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The Danish cartoon controversy has revived a debate on freedom of expression that goes back to the origins of liberal democracy. Sadly, the terms of this debate also go back to the beginnings of the liberal state and are unable to encompass the radical novelty of the challenge that confronts it.

Unlike the weight of tradition that loads down such debate, the illiberal character of Muslim protest is astonishingly modern in form. After all, freedom of expression has meaning only within traditional states, because it protects the speech of one section of citizens against another and even against the state itself. Muslim protests, on the other hand, have meaning in an absolutely novel global context.

These protests are remarkably dispersed geographically and are unconcerned for the most part with the rights of states or the responsibilities of citizenship. If this lack of concern were due only to ignorance or irrationality, such protesting Muslims might eventually be educated to become good citizens of liberal democracies. Unfortunately this is not the case. Muslim protests, which have moved so far beyond the bounds of state and citizenship, are informed by the new rationality of a global arena. Within this arena, freedom of expression’s more restricted realm has been rendered irrelevant. For at the global level there is no common citizenship and no government to make freedom of expression meaningful. Liberal democracy is being challenged not by its past but by its future.

Muslim protesters do not represent some religious tradition that must be schooled in the lessons of modern citizenship. Rather, their protests bring into being a hyper-modern global community whose connections occur by way of mass media alone. From the Philippines to Niger, these men and women communicate with each other only indirectly, neither by plan nor organisation but through the media. And just as in their protests over
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989, most Muslims today are hurt not by the offending book or image but by its global circulation as a media report.

Yet it is this very circulation of the offending item as news that also allows Muslims to represent themselves as a global community in, through and as the news. Moreover, they can only do so by way of English as a global
language. It is no accident that the cartoon controversy outraged the Muslim world only when it was reported on the BBC and CNN television networks, as noted by Thomas Blom Hansen of Yale University. English, not Arabic, is the source language of global Islam. In this hyper-modern community, traditional distinctions of belief and practice have ceased to be relevant, as indeed has religion itself in an old-fashioned sense. The generic Muslim being displayed on television screens across the world cannot be marked by any specifically theological concern. In the Rushdie affair, the explicitly religious issue of the “satanic verses” was never taken up as a cause for offence – even in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa – and today’s protesting Muslims similarly object not to Islam’s supposed proscription of the Prophet’s image but instead to the manner of portrayal.

These theological concerns are in fact interesting only to the defenders of liberal democracy, who think of challenges to its freedoms in outdated terms. As in the Rushdie affair, the Prophet insulted today is not a religious figure of any traditional sort. In 1989 it was Mohammed as husband and family man who stood impugned in the eyes of protesters. Today’s protesters express their hurt by comparing the Prophet to a family member, hardly a religious role. This is language that belongs more in the Christian than the Muslim tradition.

In fact, Mohammed as family man has become a role model of the most modern kind, one representing the ideal Muslim not as a citizen or even leader of a state but as a properly
global figure. This is not surprising for Muslims who themselves have become global subjects through displacement by war as much as economic migration, by the massive growth of cities and technological transformation.

These Muslims are inventing a new global politics. Such are the peaceful and individual boycotts of Danish goods, which operate through trans­national capitalism to create a global politics outside the cognisance of states. Muslim protests over cartoon caricatures in a Danish newspaper do not threaten freedom of expression in liberal democracies. They challenge liberal democracy itself as a political form that is becoming parochial within a new global arena.

Liberal democracies are increasingly shot through with new global vectors, from immigrants to multinational corporations. While Islam is certainly not the only global movement around, its geopolitical situation has made this religion the most volatile global phenomenon of our times.

It is because global Islam comes to us from the future that it exposes so clearly the limits of liberal democracy. Instead of defending their freedoms dressed in the wigs and breeches of liberalism’s past, the critics of Islamic fanaticism must think about the limits of liberal democracy in new ways.

The writer, assistant professor of history at New School University, New York, is author of Landscapes of the Jihad (Hurst/Cornell)

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