Aslam Faroul Alli
(source: Mail & Guardian Online – 2 June 2010)
The Turkish writer, Ahmet Rasim, once said that the beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy. Obviously not everyone would agree with him, but Rasim does touch upon an undeniable truth:40have the capacity to unlock powerful emotions.
This, too, is one of the main reasons why art is so enchanting; the spell of the image is able to transcend words and resonates deep within our very beings. However, the kind of emotion that an image invokes also ultimately depends upon the eye of the beholder. All of these factors come to bear upon Zapiro’s recent33of the Prophet of Islam.
While few would dispute that aesthetic appreciation is culturally constructed, one also needs to concede that the creation of 40is in no way free from powerful cultural influences as well; the artist's representation is not only an expression of an opinion, but also the reflection of his social imaginary. When Zapiro portrays the non-European Prophet of Islam lamenting his woes to the quintessential European psychologist, he not only offers comment about Muslims and Islam but also exposes his own Western, secular biases.On closer inspection, his33also reveals that the increasingly persistent conflict between Western and Islamic values is not only rooted in contrasting worldviews, but also in the imbalanced power relations that define the engagement between Westerners and Muslims.In the de-divinised world of the West, psychology replaces religion and the secular psychologist is no less than a god. In this dispensation there is no divine intervention for the Prophet of Islam and his search for solace leads him to the proverbial Freud.
If one scratches below the surface, one finds that the issue at hand is not only about freedom of expression, but about how the hegemonic discourse of Western modernity, with its full retinue of Universalist claims, constantly pressures subaltern traditions (like the Islamic) into conforming to its norms and dictates. Sensitive thinkers like Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor reject Western modernity's Universalist claims and emphasise its provinciality.Taylor argues that it is more apt to speak of "multiple modernities", the plural reflecting the fact that non-Western cultures have modernised in their own way and cannot properly be understood if we grasp them in a general theory that only has the Western case in mind. From this view, Western modernity is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary and the differences amongst alternative worldviews need to be understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved.Simply put, the social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather, it is an expression of the way ordinary people imagine their social surroundings and is shared by large groups of people, if not the majority. Most importantly, the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy. Our practices, as such, are not necessarily a rational response to36emanating from a process of careful reflection; they are to a large extent an expression of the unique cultural baggage we have acquired as we proceed through life's journey. This baggage not only influences the way in which we perceive reality, but also goes a long way towards explaining our biases and value judgements.Conceptual map
Egyptian philosopher Abdelwahab Elmessiri argues that since our grasp of reality is mediated by our cultural context, it makes sense to speak of a conceptual paradigm or a conceptual map that is a product of this context. An individual's conceptual map influences his or her perceptions — generally at a subconscious level — and is informed by factors such as language, custom, predominant beliefs, experience, and a host of other psycho-social elements.Acknowledging the presence of this conceptual map goes a long way towards explaining why the same phenomenon is quite often perceived of very differently from one person to another or from one culture to the next. This has direct bearing upon the vehement differences of opinion that have polarised Muslims and their Western counterparts on issues pertaining to religion, secularism or freedom of expression.So while Western modernity's paradigmatic moment may have found its best expression in the words of Protagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who, in an instant of narcissistic eloquence, declared that man is the measure of all things, this does not necessarily hold true in non-Western cultures. The Western paradigm only manifested itself in the 18th century in Europe after an intense battle with the Catholic Church, in which secularism finally emerged victorious and belief and unbelief came to coexist as alternatives. This European experience is totally alien to Muslims and many other non-Westerners.With all its problems, the Islamic world has never been afflicted by a major crisis of faith. This does not suggest that the Islamic tradition is void of heretical thought or irreverent scholars. Abu Alaa al-Ma'arri, the 11th century Arab poet-philosopher, shared the sentiments of Protagoras, expressed in the following famous verses: / They all err — Muslims, Christians, Jews and Magians: / Two make Humanity's universal sect: / One man intelligent without religion / And, one religious without intellect /.Exception to the general rule
However, this idea was never able to penetrate the Muslim social imaginary and the Islamic masses remained reverent of the teachings of their religion. Al-Ma'arri's irreverence, till this day, remains the exception to the general rule. Some may judge this as a lack of progress, but to do so is to once again pass judgement from a rather subjective perspective.In an essay entitled "Freud and the Non-European", the late Edward Said warned against the racism that emanates from intolerance towards the Other. This is clearly manifest today, with the right wing in Europe openly assaulting Muslim cultural symbols and caricaturing their beloved prophet. The solution that Said suggests not only poses a challenge to social critics such as Zapiro, but to us all: we must strive to appreciate the Other by viewing the world contrapuntally, i.e. from the perspective of the Other. Non-Westerners (especially Muslims of this day and age) know a lot about the West, primarily because of the ravages of Colonialism and Imperialism.Its is therefore time for Westerners to start learning a little bit more about the Other, because the only way in which mutual understanding can be forged is to trace the provenance of our exclusive worldviews, in the hope that this will help us to overcome the differences that separate us. As Charles Taylor so poignantly argues, with the realisation that our differences matter comes the humbling insight that there is a lot we don't understand, that we lack even the common language to describe our differences. It is ultimately the search for this common language that gives us cause for hope,even if it is only the beginning of a process of engagement that carries no guarantee of a brighter future.Aslam Farouk-Alli is a South African diplomat serving in the Middle East. He writes in his personal capacity.
The aspiration of the Media Review Network is to dispel the myths and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and to foster bridges of understanding among the diverse people of our country. The Media Review Network believes that Muslim perspectives on issues impacting on South Africans are a prerequisite to a better appreciation of Islam.