Feb 9, 2006

In the Minds of Atlas

(This is the orginal version of a piece playing today at Salon.com, about the 'Mohammed cartoons")

The ‘Mohammed cartoons’ have been the talk of Ifrane, a town of 10,000 one hour’s drive from Fez up into the Middle Atlas Mountains. In the marche, where Berbers and Arabs, academics and shepherds, veiled women and not, all come to shop and chat; In side walk cafes, where TVs look down with soccer matches and burning embassies; in small apartments in back streets, where women stand at the stove and men mull over the many rumors; and in mosques, where Friday prayers also serve as a community gathering — everywhere, the talk is the same.
“You can insult me, my mother, my father, but not the Prophet,” my friend, Abdelghanni, tells me and he goes on to explain the heart of the matter. He’s 45, an Arabic teacher in an English language high school.
“If you draw a picture of the prophet, you will make a mistake. It will be false. We already have his description from the Koran: his eyes, his nose, his face, his hair, and so we don’t draw him because we don’t need to and because we don’t want...” He searched for the word. “... To pollute our image.”
If nothing else the ‘Mohammed cartoons’ have highlighted a great mystery about the Muslim world: how the mere depiction of Mohammed — much less cartons portraying him as a terrorist, a pedophile, and fornicating with pigs — could be such an invasion of privacy, such a violation of one’s contact and contract with God. Perhaps, one revelation to come out of all this may be that by drawing Mohammed down to such an earthy plane, you’re fooling with the hope mechanism of millions of believers, just at a time when modernity has never seemed more oppressive and, in many places, the pain of feeling backward has never been stronger.
In Morocco, the reaction to the cartoons has been muted, which is the nature of the country, and some would say, its distance from Israel and Palestine. Still, with this incident you can hear all the old cacophonies, all the old questions about why such a once glorious civilization isn’t more advanced, and can the state ever be separated from faith in an Islamic society.
And will the fear ever go away.
In the last few days I’ve talked to a range of people. The consensus is that the cartoons were highly disrespectful and that consensus has been a unifying force. But on the question of who should apologize and how much and whether other measures should be taken, such as drawing the UN into the matter, the answers are more diverse. I didn’t speak to anyone who advocated burning buildings or flags, but many people are convinced that there is a cold war between east and west and they are not afraid of it.
I asked Mohammed, a young taxi driver I’ve gotten to know in the last year and a half what he thought about these cartoons. He’s studied law, his father is shepherd. Like a lot of other people Mohammed can’t find a better paying job. “It shows great disrespect,” he replied and then shook his head. “but better not to make too much out of it. And anyway history is not going to change.”

Ifrane lies at on the edge of a forest and at the foot of an ancient volcano. The town is atypical of Morocco, not least because of its red tile, chalet-style architecture, a legacy of the colonial period when in the 1930s the French fashioned a reminder of home in the Alps, with tree-lined streets, lakes and elaborate parks. The town is also atypical because it rides along on a tourist economy, winter and summer, and because it is home to Al Akhawayn University of Ifrane (AUI), a small, select, American-style school of 1200 students. Last Friday, the imam at the university gave his Friday alkhutba and addressed the issue of the cartoons.
“I was afraid he might put more gas on the fire and trigger protests,” noted Bouziane Zaid, an associate professor of communications, “but he didn’t do that at all. He gave a message of love and peace and said simply that the best way to defend the prophet is to obey him, follow his example and be kind to others.”
Zaid added that the imam also mentioned something Zaid and many people he knows have come to believe — that these cartoons are all part of a war against Islam, which has greatly intensified since 9/11.
In Morocco, the Friday sermons are orchestrated. This is in keeping with the patriarchal nature of the country. Each week every imam receives the same talking points from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and these points form the basis of the Friday alkhubta. This is not only a way to influence public opinion on worldly matters but also a way to tune the country theologically to what the highest religious leaders think most significant. This may seem more oppressive than it is; in fact, imams can invite guest imams who can say what they please.
The official line in Morocco regarding the Mohammed cartoons was delivered last weekend by Le Conseil Superieur des Oulemas, the supreme council of imams, which is presided over by King Mohammed VI, himself. That the king is revered to be a direct descene Prophet — in a country so family centered — suggests the double dagger in the cartoons. A council statement condemned the cartoons and exhorted les sages et les decideurs, to protect liberty and moral values from the menaces of irresponsibility, hatred, rancor, perfidy and bad taste.
The notion of ‘wise ones’ and ‘decision-makers’ no doubt reflects a diplomatic effort to run the divide between a democratic government and the press. There is no real divide in Morocco.
Ali Bouzerda, a spokesperson for the government station TVM, put it another way. He was speaking for himself. “The government is saying, ‘we cannot accept this and we want to send a signal to the western media that freedom of the press is okay, and we understand that the Danish government can’t dictate to newspapers, but people in authority need to consider the effects of irresponsibility and hatred.’ Bouzerda went on to say, “at the heart of this discussion is the feeling that America is tying to divide the world into two parts, Christian and Islamic, and now mythologies are being spread, so that everything that is part of Islam is bad, and every Muslim is a terrorist. This is the west’s caricature of the middle east.”

Earlier this week I spoke to several men from Ifrane and the surrounding area, all professionals. One is an architect; another, a contractor; and a third is a former mukaddim, that odd civic player, first developed by the French as an informer, who serves as an intermediary between local government and the people. His job is to know everyone in a town or district, resolve small problems and report suspicious activities to the governor who may then make a report to the ministry of the interior in the capital. In recent years, the mukaddim has been, in some cities, a valuable source of information about the activities of Islamicists. Twenty years ago the socialists were considered the enemies of state; now it’s the Islamicsts.
The men were all agreed. It is critical for Muslims to react to this insult, they said, so that in the future the West might think more in terms of responsibilities than rights. They wouldn’t go so far as the Lebanese cleric who suggested that had Salmon Rushdie's fatwa been carried out this would all never have happened. But “a warning shot is required.”
Moreover, they said, the only way to resolve the situation is for the Danish government to apologize, along with the governments of Norway and Sweden, where the men said the cartoons had also appeared. (true?> check) As for the separation between government and the press, one of the men replied, “It is like you have a family with four children and one of them is bad and one day he does some damage to a neighbor. The only way to resolve that is for the father and the three good children to go and apologize. You see the father is like the government and the press is like the errant boy.”
One man went on to explain that in the Sunnah (metatag), the second most authoritative document after the Koran, the hadith says that if the prophet is profaned the perpetrator must apologize or be killed. (ch) “It’s like this,” he said. “It can’t be changed.”
The men asked not to be identified. That’s typical. At the university students are reluctant to respond to even the most pedestrian articles in the school newspaper. There is a fear of being noticed and identified with a position, and perhaps questioned by police, a legacy of Les Annees de Plomb, between1956 and 1999, when some 50,000 people were imprisoned, detained, murdered, raped, or else they disappeared. Even with a truth commission old habits of fear linger. It is a country in which control is always at issue, the underlying fear is that things will get out of hand, that chaos will ensue. You can’t drive for half an hour on any primary, or even a secondary road, without passing a police check point. Even in Ifrane, there is always the presence of police and soldiers, although that’s partly because the king has a home there.
Even now you learn from an early age not to oppose or criticize teachers, not to question, and above all, never to criticize the king.
Recently, I heard a story about the king’s critics, this king sometimes referred to as the ‘king of the poor.’ He is a good father if you will, and he’s backed many progressive programs, although genuine reform has been painfully slow. But the criticism is that he’s too soft. And this is ever the odd thing: some Moroccans would seem to prefer the authoritarian rule of Hassan II rather than his gentler and more progressive son.
Meanwhile, Mohammed VI’s portrait hangs everywhere, in every room of every public place and in many private places as well, and sometimes you will see his face on billboards. But often the expression is troubled, not just serious or pensive, but as though worried and very tired, Atlas holding up the sky in the middle of eternity, never knowing if and when he’ll be relieved of his crushing burden, ever wondering why he was betrayed.

In Ifrane, in the cafes, those confabulatories the world over, rumor and conviction, ash and truth are all entwined in layers of cigarette smoke. You hear things like this: the cartoons are part of the war in Iraq. This is all related to Israel and Palestine. You can’t see this event by itself. And speaking of Iraq, don’t the Americans realize they cannot trust their media, that there are many more Americans killed than reported. The Pentagon has recruited many single men, without families who would come to claim their bodies, and they also recruit many old soldiers who are assigned secret missions and when they’re killed they’re counted as civilians because they don’t wear uniforms. And how can it be that when a humvee is blown up only one person is killed? There are three or four people in these vehicles; you see this is how they undercount. And of course there are all these ‘accidents’. Tanks rolling over into rivers; Everyone knows what really happened. And the suicide bombers? Perhaps there are some misguided Arabs, but they are not true Muslims. There are Mexicans hired by the US to blow themselves up, and their families are compensated with villas in Texas. We all know this. And isn’t it strange how Osama Bin Laden appears and disappears. He existed before 9/11, but maybe not afterward. Are you telling me the Americans really don’t know where he is? I don’t believe it. Whatever he was, he is now an agent of the Mossad or some American spy agency. Maybe a double agent. Like Saddam Hussein. After all, how could Bin Laden plan that attack on the trade center from wherever he is? And how could 19 people do this when America has the world’s largest army, with all their technology and power. It’s not possible; if they were Muslims who did this, Americans trained them. This is a holy war. You know that Bush talked to Chirac for two hours in an effort to get him to join in the war and (Bush) told him that God told him to do this. He used the word ‘crusade’ didn’t he?
“Yes,” says the foreigner, “but what about May 16 (in 2003 when extremists from an impoverished district of Casablanca blew themselves up in hotels and restaurants killing 45 people). Do you think the American government is behind that?”
These things are not in our culture. It’s not part of our religion, not in our degree of belief. Not in our nature. If Muslims do these things in England or Spain it’s because of that environment. That’s what happens to people who live there. Spain accepts these things. Look at the Basques. Here, no. These people on May 16 were not martyrs. I’ll tell you how it happens. These are drug dealers and they get these kids to go to the hotels and get money in exchange for drugs. They do this three times and then the fourth time they make them wear a bomb vest, and the boy thinks it’s just drugs, and then he goes into the hotel and they blow him up by remote control.... Henry Kissinger once said this is how America operates, it creates these, what do you call it? Pretexts, these reasons, like the cartoons to manipulate support for whatever war it is. This is how I feel. And here’s what I’m trying to say, Americans do all these things but they never apologize. ‘Okay, There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’. So what. ‘Okay, Iraq is destroyed.’ So what. The Taliban have left, but the Americans stay. Saddan Hussein is gone but the American stay. And who opposes these things in America? People sitting in salons and arm chairs. That doesn’t suffice.

In Rabat, the capital, a friend who travels in diplomatic circles commented that in the last few days Arabic language newspapers were reporting that more and more cell phone text messages were carrying the product codes of Danish products. Meanwhile, there have been two large demonstrations, one of about 1,000 people in Rabat last weekend and one smaller demonstration Tuesday night in Casablanca outside the honorary Danish consulate. By all accounts these demonstration have included a wide variety of people, and have been, unlike demonstrations at the other end of the Mediterranean, quiet.
Diplomats in Rabat express amazement that things have gone so far and the general feeling is that there’s not going to be an easy way out of this. That view is based on the notion that extremists all over the region seem intent upon one upping each other. At the same time, there’s a sense that the real damage from this may be that not only will negative stereotypes of Arab be reinforced but that the West will lose heart. Said a friend, “There comes a point when you’ve got to handle your problems yourself, you can't go on forever blaming poverty and colonialism. You have to put all that aside and stop relying on your image as a victim.”

In Morocco, the press appears to be free but it is at best, restricted. Several years ago a journalist drew a cartoon of the king and was imprisoned for ? as a result. On Tuesday, TelQuel, one of the country’s only publications that does in-depth reporting, was found guilty in a libel case. It was the second guilty verdict in a libel case in the last four months (metatag). The cases themselves are doubtful but the two judgments, amounting to 1.3 million mad ,are beyond excessive by Moroccan standards, and have drawn the attention of Journalists Without Borders. “Of course, there is no question that there are people in the government, if you can call it that, who are trying to stop publication of this magazine.” explained the publisher, Ahmed Réda Benshemsi. “But it’s impossible to say who.”
I asked Driss Ksikes, the editor in chief of TelQuel, and a well respected journalist in Morocco, his notion of the cartoons.
“I have no red line as a liberal person but there is a question of politics, particularly the way this (issue) has been used by fundamentalists to say ’we shouldn’t talk about certain things’. This also comes at a particular moment, the Hamas victory, the situations in Iran and Egypt. It makes you wonder. islamicists are getting more and more power around the world and they’re trying to use whatever weapon they can against liberal thinking. Above all, they want to show that Islam is victim of the West. But we should not yield to this type of lobbying.
“I hope this type of incident may help people who think that there is no war of civilizations to reconsider. It has dramatized what could become a reality, if more and more extremists determine the political agenda.”

At Al Akhawayn University, and at the high school associated with it, the cartoons are a hot topic. Most of these students, particularly at the high school come from wealthy, if not well educated families. As you might expect their opinions are much more moderate and reflect a class sensibility.
“If their faith was strong enough,” said Sarah, 17, referring to the violent protestors in Iran and Lebanon, “an image wouldn’t bother them. But these are uneducated mobs. They need justification for feeling put down, so this gives them a concrete image of being put down.”
“I was pleased and deceived at the same time,” said a 21-year-old woman, “because I believe in the freedom of speech, I believe in any form of freedom, but freedom means respect. I only saw provocation... But this shows how much these (Danes) are afraid. Maybe they're just becoming aware of what crimes they've supported.”
Alia Lahlou, 17, said, “ one of our neighbors says every Muslim should be demonstrating because western papers print these cartoons but they don’t’ talk about the Palestinians dying every day. I disagree. I think these demonstrations feed the image of violent Arabs. You see these signs at the demonstration: “Europe, your 9/11 is coming”. The West accuses Arabs of being terrorists and then they act like it.”
Professors are equally caught up. I sat with two political scientists, each with opposing views. They share the same office and were so angry at the other’s position that each walked out while the other was speaking. One, a Muslim who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, said the cartoons raise the ‘big’ question, “what are the inherent contradictions of a liberal democracy, and what are the limits?”
The other, an Armenian American educated at ? scowled. The jyllen posten may be a right wing rag — locals call it the “pest of the jylens”, it’s Howard Stern minus — and the material is clearly offensive, but the problem is if we restrict its right to demonize then we’re going in totally the wrong direction. the only solution is to have more free speech.”

One professor I spoke with asked that we go off the record and offered some advice. He gave it with urgency. The great danger, he said, is that journalists keep referring to the Clash of Civilizations. “It’s true,” he said. “There is a clash, of course there is, but every time you say it, every time people hear it, it becomes more of a reality.” And once the mold is set the more people act from that perception. Stereotypes harden. Fear increases. Possibilities narrow.
Another academic I spoke with is Nancy Hottel, ??, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who grew up in Virginia, graduated from the University of Texas with a PhD, married a Moroccan, and has converted to Islam. She has twin daughters, wears a veil but not across her face, and teaches comparative rhetoric.
She remembered the time 30 years ago, during a cross-cultural workshop for teachers of Southeast Asians when an American told a joke as an analogy to show how offensive jokes about religion could be. The joke was, “Do you know why they crucified Jesus?” No... “Because an electric chair wouldn’t look good at the top of a steeple.”
“Not funny is it.” said Nancy. “I was deeply offended just to hear it cast an example. Well that’s roughly the effect on Muslims of these cartoons. And can you imagine if the situation were reversed, if this had been someone out side the religion making jokes about Judaism. You better bet there would have been the same reaction....”
Hottle went on to say how happy she was that no one in America had published the cartoons. “Bravo to Americans that we have political correctness, that we understand that to those in a religion, whatever it is, that religion is sacred.”
“It’s like what Houston Smith said”, she added, “ the basic mistake most people make in comparing religions is that they compare the ideal of their own to the actual of another. If you look just at the actual of the Muslim world you have no idea of the religion and Americans and many Europeans just don’t know what the ideal is. That’s a shame.”