Adrian Hamilton: It's not about free expression, it's about politics

It is no accident that publication has been in those countries with the highest feelings against immigrants
Click to follow

It's too late now for all the high-principled discussion about religious offence versus freedom of speech. As far as the war of cartoons is concerned, it has spun way out into the world of domestic and international politics.

Not that I want to denigrate the genuine shock and outrage felt by Muslims at the publication and republication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, nor those who feel passionately the absolute right of unconstrained liberty of expression. But in these sorts of issues, you can never divorce politics from religion.

It is often forgotten that when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa on Salman Rushdie, it was not because he had read the book and anathematised its author. It was because he had been asked to intervene by a group of Pakistanis and saw in this an opportunity to increase his prestige in that country and raise his international profile as guardian of the faith.

So with the cartoons. Whatever the original intentions of the Danish newspaper, it is no accident that their publication and reprinting has been most zealously pursued in those countries - Denmark, Austria, Germany, Italy and now France - where the feelings against immigration are highest and the political position of the extreme right most pronounced.

Nor is it any accident that the reaction has been most violent and vociferous in those countries - Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq - where the tensions are greatest and the political interest in stirring up trouble the most obvious. There is - and no one should doubt it - a profound problem of taste and sensitivity in representations of any sort of Mohamed. What seems all part of the game in the iconographic culture of Christianity looks quite different from an iconoclastic religious viewpoint.

But we've been here before in Europe over offensive imagery and the reaction, after an initial spurt, has died down without the gathering pace of international demonstration and violence that we are seeing today. The internet and global communication have something to do with that, but not enough to explain the slow burn of a crisis which had its origins several months ago.

No, the real problem of the cartoons has been the spirit in which they have been published and the sense of deliberate provocation that the Muslims have taken from their printing. Listen to the commentators and politicians declaring why this is such a fundamental question of free speech and you can sense that what they really want is not a discussion of liberty of expression so much as an issue to force compliance on what they regard as an alien culture.

The more honest say openly that they believe that Muslims within Europe should subscribe to the European mores or get out. The less honest couch it in terms of principles. But in elaborating their views, you very soon come to conclusion that on a whole range of questions - from the treatment of women to the obedience to the rules laid down in the Koran - Muslims are seen to be adopting attitudes inimical to the West.

The battle of the cartoons has become not so much an issue of cultural sensitivities as a perceived struggle between modernism and medievalism, Western values and Eastern absolutism. "Islamo-fascism" seems to have become the favoured phrase of the more rabid secularist preachers.

In the same way, seeing the way in which Danish religious leaders toured the Middle East propagating the claim to offence, and the manner in which riots have been organised elsewhere, it is also difficult not to believe there are elements here all too keen to find the occasion on which to raise their banners of resistance. Why, after all, were some of the worst riots in Damascus, a secular regime in which the security forces can, and do, control any public demonstration? And why Afghanistan, where the Taliban have most reason to try and whip up anti-foreign feeling on religious grounds?

Politics is what is determining the course of this confrontation. That doesn't make the conflict any the less real to the participants. Indeed it sharpens the divisions. But it does mean that, by now, opinions have become pretty set. The damage is done. The Danes, and with them the other Scandinavians, so proud of their reputation of neutrality and breadth of understanding, are now set as enemies of tolerance and religious openness. Muslims within Europe are confirmed in their view that they are victims of a hostile world, while those in the Muslim world are reinforced in their belief that the West is out to impose their order on them.

On the other side, those with a mind, or half a mind, to believe that Muslims are by nature and indoctrination fanatics ready to resort to violence and death threats at the drop of an epithet are equally reinforced in their assumptions.

If politics is now the name of this game, however, then it will have to be politics that attempts to solve it. Abroad, we are back to the insistent question of how we are perceived in our interventions. At home, we are back to the hard debate of multiculturalism versus integration. The logical conclusion of either course is fraught with disaster, but how do we negotiate a modus vivendi that allows for both? The law cannot impose it. The present conflict would be infinitely worse if Muslims were to take to the courts insisting on protection. It's an issue finally of politics, in its best sense.