Depicting the Prophet: Religious transnationalism and the deterritorialization of Islam

By Neil Russell

Introduction: Muslim minorities in Europe

In September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, sacred in Islam, as a suicide bomber. In the following months Muslim communities from across Europe joined their counterparts from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa to protest against what they viewed as yet another example of the victimization of Islam in the West. The response to their cries was often one of astonishment and dismay, followed by statements such as “they don’t understand our values.”[1] On the op-ed pages of newspapers across Europe, the issue was framed as one regarding liberal democratic values, namely the right to freedom of expression. This was the central defense of the Danish newspaper in question, positing its retort to the storm of criticism its cartoons had attracted. This was said to be a principle which immigrant Muslim communities were not accustomed to and did not understand, coming from invariably authoritarian countries.[2]

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the fascination and fear towards Islam and its adherents has been intense. The result of this act of mass murder seemed to illustrate how the balance of violence in the eyes of the West shifted from one of war “outside” between sovereign nation states, to one of war “inside,” whereby the “embodiments of difference in civil society” themselves can become suspects.[3] As well as the potential danger from hostile and unstable territories outside the West, a new “threat from within” was perceived in civil society along ethnic and religious lines.[4] Large immigrant communities of Muslims were now viewed with fear and suspicion, even leading to a conviction that Islam posed a “threat to Western civilization itself.”[5] Panic regarding the possibility of another physical attack was soon to be accompanied by suspicion of a cultural threat.

This was most apparent in the United Kingdom when the “threat from within” was ostensibly realized when Muslims born in England targeted London’s transport system with suicide attacks in 2005 killing 56 people. While many recognized these attacks as a response to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003[6], for some it seemed to confirm the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis.[7] As Muslim minorities across Europe reacted vociferously towards the cartoons insult, it seemed like an inevitable development stemming from two seemingly incompatible cultures living side by side in ever increasing numbers.

I argue that the cartoons protests – in Europe at least – represented a call for inclusion, based on understanding and respect, rather than a rejection of the dominant culture, resulting from irreconcilable difference. The form that this plea took, is one of a transnational social movement acting under the singular reference point which unites them: their religious identity as Muslims. The use of the word “religious” here does not refer to piety or adherence to tradition but as a reference point through which certain groups of people identify with each other. While the primary focus of my inquiry is the Muslims of Europe and the motivation for their mobilization, I will also show how they acted alongside others in the Muslim world, even though the motivation driving their respective action seemed to differ.

European Muslims are representative of new, mutating forms of religious identity emanating from globalization and international mass migration. I explore how Europe’s Muslims represent Islam’s “deterritorialization” as a result of the novelty of living as a minority in a non-Muslim country. Young Muslims are now growing up without the territorially grounded cultural practices and traditions that their parents experience before uprooting, necessitating a need to invent new ways of understanding one’s identity.[8] Meanwhile protestors in the Muslim world were driven more specifically by grievances that can be linked directly to territory, such as the war in Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict.[9] Yet despite these particular manifestations of the global protest movement, we will see that their solidarity in defense of their religion possessed remarkable efficacy considering the lack of organized coordination for their action.

This episode consisted not only of civil society actors, but also Muslim organizations across Europe, the international news media and sovereign states. These movements presented a uniquely modern manifestation of Islam stemming from global mass migration which posed a challenge to the assumptions of European modernity. I will flesh out the extent to which transnational religious social movements have become actors on a global stage and in turn will explore the affect this has had on the respective role of the other actors.

Transnational mobilization and solidarity networks

Academics have come to understand “transnationalism” as the synchronization of activities based on common interests among a group of people who coordinate “resources, information, technology and sites of social power across national borders for political, cultural, economic purposes.”[10] The unifying factor is usually national, ethnic, religious and linguistic, although other movements do come together under different universal causes such as environmentalism or human rights. In so doing these actors create a space which transgresses bounded state territory–deterritorialization. The establishment of this space can be induced – not always intentionally – to create a platform from which those involved work towards a shared purpose or goal. Often the motivation is to “overcome oppression or to eliminate suffering” experienced by others of the perceived group or cause, whereby they “take action to aid these others or stand ready to do so if called upon.”[11] The notion that these people were responding to a perceived victimization became clear in the growth of activism and solidarity against the Danish cartoons. Thus a local issue was catapulted into the global sphere through a number of interrelated and overlapping elements.

It is important to provide an overview of the demographics of the actors involved in order to fully understand these developments. Mass migration among Muslims to Europe, the United States and elsewhere began in the 1950s, peaking around 1970, while continuing to the present.[12] The Muslim population in Europe now numbers around 12 million, composed of groups from the Asian sub-continent in the United Kingdom, Turks in Germany and North African Arabs in France.[13] I will refer to Europe’s minority Muslim communities at times as a collective transnational group, yet they are by no means uniform. Resulting from these shifts, a vast number of Muslims originate from a variety of countries where living as a religious minority is a relatively new phenomenon. But while these initial migrants have the unique experience of leaving one country for another, swathes of second and third generations of ‘rootless’ youths are now growing up in the West with less clear definitions of their identity.

These newer generations often lack the traditional versions of Islam practiced by their parents, and must establish new ways to understand their religion and their identity in relation to it, resulting in an Islam that is less ascribed to a specific culture or territory and instead deconstructed and modified into a Western context.[14] Roy calls this concept “globalized Islam,” and I will return to that later. Now I will turn to the issue of the cartoons and how transnational networks were shaped around them.

Transnational activism and civil and official actors

The conflict broke out when Danish Muslims took to the streets to exhibit their anger.  Little international attention was paid to their cries until December of 2005, when a Danish Muslim organization, the Community of Islamic Faith, visited diplomats and media organizations in various Muslim countries with the purpose of gaining support for their cause.[15] Vindicating their efforts, a newspaper in Egypt republished the images. This provided the catalyst for street protests, often violent, among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa.

With the subsequent attention of the international media, European states with large Muslim minorities such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, also witnessed activism against the Danish newspaper. As civil society actors in Muslim countries and in Europe led the defense of the religion, state actors soon followed suit. A diplomatic crisis ensued. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark while Libya closed its embassy in Copenhagen. This chronology of events shows how civil society actors and organizations, not the state, led the defense of the community. Only later did various Muslim countries enter the fray in an attempt to show their power on the international stage, seen in the cases of Saudi Arabia, Libya and elsewhere.

Olesen argues that the mobilization against the cartoons needs to be understood vis-à-vis the “interaction” between these different actors: civil society, media and official. Although the network was reliant on media and national actors in Muslim countries, Olesen also makes clear that the physical realization of the conflict was that taking place on the streets.

The protests also seem to confirm the argument that the face of religious transnationalism is more likely to be led “from below” through ordinary, poor and oppressed people, rather than one taking institutional direction “from above.”[16] This is an example of what Della Porta and Tarrow term “transnational collective action” as conjoining to coordinate “international campaigns on the part of networks of activists against international actors, others states, or international institutions.”[17] In London, for example, Muslims took to the streets demanding of their media institutions not follow other European countries in republishing the cartoons in solidarity with Muslims in France and Germany, who were unsuccessful, demanding the same thing.

The most remarkable reaction was the widespread boycott of Danish goods in Muslim countries[18]. Devji argues that this particular development, whereby civil society determines the response, suggests that “it is Muslims themselves who are inventing new forms of ethical and political practice for a global arena.”[19]

The creation of these diplomatic tensions between sending and receiving states has long been identified as an inevitable consequence of mass migration. Waldinger and Fitzgerald explain how the mass migration of the 20 and 21st centuries created a circular movement of peoples who maintain connections and regularly travelling back and forth between the countries.[20] Despite the fact that traditional scholarship on assimilation argues that each generation will “come closer to the dominant culture through acculturation,” recent evidence increasingly suggests more of an emphasis on retaining ethnic traits from the region of origin.[21] This would appear to be the case with Europe’s Muslims. Facing reluctance from the host society to accept these traits, these communities are finding solace and solidarity from Muslim countries. What the cartoon issue shows is an example of how Muslims, feeling threatened by a reluctance to accept/respect some of their cultural practices by their European hosts, used their ancestral identity to seek support and solidarity, which in turn appeared to have repercussions on a national level.

So how did this conflict, with reasonably modest origins, come to mobilize Muslim communities throughout the world? Through the news media, which provides a unique platform through which Muslims could display their solidarity with their counterparts around the world.

Relational mechanisms: the news media

The era of globalization and technological advances of communications has prompted a marked increase in the potential influence of the news media in the public sphere. Della Porta and Tarrow describe “relational mechanisms” which serve to bring together actors in “transnational coalitions.”[22] Faisal Devji argues that CNN and the BBC were particularly prominent in this respect due to their large reach not only in the West but also in Muslim countries. Devji explains how the news media served to maximize the realization of this “global community” of Muslims. He writes:

From the Philippines to Niger, these men and women communicated with each other only indirectly, neither by plan nor organization, but through the media itself. Just like the similarly hostile reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989, it was not the actual offending item that caused such offence, but rather its global circulation as a media report.[23]

While media reports represented the mode in which Muslims displayed solidarity with their counterparts around the world – with the knowledge that their mobilization also would be disseminated by the international media – it also paradoxically became the source of further anger in re-publications of the offensive cartoons.

With its transnational reach the news media serves as a provocation that stimulates revolutionary fervor among potential constituents of a network, in effect creating “new opportunities for the worldwide spread of claims.”[24] This is showcased by the tendency amongst journalists and media organizations to monitor each other’s stories, whereby “a more extensive and transnational media infrastructure in the Arab and Muslim world creates more points of visibility for Muslim claims within other parts of the world, as well as vis-à-vis media in Europe and the U.S.”[25] This can be understood as “overlapping solidarity networks”[26] forming new ties through consumption of media within the framework of upholding a common cause.

The images of the riots and demonstrations provided the visible appearance of resistance against the cartoons, serving as the vehicle through which others would join the movement.      Furthermore through the creation of a globalized community unified by their identification as Muslims, members found themselves part of a transnational space “without its members acknowledging or defining it accordingly.”[27]

Religious transnationalism

Until recently social science research on religious social movements has been minimal. The tendency has been to view religion as fundamentalist and a threat rather than as a legitimate actor to be engaged within dialogue.

The protests in fact represented valid challenges for the future of the liberal democratic state due to their truly modern nature, not a dichotomy between dogma and freedom.[28] For instance, various scholars of Islam in Europe argue that the issue is less about the actual depiction of Mohammed, which is forbidden in Islam, but about discrimination and demonization exemplified by the prophet’s depiction as a suicide bomber. Arguments against their claims in defense of liberal democracy have focused their outrage as an old-fashioned theological concern.[29] This frames the movement as a principle that threatens liberal democracy, rather than one which demands the rights purported to be protected by this structure of society. As Esposito perceptively points out, similar cartoons depicting stereotypes of Jews as greedy would be rightly condemned as racist. It would seem then that discrimination of Muslims has yet to become taboo. Although imams (such as those in the UK) frame the conflict as one of minority rights requiring the same legal protection as Jews and Sikhs, their pleas seem to be met with accusations of intolerance.[30]

Scott Thomas argues that in the ever increasingly multicultural world the foundational myths of the Enlightenment rationalism can no longer be sustained. Liberals have taken for granted the extent to which ideas and institutions were imbedded in the common Christian discourse, where now our “plural, global international society is being challenged by non-Western voices and discourses.”[31] The effects of globalization now make imaginings of diversity a reality unforeseen by prior liberal proclamations of pluralism.

Paradoxically the religious revival has come at a time when involvement with organized religion is in decline, while its civil society activism is in escalation. The product of these developments is the absence of traditional religious authority replaced by “para-religious bodies of clergy and especially rank-and-file believers.”[32] This is also noted by Sassen, who explains that: “the destabilizing of national state-centered hierarchies of legitimate power and allegiance has enabled a multiplication of nonformalized or only partly formalized political dynamics and actors.”[33] These new actors can be identified in the cartoon issue with the scores of civil society Muslims taking to the streets. While organizations such as the Muslim Council of Denmark and others attempted to achieve some degree of authority representative of Islam in their respective states (Denmark, UK, France, and Germany) and also on a supranational level (EU).

Global Islam and Muslim identity in Europe

Muslims in Europe comprise a variety of ethnicities and follow various branches of faith. Despite this, the experience of living as a Muslim minority on the continent, coupled with the deculturation brought on through succeeding generations, has prompted a sense of solidarity. Followers of Islam consider themselves as comprising of an umma (community or nation). Cesari argues that this concept allows for the creation of a “solidarity network and forms of mobility that form connections between European populations and the geographic and national spaces of the Muslim world.”[34]

This leads to a deterritorialization of identity which was once located within territory or ethnicity, where now adherents of the religion “identify with each other as much as, if not more than, they do with fellow citizens of their national homeland.”[35] It is important to note here that this is not some dogmatic retreat into the traditions of one’s religion, but a response to living as a minority amongst a perceivably hostile host nation. What the deterritorialized nature of the EU has done, Roy argues, is provide an ample platform for the realization of this concept. “Many Muslim organizations see in the construction of the EU an opportunity to bypass their own ethnic and national cleavages and to create something closer to what an ummah should be,” he explains.[36]

If we are to identify a new globalized Islam, with individual manifestations as seen in the case of Europe, it is worth looking at Kastoryano’s concept of a “transnational nationalism.” In reference to Europe’s Muslim minorities she poses the question of this “reinterpreted umma” stemming from globalization as one which appears to have lost its religious content in the traditional sense, defining itself as a “single cultural nation” rather than an “ideological state nationalism.” This new concept exists within the European space made possible by the Single European Act whereby: “nationalities, ethnicities, and branches of Islam intermingle and build their unifying discourse on the experience of “being Muslim in Europe.” [37]

To underscore the relevance of this term with regard to transnational networks it will be helpful to expand its meaning in Arabic. In the 19th century prominent Arab writers began to use the term in a metaphorical sense as a collective human body. Therefore what we are seeing in Europe is a distinctly particular phenomenon created by the globalization of Islam, but possessing its own identity and motivations. And so a “transnational solidarity founded on Islam,” in which individual national differences are “homogenized” formulates a new identity.[38]

Global Islam and liberal democracy

Even if we move beyond an idea of the conflict as essentially about freedom of expression, the capacity for the state to legitimately engage with this new global constituency remains questionable on account of the fact that liberal democracy becomes “parochial” in the context of a movement that mobilizes itself within a “new global arena.”[39] In a global context where the public sphere transcends state territory, the discussion of freedom of expression and tolerance risks becoming irrelevant. The platform and metaphysical environment in which the conflict takes place is not one which can be rectified by the state.

Devji argues that the limits of liberal democracy are most apparent when one considers its definition of tolerance: only those who are tolerant will themselves be tolerated. He writes: “Such a definition deprives tolerance of any moral content by making it completely dependent on the behavior of others. Tolerance therefore becomes a process of exclusion in which it is always the other person who is being judged.”[40] In order for tolerance to possess any meaning it must not be viewed as an independent value, but instead must always be understood in relationally.

On the one hand, European states have experimented with multiculturalism, allowing migrants from different cultures to maintain their ethnic traits and traditions. On the other hand, when the host nation reacts aggressively to the visible representation of such traits – as in the banning of the headscarf for Muslim girls in France – it is always the minority group that is considered intolerant and unwilling to adhere to the principles of tolerance. The onus therefore is always on ‘Other’ or the immigrant.

We are left here with a striking paradox born out of a misleading interpretive framework. The liberal democratic defense is masked as one adopting a contemporary position in defense of modern principles and values. This interpretation fails to appreciate the fact that although religion is the unifying trait for these groups, it is not an issue of piety but one of respect and understanding. Moreover, this view of modern forms of religion, discounts and under values the global transfer of peoples and thereby ignores the existence of a global public sphere.


The event of the cartoon protests was made possible through a combination of inherently modern factors: mass migration, the globalization of Islam and the international news media and represents a fundamental challenge to the assumptions of the territorial sovereign state.[41] This challenge comes in the shape of a transnational civil society unified under Islam.

As a result of globalization, this identity becomes fractured, and continues to manifest in new ways in response to living outside the region where one’s family originated. These issues have led to hostility from host states, leading to processes which resist integration. These developments, however, provide us with the first significant challenge to the assumptions upon which the liberal democratic state in Europe was first founded. The failure to acknowledge these developments has led to migrants’ collectivities who display their willingness to unite under the banner of Islam.

Hence the Danish cartoon conflict signifies a set of fundamental challenges and questions for the territorial nation state in a globalized world. Whilst the state is still the main actor in responding to transnational social movements, its legitimacy in doing so becomes increasingly questionable once we recognize that the constituency it responds to is global. Global Islam has served to expose this development in striking ways.

[1] Bruce Anderson, “Stop cringing and stand up for our own values,” The Independent, 6 February 2006.

[2] Philip Hensher, “Does the right to freedom of speech justify printing the Danish cartoons?” The Guardian, 4 February 2006.

[3] Hoeber-Rudolf, S. (1997). “Religion, State and Transnational Civil Society,” in Hoeber-Rudolf, S. & Piscatori, J. (eds.). Transnational Religion and Fading States. Westview Press, p. 4.

[4] Hellyer, H.A. (2009) Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans. Edinburgh University Press.

[5] Esposito, J. & Burgat, F. (eds.)(2003) Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and Europe. Rutgers University Press. p. 3.

[6] Julian Glover, “Two-thirds believe London bombings are linked to Iraq war,” The Guardian, 19 July 2005.

[7] Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic, September 1990. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations the remaking of world order, 1995.

[8] Roy, O. (2004). Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Columbia University Press.

[9] Roy, O. (2006) “Holy War,” Newsweek, 13 February.

[10] Kastoryano, R. (2007) “Transnational Nationalism : Redefining Nation and Territory.” In Benhabib, S., Shapiro, I. & Petranovic, D. (eds.)(2007),  Identities, Affiliations and Allegiances. Cambridge University Press, pp. 159-181.

[11] Gould, C. (2007) “Transnational Solidarities,” in Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 38, No.1, spring 2007, p.156.

[12] Roy, 2004.

[13] Hellyer, 2009. p.1-2.

[14] Cesari, J. (2003) “Muslim Minorities in Europe: The Silent Revolution.” In François Burgat & John Esposito, (eds.), Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and in Europe. London: Hurst & Company.

[15] Olesen, T. (2007) “Contentious Cartoons: Elite and Media Driven Mobilization,” Mobilization. 12(1): 37–52.

[16] Hoeber-Rudolph, 1997. p. 3.

[17] Della Porta, D. & Tarrow, S. (eds.)(2005) Transnational Protest and Social Activism. Rowman & Littlefield publishers. p. 7.

[18] Anthony Browne, “Denmark faces international boycott over Muslim cartoons,” The Times, 31 January 2006.

[19] Devji, F. (2006) “Back to the future: the cartoons, liberalism, and global Islam,” Open Democracy, 12 April. p. 5.

[20] Waldinger, R. & Fitzgerald, F. (2004). “Transnationalism in Question,” American journal of Sociology, 2004, vol: 109, no: 5, p. 1183.

[21] Gowricharn, R. (2009) “Changing forms of transnationalism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 32: 9, p.1619.

[22] Della Porta, D. & Tarrow, S. 2005. p. 9.

[23] Devji, 2006.

[24] Olesen, 2007. p. 38.

[25] ibid, p. 45.

[26] Gould, 2007. p. 148.

[27] Gowricharn, 2009. p. 1624.

[28] Tariq Ramadan, “Cartoon conflicts,” The Guardian, 6 February 2006.

[29] Devji, 2006.

[30] Esposito, J. (2006) “Muslims and the West: A Culture War?”, 14 February.

[31] Thomas, S. (2000) “Religious resurgence, postmodernism and world politics,” In Esposito, J., & Watson, M. Religion and Global Order. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

[32] Esposito, J., & Watson, M. (2000). Religion and Global Order. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. p. 33.

[33] Sassen, S. (2008). Territory-Authority-Rights. Princeton University Press. p. 279.

[34] Cesari, 2003. p. 111.

[35] Piscatori, J. (2000) “Religious transnationalism and global order, with particular consideration of Islam,” In Esposito, J., & Watson, M. Religion and Global Order. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. p. 78.

[36] Roy, 2004. p. 103.

[37] Kastoryano, 2007. p. 170.

[38] ibid, p. 170.

[39] Devji, 2006.

[40] ibid

[41] Devji, 2006; Fraser, 2007.