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Talks with Mircea Maliţa: on the cartoon war

V. M.: A drawing in a Danish publication sparked a crisis dubbed “the cartoon war.” Isn’t “war” an overstatement? Or are we about to see the start of what Huntington called the clash of civilisations? You have criticised him, and now he’s quoted everywhere.

M.M.: The crisis is serious and is has taken forms similar to a major conflict. From hundreds to hundred thousands Muslim protesters gather in Asia, Africa or even Europe, demanding that those who insulted the Prophet be punished. Casualties are being reported. Embassies and trade offices are being set alight or closed down. Export interests of some Western states are wiped out. Rarely have we seen such a shattering of the international system. But a clash between cultures, rather than civilisations is evident. To Huntington civilisation and culture are interchangeable; but for Europeans they are distinct concepts. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t understand things well unless I can tell what people know from what they believe. Civilisation is built on hard, scientific, technical or practical knowledge, which is universal. There is only one civilisation in the world, which is unlikely to face internecine civilisation wars. There are about ten thousand cultures (the term should always be used in the plural), quite different from each other, based on beliefs, history, customs and other specific differences, which grant specific populations a distinct identity and personality.

The connection between culture and war is hard to grasp, since culture is traditionally seen as noble, peaceful, tolerant, as cultivating ethics, while weapons are the product of technical civilisation.

At first sight this is true, but we should distinguish between facts and myths. Out of the 30 wars in the world today, only 2-3 are inter-state, the others are domestic, non-conventional, identity- and therefore culture-based. It’s no surprise: civilisation is built on integrating elements. True, it does provide universal weapons for combatants, but the reasons are fuelled by cultures’ fragmentising factors. Civilisation usually remains rational. Cultures may become extremist and fanatical, escalating into violence and sacrificial killings.

But the defiance obviously comes from Islamic extremists declaring the holly war.

As part of culture, where it stands next to ideologies also based on beliefs, values, views, religions have this capacity to turn faith into fanaticism and to ascribe to God the command of intolerant, violent and extreme deeds. Europe has been through all this. It had several centuries of religious wars, culminating in the 30-year war between Christians, with unimaginable destructions and massacres. After it created the scientific and technical revolutions, it focused on building civilisation and on modernisation based on Enlightened rational ideas. In the 19th Century, the true reason of wars came to light, and so the ancient imperial domination wars were resumed. Wars, regardless of their cultural masks, are born out of interests, and it is only through interests that they can be ended. Interests are negotiable, beliefs are not. Interests can be explained, beliefs cannot. If Islamic extremists wave their religious flags, this is not to mean that underneath there are no existence and survival interests, in the (more or less legitimate and feasible) sense that they assign to life in today’s world.

Let’s talk about the “asymmetry” of the two sides. On one side we find a young man burning with enthusiasm for his cause, setting fire, volunteering as an offended justice-seeker, ready to tie explosives to his belt; on this side we have a poor cartoonist exercising his right to freedom of expression.

You got the first one right. He obviously believes, rather than thinks. But doesn’t the latter, too? Let’s go back to the French Revolution, when the now classical Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights was being drafted. A number of Deputies with the National Army said, “Let’s add responsibilities, too; let this be the declaration of rights and obligations.” “There’s no need to, others replied. It goes without saying: they are the two inseparable sides of the same idea.” They were wrong. In today’s zest for individual rights, responsibilities and obligations are overlooked, and for some they even disappeared. Rousseau is ignored by the West’s anarchists. They have their extremism, too: no responsibility whatsoever should restrict freedoms. So the naive cartoonist who strongly believes in his absolute freedom fails to consider the consequences of his act. He obviously didn’t expect his country’s embassies to be set fire to, or rewards to be offered for his death, or plants to close down around him for lack of sale markets. He didn’t even notice how carefully Western governments draw a distinction between terrorists and extremists, on the one hand, and true religion, which they continue to respect, on the other hand. He didn’t understand that his pointless drawing will be used by extremists as the perfect pretext to mobilise a huge mass of believers, turning him into a symbol of one world’s insolence as to the other. I can understand the sensitivity of certain image-and media-centred societies, which believe that any infringement upon these freedoms lacking responsibilities is unacceptable. But the Western culture is wrong if it takes an unreasonable, irresponsible cartoon as a symbol of the freedom of expression. It would be symmetrical to turn this cartoon into a symbol of outrage and irreducible conflict for the opposite side. Symbols have grown more inflammable and dangerous today, although they often were, in the past, the spark to start a war and the fictitious reason to wage it.

Should we expect serious consequences?

Apparently not. Already attention has shifted to another symbolic war, launched this time by Sunnis who desecrated Shiites’ sacred tombs. Blood is being shed and horrors are being committed as we speak, under the sign of the Prophet’s heirs. Within the Islamic world, a more serious war is about to break out. There may be a civil war in Iraq, where stability is a mere mirage. If it spreads around the Muslim world, where it is smouldering, consequences may be more serious than the Reformist-Catholic conflict in the 17th Century.

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