Società italiana per lo studio della storia contemporanea


Contextualizing the Danish Cartoon Controversy within European Migration Spaces

I. Introduction[1]

Sociologists and social scientists attempt to understand conflict using different medium. Some are interested on the primordial identity, often referring to national, religious and ethnic identity. Maalouf (2003) has illuminated the roots of violence and hatred, seen in tribalistic forms of identity. Huntington’s Clash of civilization belongs to this trend when he sees Muslim as one identity group.

Social psychology has major contribution to the emergence of conflict and the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination with the Social Identity Theory. This theory attempted to identify the minimal conditions that would lead members of one group to discriminate in favor of the in-group to which they belonged and against another out-group. (Tajfel and Turner, 1986) in other word, once the boundaries are perceived as impermeable, individuals will display inter-group behavior that favors the in-group at the expense of the out-group. (Chiasson et al., 1996) The advantage of this approach that it allow the social/urban context to be a major factor in triggering an individual to think, feel and act on basis of his personal, family, or ethnic  “level of self” without determinism of the primordial ethnic/national identities. The notion of salience is very important indicating the activation of an identity in situation (Stets and Berke, 2000). The problem of the social identity theory is with its over-emphasis of the identity configuration of the individual as leading factor to the action. In contrast to that, for me the value theory is more appealing to understand conflict than the other theories. In sociology, value theory is concerned with personal values and how those values might change under particular conditions. Different groups of people may hold or prioritize different kinds of values (like social injustice) influencing social behavior. For Pat Duffy Hutcheon there has been a pronounced tendency in sociology to under-emphasize the study of values and moral issues. A survey of accomplishments in value study by him revealed at least four rather disturbing tendencies: failure to deal with the source and validation of values, tendency to assume that society is antecedent to the individual, stress on conformity and minimization of the role of reason, and finally confusion surrounding the concept of value. Value system thus is a way to highlight the subjectivity of the actors without neglecting the power structure, because the value system is not only produced by religion and family but also by the position the individual has in the society. (1972)

Some European researchers on migration studies show incapacity to understand that the forging individual values are interdependent system of interaction with origin and host societies’ culture. Values, culture and social identities are determinative of behavior, just as they are simultaneously shaped by the actions of their “carriers” and members.  

The French mass media reported the urban riot of 2006, burning thousands of cars, as communitarian conflict, pointing the finger to the North African communities. They were incapable to see the suburban identity formation due to the actors feeling to the social injustice and the differentiation in the values of these riot French young from migrant origin compared to the overwhelming majority of the North African who are rather well integrated in the French society and with week communitarian ties. (Todd,   Thus what is important here the feeling of the social injustice as ‘jeunes de banlieue’ and not the fact of having an Arab origin’s or Muslim’s identity. The long process of ghettoization from above undertaken by the Republican has not produced communitarianism but more individualism. (Haenni, 2006: 28)

However which value systems are we talking about? Muslim value system vs. European one? Or rather value of those who believe on cultural diversity vs. of these who take refuge in the cultural hegemony? 

This paper will argue that the growing polarization between what is perceived western society and  the Muslim “communities” does not really concern cultural differences, but rather cultural hegemony as a cultural logic of late capitalism, in which global capital and colonial power are allied and in which the colonized/migrants are either invisible or hyper-visible. I will take the example of the Danish Cartoon episode, as a controversy that is reflecting the cultural hegemony and power structure deployed against an undesirable and sometimes invisible group of people (mainly migrants) living in European or other countries. Yet, the latter are not mere victim and they have responsibility toward their satiation.

After contextualizing this controversy within the migration and colonial spaces, I will argue that the controversy does not concern censorship and freedom of expression. It is a question of how one can define universalism. Finally the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be addressed as the major factor galvanizing the resentment of some parts of the Muslim world and of the Muslim minorities in Europe vis-à-vis those who support the Israeli colonial practices. To this issue, the occupation of Iraq and the support for Arab dictatorships also hold major concern.

II. Value System of the Cultural Hegemony

Recalling the work of Jan Nederveen Pieterse the multiculturalism has gone global and migrants’ identification has become flexible. Multiculturalism and foreign policy cannot be treated separately. (2007) The British Council of Muslim informed the Prime Minister after 7/7 that the alienation of some members of the Muslim community in UK is due to the complaisance position of the government with the Israeli colonial practices. 

While colonial power maintains its dominance through coercion, certain Western powers use a kind of hegemony which consists of political power flowing from intellectual and moral leadership, authority or consensus, different from mere armed force. Cultural hegemony does not refer anymore to western rationality conceived by ruling classes but refers to a more complex set of discursive strategies of combining principles from different systems of thought into one coherent ideology (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). In the American style of hegemony, democracy, liberalism, freedom of trade and the war on terror are all discursively tied together into one coherent bundle which is being imposed by violence all over the world. It is a hegemony that is imposed in the form of an empire. The cultural hegemony here can be understood only as stemming from the power structures of the empire builder (versus colonized people) exercised with superiority, arrogance and fascination of the power that the colonizer carries. (Said, 2003) Thus the problem is not the dichotomy between oriental values and western ones, but the dichotomy between values and power structure and how those values are then instrumentalized and put into action.

Cultural hegemony seems to be a very powerful medium in order to read the power structures between different cultures and is much more significant than to evoke just the differentiated cultural sensitivities that could exist between the Arab and western worlds. Ever since Edward Said analyzed the concepts of an oriental ”Other” as constructions of colonial hegemony, we have come to know the way the Other carried a kind of “neo-racism” – what Etienne Balibar called “cultural racism”. In fact, racism is one of the major phenomena studied by many sociologists in European societies that threaten the integration of the migrant communities in these very societies. (Wieviorka, 1995) Cultural hegemony has thus not produced cultural differences but instead cultural racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in the majority of the Western countries.

In the meantime, we would argue that the clash is not civilizational, as Bernard Lewis wrote once: “in the Muslim perception there has been, since the time of the Prophet, an ongoing struggle between the two world religions, Christendom and Islam”. (Khan, 2007) The division line seems to be cultural and not religious. A secular Arab citizen could have much more in common with a secular German than with an Islamist neighbor. However, Lewis’s and Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy is encouraging an analysis of some controversies and conflicts as a civilizational and cultural clash. The portrayal of Islamic movements as a tide of religious fanaticism threatening the West, and major participants in the coming “clash of civilizations”, has increasingly an impact on the future of international relations. François Burgat (2003) argues that political Islam’s desire to restore a culture distorted by colonization does not necessarily compromise its progress to more democracy and greater tolerance.

Edward Said argued that if there is a clash, it is between empire builders on the one hand and those who believe in dialogue on the other. (2003) The problem of Bush’s neo-cons and of Ben Laden’s al-Qaida is that both need to construct empires, forcing by violence their ideas beyond the nation-state boundaries. However the analogy doesn’t mean summitry: the al-Qaida project is not like that of the neo-cons’. Al-Qaida and its franchises in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria, are extremist groups outside of the paradigmatic understanding of Islam, while the neo-cons govern the United States, progressively passing on their influence to Europe as well. There is no cultural hegemony in the former but there is in the latter.  Building empires is the opposite of globalized and glocal circulation of cultures in a world in which migrants play a major role. (Hanafi and Tabar, 2005) Let us address the socio-cultural side of the relationship between the Muslim migrants and the European host society.

III. The Migration Context

New literature in migration studies highlights the fact that movement and attachment are neither linear nor sequential, but capable of rotating back and forth and changing direction over time. The median point on this gauge is not full incorporation but rather simultaneity of connection. But this simultaneity should not hide the power structures between migrants and the social structures in the host society. Migrants are subject to the hegemonic constructions and practices which are constantly created and reenacted. These conceptions and categories are in part internalized by both dominant and dominated alike and create a sense of common loyalty and legitimacy for the dominant classes. (Schiller et al., 1992: 13) In some western countries, hegemonic construction speaks little of class but much more directly of culture, religion and ethnicity.

Migrants are a site of conflict between different ideologies, values and lifestyles and this is why one should examine them in the framework of the transnational relationship that a migrant had founded between host and origin country but also in the framework of the diaspora studies. Diasporic space where a migrant lives entails an inter-polarity and multi-polarity of his/her set of the relationship. For instance, one Palestinian individual or group living in France not only has ties to the Palestine but to many Palestinian communities scattered all over the world. In the process of globalization, both migrants and nation-states undergo a major change and one should see transnationalism not in terms of unstructured flows, but in terms of tensions between movements and social orders. This issue deserves to be tackled to understand the problematic relationship between the Muslim migrants in European societies.

The 20th century was the century of the emergence of supra-national entities and the possibility of multiple citizenships, but above all the idea of differentiated citizenship.  Differentiated citizenship is completely different from the multiculturalism where you have common ground citizenship and then differentiated rights. It is more a process of tailoring citizenship according to the utility of the migrants/subjects to the ruling classes, as well as transmigrants developing a flexible notion of citizenship in order to accumulate capital and power. According to Awio Ong, flexible citizenship refers to the cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement that induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political and economic conditions. (1999: 19) Meanwhile, however, the state seeks to preserve its rigid sovereignty. Thus flexible citizenship is constituted within mutually reinforcing dynamics of discipline and escape as globalization has induced a situation of graduated citizenship, whereby even as the state maintains control over its territory, it is also willing in some cases to let corporate entities set terms for constituting and regulating some domains while weaker and less desirable groups are given over to the regulation of supranational entities. “What results is a system of variegated citizenship in which populations subjected to different regimes of value enjoy different kinds of rights, discipline, caring, and security” (Ong, 1999: 215). The contribution of Giorgio Agamben (1988) to understanding the power mechanisms deployed by the sovereign is very valuable. The sovereign has the capacity to proclaim the state of exception in order to create different status of the population.

The sovereign power according to Agamben routinely distinguishes between those who are to be admitted to “political life” and those who are to be excluded as the mute bearers of “bare life”. “Bare life” is when people do not have a right to defend their rights as a minority or as refugees/asylum seekers spending several years in refugee camps without having any knowledge about their future destiny (Hanafi, 2005). It is a process of categorizing people and bodies in order to manage, control and surveillance them and reduce them to a bare life, a life which refers to the body’s mere “vegetative” being, separated from the particular qualities such as the social, political and historical attributes that constitute individual subjectivity.

From a societal level, one can witness a differentiation in the process of integration, depending if the migrants or the minority communities are city dwellers or suburban lower middle class dwellers. The fault line is first social-urban but also cultural. Culturally, one should distinguish between a majority of migrants acculturated without major difficulty, managing different cultures without feeling schizophrenia; and those who constitute a tiny minority, who believe in the clash of civilization and whose values are very different from that of the Western world. This mode of thinking comes mainly in reaction to the posture of the hegemonic culture of the host society cultures. Since the categorizing Huntingtonian philosophy’s ‘clash of civilization’ in the mid 90s, the paradigmatic model of constructing the “otherness” took the form of “good against the evil”, “being with us or against us” and is alienated above all the migrants.

In this complex context, the polarization is escalating with the emergence of the al Qaida culture, ie.  a culture that considers the Western nations as enemies, mainly for political reasons such as supporting Israel and their interest in the oil of Gulf area. From one side and the new Saudi media which is for the first time not only just available for the migrants but also tailored to them. Here the emphasis is placed on the cultural-religious aspect much more the political one.  This is the context of post September 11, of which one of the most dangerous consequences is that the polarization between opposing fundamentalisms has shunted aside the thoughtful and constructive quest for the welfare and happiness of all human societies, and of human beings as individuals and as exponents of diverse cultures that are not in adversarial relationships or hierarchically juxtaposed on the basis of some notion of good or bad. (Bishara, 2006)

Having said that, I suggest approaching the Middle Eastern migrants as individuals who are sensitive to both political and cultural arenas.  The Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony provides an excellent conceptual framework to at least understand problems that have emerged in the western societies, including the Danish cartoon controversy.

IV. Cartoon Controversy: a Crisis in the Making

On the 30th of September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten published 12 drawings of the prophet Muhammad,[2] followed by many publications in a number of European newspapers. This led to protests in many countries of the Muslim world, including official complaints by Islamic governments, boycotts of European products, demonstrations (sometimes leading to loss of life), and attacks on several western embassies in the Middle East. Moreover, an Iranian newspaper launched a competition for cartoons on themes including the Holocaust and later on published them.

The broad context is very hot, especially if one looks how some parts of Muslim perceive this context. Appearing when memories are still fresh about reports which were later denied of the desecration of the Qor’an by American troops at the Guantanamo prison, the propagation of the drawings in Europe has strengthened the perception among many Muslims that not only are they being exploited economically and manipulated politically[3] by the western powers, but they are also insulted by the “West” culturally. At the same time, troops from several western countries are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq; Israel continues its occupation of Palestinian Territories and destroying part of Lebanon; the international community has stopped its financial support for the Palestinian Authority now that parliamentary elections have been won by the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas; and tension is rising over Iran’s nuclear program. In many western countries, many Muslims and other minority communities have, for a long time, been facing what they see as the erosion of cultural diversity and increasing prejudice. In such a highly polarized world, the continuation and escalation of this new conflict can have disastrous consequences.

To this broad context, the local European context is very important. There had been a build up of anti-Muslim sentiment in Denmark before the publication of the drawings by Jyllands Posten and many acts of racism against some Muslim populations (interdiction of mosque construction, xenophobic declaration of the queen). Three months before the publication, the Danish government did not live up to its international obligations when, referring to the right to freedom of expression, it, refused to take a position towards the cartoons and also refused to meet with the 11 ambassadors representing the Arab countries.

The Cartoon controversy reveals a boiling street in the Arab World against the cultural hegemony of some western countries.  For the first time, a mass mobilization occurred in Arab-Persian Gulf states investing the public sphere and expressing the agency of this population. The phenomenon of popular boycott emerged against the economic interest Norway as a pacific mode of action. It was of course not the first time that a boycott campaign was launched as there have been many against Israeli companies and Western companies associated with the Israeli ones – but such campaigns have been officially facilitated, while the Danish products boycott is motivated by popular mobilization. What is interesting in the mode of action is that it rebalances the very imbalanced power structures between global capital and very disempowered mass of population in the Arab World.

The different modes of action on the cartoon controversy suddenly had reflected a perceived confrontational moment with the “West” including reducing the West to Christianity or to its support to colonialism. This controversy tended to shadow the long process of dialogue between different cultures in our globalized world. My fieldwork interviewing Syrian and Egyptian engineers shows a wide variation of images of the West (science, technology, punctuality, respect of environment, credibility) seen as positive images and other as negative (political support to Israel, dress of women in the public sphere). (Hanafi, 1997)

V. Freedom of Expression and Universalism(s)

Some have defended the propagation of the cartoons on the grounds of freedom of expression. In an article published with the drawings, co-editor Flemming Rose wrote that due to the right of freedom of expression one has to be prepared to submit to “scorn, mockery, and ridicule” and that religious feelings cannot be taken into consideration. The public prosecutor decided that the editor-in-chief could not be proceeded against. However, in his statement, the public prosecutor emphasized that the laws on racism and blasphemy contain protection of peoples’ religious feelings, and therefore there is no free and unlimited access to express oneself about religious issues. The prosecutor however stated that what was written in the article in Jyllandsposten could not be considered as a violation of the existing law.

The public prosecutor’s statement seems to be problematic if one views the event and its context and compares it to similar events. Many events suggest that freedom of expression, which is a basic human right, becomes problematic when intellectual rigor and social responsibility are lacking. To present the Prophet Mohammad as a symbol of terrorism, as is done in one of the cartoons, is no different from presenting Moses as the symbol of right wing Israelis’ actions against Palestinians, an association that would be rightly condemned as anti-Semitic and is prohibited by the laws of many European countries. No Muslim has ever blamed Jesus Christ for the many atrocities that have been committed around the world in the name of Christianity. The populist reductionism that lies behind the publication of the cartoons is embedded in the tradition of European anti-Semitism that began with the demonization of the Jews, their faith and their culture and ended in the attempt at their extermination. I did not endorse the symmetry with the Holocaust. However, I am strongly against the French legislation – the so-called Loi Gayssot – which punishes “revisionist” or “negationist” discourse: denying the existence of the gas chambers, the killing of the Jews, etc.; this is an anti-liberal law, but in this case the symmetry, as you find in the text circulated during the cartoon controversy and currently exploited by the Iranian government, was misleading and even flawed: on one side you have a symbol, and on the other you have genocide.[4]

At a time when the heads of some secular states proclaim that they are performing divine missions (George W. Bush’s mission for instance), the views of ordinary believers in any religion can only be ignored or denigrated by the ignorant, the arrogant and the bigot. There is contempt for Islamic values by the some western culture producers in the opposition of the tradition of commitment to facts and rational analysis that have distinguished the best in Western thought since the Enlightenment. Writings on Islam by secular authors such as the late Montgomery Watt, and the late Maxime Rodinson – British and French biographers of the Prophet Mohammad, respectively – are regarded by many Muslims and non-Muslims as models of scholarship.

At a time when humanity is in dire need of understanding to ensure peaceful coexistence, the propagation of a set of ill-conceived drawings in several European countries has reinforced ignorance and hatred towards Muslims, and incited, albeit inadvertently, violence against European citizens and interests in Arab and Islamic countries.

Again the Muslim anger against the Danish cartoons seems not to be about the limit of freedom of expression or is a kind of a defence of the particularism vis-à-vis the universalism, but it is about the notion of competing universalisms. Defending one’s freedom of expression is a fundamental issue, as Balibar argues, even when it is misused, although I prefer to defend it when it is a work of art or intelligence, even a “blasphemy”, but I don’t feel obliged to fall into a trap that has been skilfully or stupidly set up by “neo-con”-style Danish Journalists and what Neal Ascherson called “A Carnival of Stupidity”.[5] The publication of the British newspaper Sun in July 23, 2006 to Angela Markel’s picture of her semi-naked in the swimming pool of her hotel in Italy during her vacation is a publication of cheap and bad taste, while the decision of the German newspapers not to republish it is an elegant move.

Thus, defending freedom of expression raises many questions which go beyond the legal aspect. Freedom of expression as a universal human rights value is an object both impossible and necessary –always requiring the presence of limits related to the privacy and freedom of the others. How can we reconcile universalism with the postmodern notion of the plurality of (mostly ethnic, sexual or lifestyle) struggles for recognition, or does the recent resurgence of right-wing populism compel us to rethink the limits of each movement? What is the meaning of a new trend of right wing as well as leftist governments who define universality by how much a woman can be uncovered, in reaction to the Islamist governments who defined it by how much a woman can cover her body?

Sexuality and the female body have become two major sites for the moral entrepreneurs to impose their vision on a society which is increasingly defined by its diversity and thus allowing it to become a real battlefield of the cultural hegemony and Islamist control. In some European countries like Germany and Netherlands, the condition of access to status of refugee, asylum seeker or citizen requires the acceptance a specific vision of the women body and sexuality. Following Butler, Laclau and Zizek (2000: 2), universality is not a static presumption, not a priori given, and that it ought instead to be understood as a process or condition irreducible to any of its determinate modes of appearance. Wearing a mini jupe (mini skirt) is not a universalistic value but the fact that it’s a woman’s choice to dress how she likes in the public sphere should be universalistic. The possibility of choice becomes the condition for the mini jupe appearance. Wearing a scarf or having an uncovered head is not universalism, but ensuring the freedom of choice without constraint from the community or the family on the individual is true universalism. For this reason and in order not to conflate condition with appearance, Judith Butler (2000) prefers to talk about “competing universalisms” to preempt the perception of the universalism as a singular, or ‘multiple modernities’ to talk like Nilüfer Göle.

(2000). The question of some Muslim reactions to the cartoon controversy is not how much we can talk particular in the face of the universality and not to render the particular as representative of the universal, but to adjudicate among competing notions of universality. To put it in Michel Wieviorka “Religion is part of an endeavor to participate in modernity rather than to exclude oneself from it”. (2004: 284)

VI. Conclusion: a Shared Responsibility

Intellectuals and human rights organizations in European countries have different positions that have sometimes entailed some paradoxes. Concerning freedom of expression, the French philosopher Régis Debray[6] was very clear in his formulation on the question of the limits of freedom of expression, as he is convinced that it “ends where the rights of others begin”. This was also the point of Amnesty International: The freedom of speech “carries responsibilities and it may, therefore, be subject to restrictions in the name of safeguarding the rights of others.” Debray is convinced that we must oppose intolerance, but not arrogantly; the identity of others should be respected.

Human Rights Watch asserted that “the main complaint against the cartoons is that they offend Islam, not that they have inspired acts of violence, criminal harassment or tangible discrimination against Danish or other Muslims.”[7] But what is “tangible discrimination”? The processes of radicalization are often intangible. Many studies criticized the tendency to only focus on Auschwitz and the act of annihilation when the crimes committed against the Jews during the Second World War have been addressed. Often one tends to forget the processes and developments that are previous to such extreme acts of exclusion. Would the co-editor Flemming Rose accept to publish anti-Semitic drawings from Iran? In fact, at one stage he said he would, but he then changed his mind. This might have evoked vestiges in some people minds about an uncomfortable European past which is not very distant, and it might illustrate the moral questions that the initial drawings inevitably raised.

Highlighting the European misunderstanding to the position of many activists in the Muslim world and the European racism against some Arab and Muslim migrants does not mean that the latter is a pure victim. It is hard to find a plausible and serene reflection on a problem where one side feels the exclusive feeling of victimhood. A solution cannot come from the pain of an experience, and a risk of the emergence of the populist position is very challenging. (Saghie, 2001) One should think about the responsibility and the role that we should assume to bridge between those two virtual worlds. In any case, the agency of the Muslim minority in Europe is expressed in different ways and becomes progressively important, going from the scientific contribution of this community to its social integration, but also to the use of some groups of it to violence like the terrorist act of al-Qaida attack killing around 3000 Americans in the World Trade Center. While one should not minimize such acts, the Muslim communities should neither be victimized because of it. The current debate in UK about the niqab (a complete veil of the face) show what Khaled Hroub called coquetry and abuse of some Muslim Europeans to the cultural diversity. This dress code, which is more political expression than religious one, has raised problem of communicativity inside of the society and harm all possibility of dialogue between these veiled women and the society. When the suicide bombing phenomenon has appeared in UK with all its hideous damage, none more lurid and apocalyptic of course than the events of September 11 2001, the responsibility of the migrant communities is to question its mode of incorporation inside of the host society. 

The effect of the globalization of the multiplicity of migrant’ identification has raised the relationship between diaspora and place of origin which spread out essentially over three main spheres: social and economic networks, political influence and ideology. In the last sphere, the nationalist sentiments of the diaspora is a major factor for feeding the radical factions in the different conflict zones (Palestine/Israel; Kurdish area of Iraq and Turkey, etc.) They also account considerably for radicalizing the conflict.  Thus global multiculturalism means engagement with conflicts worldwide. If societies are engaged globally it means that conflicts travel too. Conflicts cannot be contained locally. Multiculturalism and foreign policy cannot be treated separately. Symbolically, the Arab-Israeli conflict is still central although its low intensive conflict character compared to the war in Iraqi. The climate of degradation between the European and American empire builders (neo-cons trend) from one side and the Muslim world from the other comes from the fact that the former remains strongly supportive of the Israeli occupation and strives to control the oil in the Middle East region. The problem does not concern the support of the western powers, at different extents, to Israel and its security in the region, but it concerns their reluctance to take a serious decision vis-à-vis the settlement issue (settlers are tripled during the peace process), Jerusalem (refusal to publish the EU report on Jerusalem), and the wall (refusal to denounce the itinerary of the wall). European diplomats used to say that they have a balanced position between the Palestinian and Israeli opinions as they claim two-state solution: a position which is skillfully elaborated to be irrelevant, as Israel is continuing its “spacio-cidal” project[8] and its fait accompli and everyday colonial practices. This position was problematic even before the Palestinian use of suicide bombers or the arrival of Hamas to power.

Many of western countries continue to suffer a strong complex of guilt for their Anti-Semitic history, culminating in the Holocaust, something which makes me see this as a kind of a tradeoff between the non-recognition and the repression of their past and the blind support of the colonial practices of Israeli governments. It is very interesting that this trade-off has been operating for quite a long time and it is the paradigmatic model of the relations between West and Israel. The negotiation between Ben Gurion and Konrad-Adenauer about the German apology to Israel concerning the Holocaust in 1952 led to a very humiliating apology. For Germany it was easier to compensate Jewish property than to acknowledge the responsibility for German people of the Holocaust (Lustick, 2005). As Ben Gurion explained it to the Knesset after a colossal critique of Menachem Begin who was in opposition at that time, considering the former a traitor, that Israel needs German financial support much more than a clear apology for the Jewish plight in WWII.

I can also recall the feeling I had when I visited in the summer of 2004 the Leopardo Museum in Vienna. In the section concerning the painter Oskar Kokoschka, I was very surprised to see how some portions of the Austrian population and officials are unable to cope with their past. On a sign explaining his life, it was written: “he was wounded in 1915 in Ukraine” without mentioning that it was the First World War and then “in 1939, due to the political developments, he migrated to London”. Is Nazism a simple political development? It seems to us that this incapacity to deal with the past is a major reason why Europeans don’t want to have a clear stand regarding the Israeli occupational tactics. Many European countries don’t want to recognize their contribution to Jewish suffering during the Second World War (lack of or delaying compensation, attribution only to Germans, rejecting refugees, minimizing role of collaboration, etc.) and currently the Palestinians are paying the price. This analysis was further confirmed by Matti Bunzl, an anthropologist specialized in the Jewish community of Austria. The right wing elite were arguing against the memorials of War remembering how the Jews were forced to clean the anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets. 

Finally the Holocaust legacy does not concern only the Europeans but the whole humanities. I do agree with the former German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, that Arabs understanding of the plight of Jewish communities in the history is extremely important for establishing a climate in which the end of occupation can be achieved.[9]


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[1] The author would like to thank many of scholars who contributed to the enrichment of the ideas of this article. First Hossein Shahidi, with whom Sari Hanafi initiated a statement at the beginning of the Danish cartoons controversy, parts of which statement are reproduced in this paper (section III) (Shahidi and Hanafi, 2006). Some 200 academics from different Arab and European countries signed the statement, which forms the basis of the first part of this article. The author would also like to thank Etienne Balibar, Nabil Dajani, Baudouin Dupret, Armando Selvadore for their comments.

[2] Actually not all of them are of the Prophet.

[3] The peace process has been used as a perfect period to triple the settler numbers and to seize the double of settlement areas.

[4]    The reflections of Marek Halter, a philosopher that participated in the conference arranged by Reporters without Borders, elucidates the many dilemmas and layers of the controversy: “Voltaire didn’t like Protestants, but he always said he’d fight for their right to express themselves. I’ve known two totalitarian systems, Nazism and Stalinism, so censorship makes me shudder.” For the same reason he was against banning the National Front party, and he had the same immediate reaction about the cartoons. “But I felt uncomfortable when I saw the cartoons because they reminded me of the ones of Jews decades ago, with the same way of drawing Semitic individuals with a hooked nose and big ears. Then I saw the demonstrations and the calls for hatred, especially by the Iranian regime.” There is the ideal of freedom of speech in democratic societies, which is a praiseworthy principle and which most people adhere to. But there is also the lurking racism behind stereotypic depictions, and there is the violent response which cannot be defended but which witness about anger about injustice on a more international political level.

[5] See Neal Ascherson’s in our view correct presentation in Open-democracy: “a carnival of stupidity”.

[6] His speech in the Reporters Without Borders conference in November 22, 2005,

[8] Spacio-cide is a concept I forged to understand the Israeli colonial practices since 1948. I argue that these practices are “spacio-cidal” (as opposed to genocidal) in that they target land for the purpose of rendering inevitable the “voluntary” transfer of the Palestinian population primarily by targeting the space upon which the Palestinian people live. (Hanafi, 2005)

[9] “Interview with Fischer” Yediot Ahronot, 20/10/2004.