Campus & Community

KSG group says violence over cartoons result of ‘frustration’

4 min read

The rioting across the Islamic world over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad results from a deep well of frustration felt by Muslims that will very likely boil over again even after the cartoon furor fades, according to panelists at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Tuesday (Feb. 21).

While the insult Muslims felt from the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad is real, panelists noted, the riots also reflect Muslims’ feelings of powerlessness in authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, those regimes’ powerlessness on the international stage, and the unequal treatment of Muslim immigrants in Europe.

“We have nothing to contribute but labor,” said Shahab Ahmed, assistant professor of Islamic studies, summing up his view of European opinion of Muslim immigrants and what he termed their “cultural baggage.” “Restaurants are OK, mosques are a bit dodgy, and headscarves are a very bad thing.”

Ahmed was one of four Harvard faculty members in the panel discussion of the cartoon controversy at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

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Moderated by Joseph Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor and Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, the panel included Ahmed; Visiting Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard Divinity School Jocelyne Cesari; the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and public life at the Kennedy School; and Frederick Schauer, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at the Kennedy School.

Speakers suggested that the setting for the controversy was complex, making the situation difficult to fully defuse. While the dispute, panelists asserted, appears to be a simple face-off between the Western right to free speech and the traditional Islamic reverence for the Prophet Muhammad, the story is far more complicated.

Muslims’ feelings of powerlessness are only exacerbated by the uneasiness with which they are viewed by majority populations after the Madrid and London bombings, panelists said. Instantaneous communication and global economic ties have compressed time and made the world smaller, ensuring that speeches delivered in one nation can be viewed almost immediately in another, where cultural and social differences heighten the possibility of misunderstanding.

Freedom of speech, a foundational Western value, means something different in different nations, Schauer said. The United States protects most forms of speech, including hate speech by fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan. But such broad protections for the freedom of speech are not in place in most European democracies, Schauer said.

Schauer and other panelists agreed, however, that though the laws against hate speech are similar across Europe, their enforcement varies widely, with Denmark among the most liberal in its views of freedom of speech.

Panelists reminded the audience that even in the face of widespread rioting, it’s dangerous to generalize. Most Muslims were not involved in rioting and the rioting took different forms in different countries, with some coordinated by the government, some opposed by the government, and some directed at the government. Schauer said it’s also wrong to indict the media for the incident, pointing out that, even in the United States, where the freedom of speech has greater legal protections, the vast majority of publications and media outlets – with some notable exceptions – chose not to print the offending cartoons.

“Let’s not forget the huge number of publications that did not publish the cartoons,” Schauer said.

The discussion was sponsored by several groups, including the Kennedy School’s Religion and Public Policy Leadership Council, the Muslim Caucus, the European Caucus, the Middle East Caucus, and the Jewish Muslim Dialogue. It was also sponsored by Harvard’s Alliance for Justice in the Middle East, Society of Arab Students, Harvard Law School’s Muslim Law Student Association, and the Harvard Islamic Society.