an entire society having a (historical) feeling of victim-hood.

    You cannot rationalise away a “Feeling”, true or untrue. It is, by its very inherent nature, an illogical being.

    I was a supporter of Draw Muhammed day till I read this article. Excellent clarity of thought and very

    A credit to Kafila.


  6. If hate speech should be banned then verses calling ban on idol worshiping should be banned in the first place.

    People saying that idol worshiping is evil is hate speech for millions of hindus.

    will the author agree to this view point


  7. Arani’s comment:

    The//… bigotry-blasphemy distinction? Am I prohibited from saying anything against another religion just because it is not from “within” – and am I given full license to say what I want to about my own? Moreover how do you categorise non-practising members of religions, such as Salman Rushdie is? If a tag on my birth certificate can give me license to speak my mind or otherwise I am very sorry for the future of freedom of speech.//

    Very thought provoking… I feel criticism can be disliked, protested against too but cannot be responded with violence or threats of violence or even bans.

    //“Hate speech”.. of a nature as to create a public disturbance – not by being “offensive” to people but by turning one person against the other – should it be banned.// I agree.


  8. A well argued and persuasively written statement; unfortunately, I find myself un-persuaded.

    The first disagreement. The blasphemy/bigotry distinction can be a useful academic device to understand particular situations, but is a dangerous and reactionary position in its political implications, specially when applied on the “world historical stage”. If I am outside a certain religious tradition, am I not allowed to debunk, attack, vilify and lampoon that tradition? I consider the entire human heritage as mine and for me every criticism, and more, on any human tradition is, to use that fashionable term, an “internal” attack. I have as much a right to denigrate Manu’s misogyny as I have the right to lampoon Mohammed.

    The second disagreement. It is necessary to keep highlighting, as Mamdani has done, the existence of the “fuel” (aka 500 years of colonialism) which ignites at the “spark”, specially in a context where imperialist mythologies are working overtime to normalise all the sins of the past. But the “fuel” does not explain the present anger expressed by Muslim fundamentalism with pictorial depictions of Mohammed. It is important to underline the fact that there are numerous traditions of depicting Mohammed within different Muslim societies and the present embargo on pictoral depictions of Mohammed is entirely, entirely a recent creation of Muslim fundamentalism. This point must not be forgotten, but unfortunately is, often.

    While Mamdani recounts the fact that Jyllands Postan did not accept cartoons of Christ for publication while publishing the Mohammed ones, he forgets to mention another, equally important story connected to this entire incident. The school board of Denmark wanted to introduce a course to teach children in primary school about different world religions. They wanted an illustrated book with short stories about different prophets and traditions. While they got illustrations for all religious traditions, no one was willing to draw Mohammed, given the recent killing of Theo van Gogh in neighbouring Holland. It was this terror at drawing Mohammed even for ostensibly progressive, at the least ecumenical, purposes which opened the political space for right wing papers like Jylland Postan to move in with an open contest asking whether there are any Danes left who would have the “guts” to draw Mohammed. A clear case as ever of the politics of reaction feeding off each others excesses.

    Here I would like to assert that the “Muslim” protest against the Denmark Mohammed cartoons were only nominally against the West. To accept the claims of Muslim fundamentalism as true is to delude oneself. When the angry young men stomp and burn the Danish and American flags in Delhi, Lahore or Cairo they are actually sending a more direct message to individuals within their own community that dissent and protest will not be allowed against the writ of the fundamentalists. There is no doubt that anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism contribute support to the contemporary politics of Muslim fundamentalism. But it will be wrong to forget that the primary focus of Muslim fundamentalism is not the West or any thing/body external. Like all fundamentalisms, the primary aim of Muslim fundamentalism is to discipline the ‘Muslim’ and in a particular manner. Neither the cause nor the sustenance of “Muslim” anger at the West/Christianity/America can be found in the “fuel”. How can one forget that just a decade and half ago, Muslim fundamentalism, or as most people say “Muslims”, were the strongest ally of imperialism?

    To use Mamdani’s unfortunate distinction, the ostensible protest against “bigotry” is much more a warning to “blasphemers”. The angry Muslim is much more likely to attack the heretic and heterodox near him than some distant Nordic cartoonist. Which is why Mamdani’s argument cannot explain the seamlessness of the attack on Taslima Nasreen and Jyllands Postan. Same time, same people, same anger, same politics…. what use is the distinction between bigotry and blasphemy here? There is much to be said about the political and social uses / implications of fundamentalisms, but all I would like to stress here is that we should be careful in (a) accepting, at face value, their claims of representing the community, and (b) remembering that fundamentalism has a clear, historically inviolable position with relation to the barricades of class struggle.

    The third disagreement. There are two points about defending freedom of speech. It has to be remembered that this right is absolute, while the necessary qualifications are historically contingent. Further, this right accrues to an individual and not to a collective (Millat/Party/Nation). As Rosa Luxemburg put it, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” This right is there to protect the individual from the collective. Mamdani seems to ignore this.

    The other point about freedom of speech, like with most other rights, is that it has been won by the people from the State in struggles against the ruling class – the bourgeois order. Today, some lazy Marxists can get away by terming these and other rights, “bourgeois”, but these are bourgeois only in so far as they are incorporated in the rights schedule of the bourgeois state. They are popular rights won by the masses against the ruling classes. The ruling classes have always countered the demands for such individual based rights to the “sensitivities”, “feelings” and “rights” of collectives, specially primordial collectives, precisely because they have understood, perhaps in a pre-theoretic manner, the radical edge to the rights demands of the people. The specific right to freedom of speech is a life-line for those who are fighting against heirarchy, privilege and oppression. It is a crucial weapon against reaction and it is a convenient tool for proximate ruling classes / elites to set up a clash between this and cultural sensitivities/feelings/ emotions.

    The failure to appreciate the radical origins of much of the rights, specially freedom of speech, makes Mamdani commit another error by putting a hard won political right (freedom of speech) on the same plane as a political programme (civil peace). For much of history, these two have been on opposing sides of the political divide and, usually, remain so today. The demand to curtail a right in the interests of civil peace is almost always a demand of the privileged and powerful against the upsurge of the oppressed and exploited.

    The fourth point of disagreement with Mamdani is regarding his examples of how curbs on freedom of speech are often appropriate. The first one about Allen Lane burning books which hurt Christian sentiments leaves me a bit perplexed. What that man did is totally unacceptable. We might as well go and burn all of M.F. Husain’s paintings to achieve “civil peace”. I just hope that I have not been able to comprehend the correct import of his example and will leave it at that, since if what I have understood Mamdani as trying to say is correct, then its a shockingly retrogressive position. One which we should reject unambiguously.

    The second example is also irrelevant with regard to the Mohammed cartoons. Mamdani refers to a talk show in the US where two white men mimicked blacks and made fun of them. That was not an attack on ideas and beliefs, it was an attack on, humiliation of, actual people. This just cannot be the same. Attacking living human beings, deepening prejudice against them which weakens their political and social positions is not the same as attacking an idea or belief, however similar they may appear to us. There is a basic difference which needs to be remembered, specially in times when the waters are so muddied. To put it in somewhat simplified, if stark, terms: the human being need to be defended against attacks, not a belief-system or its prophet.

    It is instructive that Mamdani ends his talk with a call to “Muslim peoples” to learn the right lessons. Who, or what, is that? The 1.1 billion strong global ummah which is the wet-dream of the Mullahs?

    The reason I have spent so much time to write out this response is because in Mamdani’s talk I have found an eloquent, persuasive expression of a purportedly anti-imperialist position which will, in my estimation, lead to the further entrenchment of fundamentalists within different Muslim societies.

    (one note: I have not yet read any of the other comments. hope i have not repeated points already made.)


  9. By starting the argument by labellling “islamic intellectual” arani has done psuedo damage. In his eyes anything islamic seems unacceptable and rejectionist.

    I am to wonder, how come “holocaust deniers” are imprisoned in every court of the world? Where does lies free speech? When hiroshima and nagasaki were eroded of its populace, that is not consdered as holocaust!!! When democratically elected govt of hamas is being rejected by teh world as terrorist governement, clearly the bigotry and hypocricy of free speech and hate vanishes


  10. @ Mohammed:

    As I said before, I apologize for my rather unwise use of the phrase, but would like to point out that no part of my comment contains anything remotely hinting that “anything islamic seems unacceptable and rejectionist”. I wonder where you got that from.

    If you ask for my opinion about the holocaust deniers I would strictly say that they, too, have the right to advocate their beliefs about the existence or otherwise of a historical “fact” – someone else is more than free to point out the errors in such a denial, since it wouldn’t take much to rubbish a dispute of facts. Imprisoning holocaust deniers is largely in my view a political message that governments such as Germany send to their Jewish populations and the rest of the world.

    Also note that imprisoning holocaust deniers has also attracted its fair share of free-speech-based criticism at forums as high as the European Court of Human Rights.

    At any rate, even amongst countries that criminalise it, holocaust denial is always linked to “incitement”, or “approval”. If you observe the language of the various national legislations ( you will find that in each case it is linked with “denies, supports or tries to justify” nazi actions.

    This was the basis of my earlier point about the effect of hate speech. As I said, merely deeming something “offensive” cannot be adequate justification for a ban. A ban is only justified when there is a possibiltiy of real hatred or xenopobia as the outcome of the deliberated set of words. When somebody justifies or denies that the holocaust occured, a part of the danger is purely in the offensiveness of the thought – but another part, more immediate to a government’s concern is the possibility of future racist or xenophobic attacks as the direct result of such a support or denial. It is to prevent this outcome that governments criminalise holocaust denial.

    Also, I fail to see how depicting the Prophet – which in my view does absolutely no harm to anybody’s rights – can be equated to denying that the Holocaust, which destroyed six million Jews, happened. The denying of the Holocaust is banned because such a denial would lead to consequences that would directly affect the human rights of these six million Jews and their families.

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were large scale killings as well. But they differ from the holocaust in their context. Firstly, the holocaust is a specific term applied to an event in history, much like the exodus or 9/11. The Japanese have their own unique word for Hiroshima survivors – “hibakusha”. Secondly and more importantly most American responsese to charges of genocide in Hiroshima centre around the fact that it was a war-time act. While that on no level justifies it (I personally would called the bombings Genocide since it was an attack on an unarmed civilian population) it serves to distinguish it from the pre-war policy of destruction Hitler adopted. For more on the status of the bombings see


  11. I’m curious, Adani, as to why, in your first comment, you characterize Mamdani as an “intellectual” rather than as an intellectual. Why, in other words, the quotation marks?

    In your second comment you retracted ‘Islamic’ and substituted ‘Muslim’ instead. Given, as you say, that his argument is secular, and is meant to be understood as resting on secular justifications, what do you think characterizing him as a Muslim intellectual adds to your reservations about his argument?

    Aniket Alam — You have, I’m afraid, entirely misunderstood Mamdani’s argument, which is surprising because it was, as you concede, straighforwardly written. The clearest tip-off is when you write “It is important to underline the fact that there are numerous traditions of depicting Mohammed within different Muslim societies and the present embargo on pictoral depictions of Mohammed is entirely, entirely a recent creation of Muslim fundamentalism. “


  12. From “Re-engaging Islam: a double challenge – Asma Barlas, Commemorative Lecture, Lisbon, Portugal, 22 June 2008”

    This pertains to the cartoon controversy revived recently by the re-publication of the cartoons depicting the Prophet as a terrorist. Surprisingly, many secular Europeans feigned surprise that Muslims would be so insulted by such images that some would respond to it with violence. I say feigned because it was just this reaction on which many people had banked to confirm their view that Muslims lack a sense of humor and appreciation for tolerance and freedom. The reactions of a few Muslims then became a way to portray not just the cartoonists but, the principle of free speech itself, as the victim of Islamic aggression.

    Since much has already been said on the subject, I will content myself with three points. The first is that egregious images of the Prophet also date from medieval times and have an older historical pedigree than free speech; in other words, such images were never contingent on the idea or practice of freedom. The cartoons are merely the latest in this series of images and need to be looked at within the context of a larger historical narrative than arguments about free speech allow. Although this narrative also includes some salutary images, the Prophet’s depictions have generally served as a foil for establishing European piety, innocence, reasonableness, and most recently, victimization.

    To medieval Christians he was the Antichrist, a heathen idol, the devil, Mahound (as also in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses), and an imposter; he appears in all these guises from the Crusades up to the Reformation. His depiction as an imposter during this period reaches its literary apotheosis in Dante, securing for him a place in the eighth circle of hell. Two centuries later, he appears as an Antichrist in Luther’s work who mentions him two dozen times in a single book, all in the form of demonization. Over a century later, the famous Dutch jurist, Grotius, declares him a thief. Contrasting him to Jesus, Grotius writes Jesus led an innocent life, against which no objection can be made. Mahomet was a long time a robber. Not satisfied with affirming Jesus’ innocence, Grotius goes on to declare that all Christians are innocent. They who embraced the law of Christ, [he says] were men who feared God, and led innocent lives . . . But they who first embraced Mahometanism were robbers, and men void of humanity and piety. This view of Christian innocence follows Grotius’ stern rebuke in the very same volume of Christians for their mutual hatred and bloodshed.

    From the eighteenth century on, as the figure of the Antichrist began to lose its religious moorings, so did images of the Prophet. By the Enlightenment, his critics could assail him in the new language of secularism. To Voltaire, he was the worst type of . . . fanatic, and to Diderot and Kant the greatest enemy of reason who ever lived.Even if these changing depictions say more about the changing European relationship to religion than they do about the Prophet, the point is that such Classically inspired secular images would endure over time, surviving the vicissitudes of religious and antireligious sentiment in the early modern and modern eras.The Danish cartoons clearly bear this out; they have simply put a contemporary political spin on medieval images of the Prophet so that he now appears as a terrorist rather than as the Antichrist; however in both these roles he occupies the same ideological location vis-à-vis the West. This is why framing the cartoon controversy simply as a free speech issue obscures and deflects attention from the cartoons’ genealogy.

    However, even if one were simply to focus on issues of free speech, the fact is that speech lends itself not just to expressions of dissent and critique, but also to assertions of dominance and enactments of power. If the exercise of power is inseparable from its display,then being able to represent power is essential to re-producing domination. To borrow an example from the antebellum U.S. (the period of slavery), domination depended upon demonstrations of the slaveholder’s dominion and the captive’s abasement.Something similar seems to be at work in the West today where free speech allows Westerners to re-present and re-produce their cultural and intellectual dominion over Muslims by desecrating our sacred symbols. It is as much to this willful display of power as it is to the content of specific attacks that most Muslims react angrily and what we condemn is not free speech but its use to demean and discipline us. One can certainly defend domination in the name of freedom, but those oppressed by such a view or practice of freedom would say that not all freedoms are equal or equally worth defending. Such a critique, it should be obvious, rests on rejecting not freedom or toleration but the West’s self-serving conceptions of both. My last point is that since the cartoons are neither humorous and nor ironic (they are not amusing because terrorism is not funny, and they are not ironic because most Westerners believe that Muslims are in fact terrorists), one must look to other factors to explain their entertainment value and function. Here I borrow from Saidya Hartman who argues that organizing innocent amusements and spectacles of mastery is a way for the dominant classes to establish their dominion. In continuation of what I have just said about free speech, I believe that the cartoons are very much spectacles of mastery. At the same time, they also evoke and reinforce intra-Western solidarity against Muslims produced by images of suffering at the hands of a common enemy. After all, parodying the Prophet as a terrorist can only resonate with Europeans to the extent that they are invested in claiming events like September 11, 2001 as their own.


  13. I dont know this response will apepar in Kafifa as there is a threat of moderation… Also earlier my friend Dileep Raj shared his terrible experience with Kafila on a similar discussion, that really gave me a picture of the undemocratic nature of this blog…

    I was given the following advice by one of the Kafila Moderators in another thread, regarding a response i.e. the part of a speech by Asma Barlas on Danisg Cartoon Controversy…

    “As the moderator let me also say that while I have passed your last comment, I shall not do so the next time. This is because it is not in fact a comment by you at all. Rather, it is at re-pasting of a long commentary on Islam by someone else”

    Why instead of giving a link to Mamdani’s speech that is avaialable elsewhere, his entire article posted here? I would like to ask is the right to paste the other authers is reserved only for the privileged?

    Interestingly though Asma’s speech was on free speech it was described as a commentary on Islam…


  14. Dear Afthab,

    Let me again clarify. There is no “threat of moderation” on kafila. “Threat” implies intention. There is moderation on kafila.

    And despite our “undemocratic” character we continue to post comments by you and your ilk. Read our archives, they are a testament to the fact that we rarely not pass comments. “Democracy” in your book seems to mean, “let me pointlessly meander on, and abuse you in the bargain”. Fair enough, it takes all sorts to make the world. Instead of whinging and whining about , in your case, the non-moderation of your comments (since every single one has been passed), try and focus on what is being indicated.

    My comment was a polite reminder that in a discussion it makes far more sense to direct people to resources, rather than replicating them here. Further, your pained references to “privilege” notwithstanding” I am not bound to explain to you why we posted Mamdani’s text. But I shall put you out of your misery, and do so.

    We posted Mamdani’s text because it was sent to us by someone who wished it carried in the light of the recent controversy over the cartoons. And we wanted a discussion on the text. We do not usually post full texts, this time we made an exception. Likewise, we posted Amitav Ghosh’s letter. We do this in order to bring something into discussion within the community of kafila readers. And in the comments space people share their thoughts and opinions. Yes of course it is always good to bring more resources into discussion, all i said was, please provide a link. I am not sure what you are reacting to so violently. If my initial comment seemed terse, it was because you had already, without any reason to, begun nattering on about “moderation” and “censorship”.

    And finally I fail to understand what your grouse is, because every single comment of yours has been passed!!

    So relax, join the discussion and stop taking your self so seriously :)



  15. In response to Afthab,

    In your articulate comment on the Danish cartoon controversy, you have raised an important point of using freedom of speech as a tool of domination, and i understand in certain ways it would seem like that, but my point is that if you think that followers of Mohammed are deliberately provoked by the westerners, who have deep seated and historical dislike for him (as per you), then muslims have reacted the exactly the way that they shouldn’t have.

    It reinforces the view that muslims are irrational, inherently violent and worst of all ‘have no sense of humour’ a la Martin Amis, I would just like to point out one thing which probably stems from my abhorrence of mob anywhere for any cause, when people see thousands of bearded angry man baying for somebody’s blood, they (westerners) immediately feel a sense of superiority of their own liberal ideals, which reinforces negative stereotypes.

    I think what people need are better ways to protest, as recent controversy in Pakistan on facebook/ youtube has shown. Having a better managed response mechanism to perceived islamophobic (an undeniably stupid terminology, how about budhistphobia or hinduphobia) provocations will be the best bet for the defenders of the faith.

    But may i suggest a better strategy, just ignore most of the provocations, they have no material impact on your life and shouldn’t in anyway make you question your own beliefs.


  16. Dear Abhishek,

    //if you think that followers of Mohammed are //deliberately provoked by the westerners, who //have deep seated and historical dislike for him //(as per you), then muslims have reacted the //exactly the way that they shouldn’t have.

    It is highly problematic to cleanly categorize mulsims and westerners as two clashing units and a awful amount of details have been written and talked on this subject… Islam is not non-western and west was never free of Islam as you think…

    But Muslim as a negative stereotype is not something “as per me”… The post was not mine but a quote from Asma Barlas’ work…But the details are documented in so much details elsewhere…Particularly interesting is the works of Iraeli Philosopher Gil Anidjar, especially in his works “Semites” and “Arab, the Jew: History of the Enemy”… He tracks the long genealogy of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe, starting from Medieval European Chistianity… He tracks the origin of the word “Semites” in the 19 the century church documents to denote the languages Hebrew and Arabic… He also demonstrate in detail after Primo Levi and Agamban’s “Remnants of Auschwitz” thefigure of “Muselmann” among survivors of the death camps, in Nazi concentration camps in the history of Muslim stereotypes..

    And what about the muslim response to the Cartoons… Again stereotypes
    are made and reinforsed not entirely based on a few muslim’s responses… It is a complex and invisible process and cannot escape the social agents and power configurations… What was the response of the Muslims all over the world on the cartoons? Was it all violent?

    I will end with a long Quote from Saba Mahmood (Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An incommensurable Divide?)

    “At the time of their initial publication, I was struck by the sense of personal loss expressed by many devout Muslims on hearing about or seeing the cartoons. While many of those Interviewed condemned the violent demonstrations, they nonetheless expressed a sense of grief and sorrow. As one young British
    Muslim put it:

    I did not like what those raging crowds did in burning down buildings and cars in places like Nigeria and Gaza. But what really upset me was the absolute lack of understanding on the
    part of my secular friends (who are by the way not all White, many are from Pakistan and Bangladesh) at how upset people like myself felt on seeing the Prophet insulted in this way. It
    felt like it was a personal insult! The idea that we should just get over this hurt makes me so mad: if they don’t feel offended by how Jesus is presented (and some do of course), why do
    they expect that all of us should feel the same? The Prophet is not after all Mel Gibson or Brad Pitt, he is the Prophet!
    I was conducting field research in Cairo, Egypt. While the demonstrations were muted this time, I heard similar expressions of hurt, loss, and injury expressed by a variety of people. An older
    man, in his sixties, said to me: “I would have felt less wounded if the object of ridicule were my own parents. And you know how hard it is to have bad things said about your parents, especially when they are deceased. But to have the Prophet scorned and abused this way, that was too much to bear!”


  17. To Aniket Alam :
    1. To the First disagreement: Human history has shown that not many consider “human heritage” as theirs. Bigotry and prejudice is the norm not the exception (Just stating facts for what they are). Hence this point is purely theoretical and not practical.
    2. To the second disagreement: Its True that the Present embargo is a relatively recent creation of Muslim fundamentalism. However this is irrelevant. “Fuel” does not attempt the explain the present anger of Muslims. It just observes that it does exist. You seem to have missed this point.
    3. Madani is not attempting to “explain” fundamentalism or feeling of victim hood. He’s just stating facts. Accepting that it exists (for whatever reasons) is of course a matter of “beliefs”. We can accept muslims are fundamentalists and act rationally, or accept muslims are fundamentalists and act irrationally by insulting them more, what would u choose?
    4. To the third disagreement: Madani does not disagree with your “right” to disagree. He reminds you of a rational line of action as against an irrational response (Though this does not appear to be his intent).
    5. To the third disagreement: Hard won “Political freedom” and “Political programme (civil peace)” go hand in hand. Do you disagree? If you agree, that is all Madani is attempting to explain. If you disagree, you are just an angry kid 
    6. He does not end his speech to “Muslim people” but to the people in the “Middle east”. Is “wet-dream of the Mullahs” one of your fears rather than Mandani’s hope?
    7. “Attacking living human beings, deepening prejudice against them which weakens their political and social positions is not the same as attacking an idea or belief”. People hit out when they are frustrated, shout when they are angry, and become violent when they feel helpless. Is this Rational ? NO. But does it make that any less TRUE? This is a theoretical point, rather than a practical advice.
    8. Capitalist & Imperialistic behavior is human nature. Fundamentalism comes have having in-equal opportunities for growth & development. This will always exist. That is called accepting reality.
    9. I am reasonable. You are unreasonable. All progress comes from one who is unreasonable. All the best.
    To Afthab Ellath:
    1. To the First Point: Lampooning Muhammed was historically used to denigrate Muslims. True. Free speech is used to denigrate Muhammed and hence Muslims. True. However This is irrelevant to the discussion.
    2. To the second point: Free speech is used to “demean and discipline muslims”. True. So What? What is the point? All things that can be “Potentially” used to demean muslims must be banned or killed?
    3. To the third point: “organizing innocent amusements and spectacles of mastery is a way for the dominant classes to establish their dominion”. True. So? Only the “Non Dominant” classes have the right to establish their dominion ? Foolish !


  18. All the religions have their share of bloody hand in killing people who has defended free voice and reason. The argument that outsiders should not be allowed to criticise other religion is being used more and more to thwart human rights. The differences between cultures are less significant than what we share. No human being wants to be tortured. No human being wants to be starved. No human being wants to be imprisoned without trial or reason. My identity can’t be bounded due to birth in Hindu, Muslim or christianity. Just as people there can – and should – oppose our crimes of my religion, we should oppose their crimes against innocent people. Whenever we think we are stopping someone from hurting our sentiments by curtailing their freedom of expression (right or wrong), we also empower someone (e.g. the government, extremists, or even religious leaders) to shut our own mouths.


  19. Everything is a matter of perspective. A muslim can be offended by pictures of Mahomet, but has no right to demand that other peoples respect him as they do. For me he is a historical figure from the global human heritage, so i am entitled to have an opinion on him based on what is known. As such there is absolutely nothing wrong with making fun of him. The fact that someone else considers him to be a prophet or a God means nothing to me. This distinction between bigotry / blasphemy is deeply wrong because it emanates from the recognition of the differences that the world is suffering from. There can be no such thing as half freedom. Peoples who dont recognize that right are the problem. I dont even understand how someone can be offended by a drawing, even less take a life for that. Lets agree on something the majority of the problems in the world today have something to do with Islam. I am not blaming anyone but there s something wrong somewhere. This is a seemingly brilliant piece, unfortunately the work of a narrow minded scholar.


  20. I think a simple illustration might suffice – Jews making Jewish jokes (a normal occurance) is funny. Right wing groups (neo-Nazis) making the same Jewish jokes are racist and anti-semitic.


  21. Ironical how such a staunch critique of the French government comes from Uganda which in its recent past has actively endorsed the open persecution and brutal extermination of homosexuals! If the French model of ‘Liberal Democracy’ displays one end of the spectrum of ‘governmentality’, Uganda’s own counter-bigotry, most conspicuous in its ‘Kill Gay’ bill (which received such overwhelming support in its parliament) portrays the other end…

    In these troubled times we need far, far more nuanced critiques and sensitive positions that are capable of empathy, towards all minorities, across religion, caste, gender and sexual orientation…


  22. The issue is being framed in terms of free-speech vs. anti-freespeech or restricted free speech. In other words free speech is being fetishized. Free speech or liberty can make sense only in a relationship with other two ideas of French Revolution- equality & fraternity. Liberty has become too important and it is restricting any debates and discussions and actions regarding equality & solidarity ( or some critical/political ramifications of the idea). We should not forget that Tom piketty is also a french and his book also talks abt rising inequality in France. Questions regarding Inequality and cultural discrimination cannot be wished away when we think about the more than a thousand French -Muslim young men who have joined the Isis.


  23. If gone by this article , then M F Hussain committed bigotry not blasphemy. Is it correct?? Instead of fighting the case & then self-exiling oneself in a country where even criticising the majority Religion is considered a “constitutional crime” , is not there any irony?


  24. Pingback: My Blog

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s