Against 'Us' and 'Them'

The cartoon controversy highlights the polarizing debates both within and without the Muslim world

| February 23, 2006

The cartoon controversy that recently engulfed Europe and the Middle East has left a smattering of inflammatory yet predictable images in its wake: calls to action from Muslim leaders, burning buildings, and an indignantly free press out to lunch with the First Amendment. It seems that the script was written well before the cartoons were drawn.

To blame, argues S. Brent Plate in The Revealer , is the boilerplate concept of the 'clash of civilizations' -- a ubiquitous phrase among journalists and politicians since Samuel P. Huntington resurrected it in the 1990s. Plate argues that the phrase is so often repeated that we as a culture tend to believe it. Then, whenever anything seems to provide evidence of this clash (preferably in sound-bite-friendly format) the media is quick to pounce.

This has become the trend regardless, Plate argues, of historical precedent that suggests the opposite. 'These seemingly separate civilizations have been dependent upon and exerted strong influence over each other for over a thousand years,' he writes. Recent scholarly work has rooted the West's modern university system in the great learning centers of Islam, elucidated a flurry of exchange between Christians and Muslims in sixteenth to eighteenth century Europe, and revealed a thriving culture of tolerance between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in medieval Spain.

Plate's call for 'a deeper look into our shared past' is echoed by Dr. Mona Siddiqui, a senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at Glasgow University. In an op-ed published in Scotland's Sunday Herald , Siddiqui tries to cut through the mess of politicized language surrounding Islam: 'So much of popular discourse is stripped of [Islam's] great thinking that we have nothing to work with other than emotion and rhetoric.'

The media's focus on radical elements, Siddiqui argues, has pushed moderate Islam to the periphery, deeming it less worthy of coverage. By limiting the debate in this way, thoughtful voices that speak to the true diversity within the Muslim world have been silenced.

Unlike Plate, however, Siddiqui also places blame on 'those Muslims who called for violence.' While the modern media tend to focus on inflammatory voices, those people behind them must be held responsible. They, just like the media, fail 'to acknowledge that diversity must be negotiated in the context of multiple voices and not as the product of any polarization between two competing world views.'

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