x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Best response to provocation is restraint

The societies of the West and the Muslim world have different sets of taboos. A mature conversation, not mutual recrimination, is essential.

Like a child who feels neglected, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo has seized upon a juvenile way to win some extra attention: make trouble. As any parent will tell you, the best way to deal with such provocation is to ignore it, as long as possible.

The paper, published every Wednesday, announced on Tuesday that it was about to print new caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Coming so soon after a wave of protests around the globe about the insulting and offensive film Innocence of Muslims, the timing of this new provocation could hardly be worse (or better, from the point of view of editors trying to win publicity and sell copies).

Even before the issue came out, riot police were guarding Charlie's Paris office and some embassies. The paper's website crashed after being attacked. In 20 countries, French embassies, cultural centres and schools were closed.

At a time of apparently increasing right-wing extremism in Europe, this is worrisome. But Charlie has a 50-year history of provocation, from mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle in 1970 to republishing, in 2006, the inflammatory Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Indeed, intentional provocation is a growth industry just now. Innocence of Muslims, with its laughable production values, had been seen by a handful of Americans, but was plucked out of obscurity by Islamist-friendly broadcasters and agitators in the Muslim world, with tragic results in Libya and elsewhere. In a mirror action, right-wing US media then depicted the protests as reflecting mainstream Muslim opinion, despite evidence that the Libyan killing was carefully planned.

The West and the Muslim world plainly have different sets of taboos, and there are many views about what is offensive. Improving mutual understanding demands a mature conversation. That is the ultimate way to minimise the mischief of those in both worlds who cultivate power or profit or find gratification by depicting "the other" as "the enemy".

Trouble-makers, like children throwing tantrums at dinner, try to manipulate events, disrupting mature discussion. Playing their game only sets the stage for more disruption. The imam of the Grande Mosque in Paris, for one, understands that, and called yesterday for "reflection and calm". And today in our pages, Egypt's Grand Mufti cites a noteworthy precedent for restrained reaction.

It is up to the culturally and politically mature, in both worlds, to stop the spiral of recrimination.