* * Search the Gazette
Harvard shieldHarvard University Gazette Harvard University Gazette
* Harvard News Office | Photo reprints | Previous issues | Contact us | Circulation
Current Issue:
February 23, 2006

News, events, features

Latest scientific findings

The people behind the university

Harvard and neighbor communities

Scores, highlights, upcoming games

On Campus
Newsmakers, notes, students, police log

Museums, concerts, theater

Two-week listing of upcoming events

Subscribe  xml button
Gazette headlines delivered to your desktop




Taking part in the Divinity School panel on Feb. 17 were Jocelyne Cesari (from top), Shahab Ahmed, Leila Ahmed, and Baber Johansen. Cesari and Shahab Ahmed also participated in the Feb. 21 Kennedy School panel reviewing the events following the publication of the Danish cartoons. (Staff photos Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

HDS panel primarily sees European 'Islamophobia,' not First Amendment issue

By Bob Brustman
Harvard News Office

Shahab Ahmed
Shahab Ahmed
Members of a panel convened at the Harvard Divinity School on Friday (Feb. 17) believe that the Danish Muhammad cartoons were published as a deliberate insult to Danish Muslim immigrants.

With virtually no dissent among them and little discussion of the worldwide protests, the panelists placed the publication of the cartoons within the context of European "Islamophobia." "It's not a coincidence that this started in Europe," said Jocelyne Cesare, visiting assistant professor of Islamic studies and research associate with Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "European Muslims are facing, on a daily basis, different levels of discrimination and they feel that Islam is mistreated in the public space."

The alleged discrimination against European Muslim immigrants was a recurring topic during the 90-minute discussion, or, as panelist Shahab Ahmed put it, "It's all about power: relative power and the relations of power." Shahab Ahmed is an assistant professor of Islamic studies in the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations. "This is a controversy that began in Western Europe in the context of Muslim immigration into Europe, which is a context defined by relations of power - in this instance, relations of power between immigrant communities who, in Northern Europe, tend to be working class or lower working class, and the European society they have entered.

Also in this issue:

  • KSG group says violence over cartoons result of 'frustration'
  • Saudi ambassador addresses Kennedy School forum
  • "If one can present a broad-brush characterization of the dominant European attitudes toward Muslim immigration," Shahab Ahmed claimed, "it is an attitude that Muslims must learn how to fit into Europe, and that fitting in involves effectively a negation of any specific Muslim identity."

    Baber Johansen, professor of Islamic studies at Harvard Divinity School, said, "Referring to terrorist crimes and, at the same time, using them to justify the Danish immigration policy, the Jyllands Posten chose to identify the Muslim prophet with a terrorist, thus identifying Islam as a religion preaching violence, and Muslims as violent actors. It is a clear case of the majority identifying a religious minority of immigrants in its totality as being terrorist qua religion." Johansen argued that while the Muslims were clearly justified to protest against these cartoons, they should not have tried to mobilize the Arab states in order to enforce a punishment of the Danish journalists, but rather should have responded to them in the Danish press and courts and in peaceful manifestations pointing out the "fallacies transported by the cartoons."

    Leila Ahmed
    Leila Ahmed

    Johansen underlined that the 16 Arab ministers who, according to press reports, asked the Danish government to punish the journalists for the cartoons, displayed a profound ignorance of the applied Danish press law and the constitutional rights of Danish citizens and that "the consequences of this conflict on the freedom of opinion in the Muslim world and in Europe are unpredictable, if it continues to be led on the level and in the forms that it took over the last weeks."

    Leila Ahmed, Thomas professor of divinity at HDS, asserted that the controversy centered on the use or abuse of power. "This is not a clash of civilizations, or of religious vs. secular values, or of freedom-of-speech vs. blasphemy," she said. "But rather whether freedom of speech was being used, whether deliberately or naively, as a pretext to insult." It was, she said, about "who has the power to speak about whom, and having that power to insult whom."

    Shahab Ahmed added, "To my mind, the Danish newspaper or any other newspaper has an absolute right to publish these cartoons. The question is whether they have the responsibility not to do so, and that is an ethical question."

    Baber Johansen

    The cartoons, consisting of 12 representations of the prophet Muhammad, first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. Since then, other newspapers, mostly in Europe, have reprinted the pictures, asserting their news value and the right to freedom of expression. Worldwide protests, sometimes violent, have resulted.

    Some Muslims object to the images because they believe that Islam forbids representations of Muhammad; others are simply offended by the cartoons, one of which pictures Muhammad wearing a bomb on his turban.

    Related stories:

  • American Muslims expound on diversity

  • The Big Picture:
    Tissa Hami, comedian

  • Muslims gather for regular Friday prayer

  • Harvard's Muslims grieving, wary:
    Backlash causes concern but no serious incidents

  • Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College