What the Danish Cartoon Controversy Tells Us About Religion, the Secular, and the Limits of the Law

Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech
by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood
(California, 2009)

This very rich little book seems to me a very good place to begin the new decade. It is smart, informed, thoughtful, urgent—and properly unsettling. It is also very difficult to read quickly or to summarize in short order. It is well worth the effort.

The principal essays, by anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, take the Danish cartoon controversy as a starting point. They review the contexts of the publication of the satirical cartoons of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, and the angry responses that ensued; they ask us to take seriously the fundamental incoherence of the assumptions about religion that underlie the dominant narratives of those events (dominant narratives that were repeated again this week in the stories about a recent attack on one of the cartoonists.) The book also includes an introduction by political scientist Wendy Brown and a response to the essays by philosopher Judith Butler.

The Danish cartoons were first published in 2005. The angry response from Muslims around the world was incomprehensible—and repellent—to many outside those communities. In some places there were riots, and later boycotts of Danish goods. The most common explanation for the violence in the English and European language press was that the production of images of Mohammad is prohibited by Islamic law and further that Muslim immigrants in Europe and elsewhere have failed to internalize the democratic value of free speech. Jyllands-Posten, for its part, self-righteously claimed to be heroically rescuing free speech in the face of the fearful self-censorship practiced by Danish writers and artists with respect to criticism of Islam. The incident was portrayed as a clash between the liberal values of an open society and an anti-modern, authoritarian, and superstitious religion.

In their essays, Asad and Mahmood convincingly argue that this narrative largely misses the point in almost every respect. It misunderstands Islam; it misunderstands the liberal political order; and it misunderstands the complex common genealogy of Christianity and secularism.

Asad and Mahmood are expert guides to the many cultural and linguistic mistranslations of Islam that pervade the usual accounts of these events. As important as these corrections are, however, they regard, and want us to regard, these corrections as merely illustrations of a larger problem, one that is not just about Islam. They want us to recognize ourselves there. The failures of modern secular law and politics affect everyone. The divisions within the modern world between religious and secular are not natural ones. They have a complex history. Only by going back and taking seriously some of the turns that history has taken will we understand why religion has become such a contentious topic today.

Asad focuses on the “self-owning” individual of the liberal state and the many contradictions inherent in this invention. Tacking back and forth between fascinating disquisitions on Muslim theology and the European history of laws against blasphemy, Asad questions the easy identification of Christianity, freedom, and democracy, the substitutability of individuals in the modern bureaucratic state, the delusions of our confidence in our own mature rejection of transcendence, the nature of belief, the secularization of the biblical injunction that the truth will make you free, the class prejudices built in to blasphemy prosecutions in England, and the heroic nature of secular criticism.

Most surprising, perhaps, for many, will be his explanation of the legal status of belief in Islam. Asad says that individual belief is understood in Muslim law to be fundamentally inscrutable and that its coercion is always thought to be inappropriate. What is of concern to Islamic law, he says, is “seduction” or the disruption of a living relationship. “What matters, finally, is belonging to a particular way of life in which the person does not own himself.”

Saba Mahmood’s essay takes up several other difficulties with the conventional account of the cartoons. Throughout she expresses her skepticism about what she seems to regard as the premature “juridification” of the situation and of the capacity of law, modern secular law, to provide a remedy for the harm suffered.

Her essay begins with a careful re-description of the injury done by the cartoons. Drawing on her own ethnographic study of contemporary Islam, Mahmood argues that many Muslims were not offended because a law against representation of the prophet was broken but because a person they loved and revered was insulted. She considers two possible legal framings of the injury, one as an incidence of racism to be classified as a hate crime, the other in terms of blasphemy and free speech. She then shows how each fails in this case for various reasons, but, that it is, in large part, because modern liberal law, a law that assumes a basically protestant, private and belief-based understanding of what religion is, does not recognize a more devotional embodied form of religious adherence. “While many of those I interviewed condemned the violent demonstrations,” she says, “they nonetheless expressed a sense of grief and sorrow.” Grief and sorrow akin to that felt in the case of an attack on a family member. She ends her essay with a rejection of law in favor of education.

In the end, Asad and Mahmood are making more radical challenges than are perhaps acknowledged even by their deeply generous and sympathetic interlocutors Wendy Brown and Judith Butler to the capacity of even a well-meaning secular order to transform itself very soon.

A Different Sameness

The work of translation is urgent and, alas, only beginning, not just between the west and the rest, but also within the west. Even scholars Wendy Brown and Judith Butler, profound critics themselves of the current order, are eager, like the rest of us, for a comfortable place of cultural inclusion and progressive reconstruction. In her response to the essays Butler says that she is not sure where Asad and Mahmood come out on the conventions of critical discourse, on the relation of meaning or description and valuation or normative judgment. In my view, it is no accident that Asad and Mahmood are unwilling to accede to this plea. To do that is to give away the game, to accept the finality of the divisions of modernity, rather than showing the ways in which description and judgment are deeply entangled.

In their final rejoinders, both Asad and Mahmood reject Butler’s attempt at understanding because it seems to want to contain or limit their critiques within the very philosophical framework that they have worked hard to dismantle (notwithstanding her effort to expand the secular liberal order to include the work of philosophers Benjamin and Foucault). The very divisions—description/evaluation, a comparison of moral frameworks—on which secular critique depends, do violence to the social histories they have told.

What is anthropology for? “Applied” anthropology, as in the hiring of anthropologists by the American military to help with understanding Afghanistan, for example, seems to assume that understanding difference can provide a road to a renewed progressive politics. But anthropology is not just about translating other cultures. It is also about understanding what Asad calls “the modern secular condition we all inhabit.” The sameness is as important as the difference. Asad and Mahmood each show us a different sameness than the sameness of the secular liberal order. And it has a very long history.

Returning for a moment to the case of the Danish cartoons, consider another image that citizens of Denmark carry with them, both in cultural memory and literally, in their passports.

This image, from runic stones commissioned by a 10th century king, appears to bring together as bookends to this history two moments in European Christian triumphalism and xenophobic nationalism. Or does it? The man-god there depicted, crucified on an invisible cross, is bound by the Celtic snakes of pre-Christian Denmark. What is he doing in the passport? Does this image also blaspheme? Does its presence in the Danish passport constitute hate speech?

The essays in this volume suggest that law cannot answer these questions and that there is much work to be done.

[Correction: This piece was initially posted in a slightly different version. The current version reflects the authors emendations to our edits. –Eds.]