Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Three articles on Muslims and cartoons

1. "What next, bearded one?"
Our traditional values have been trampled on and we are offended. A wake-up call.
By Sonia Mikich

I feel offended.

Zealots are nailing veils onto the faces of my sisters in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are busy hanging women, homosexuals, adulterers and non-believers.

But human rights, women's rights and the right to liberty are the most exalted in the history of humanity; this is the tradition in which I was raised. Values that make the world better and more peaceful.

I demand that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Indonesia and Egypt apologise to me. Otherwise I am unfortunately forced to threaten, beat up, kidnap or behead their citizens. Because I am somewhat sensitive about my cultural identity.

I feel offended.

Fanatics are blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, marvellous cultural monuments.

But art is an expression of universal beauty and innocence to me. It is a value that makes the world better and more peaceful.; this is the tradition in which I was raised.

I demand that Hamas, the spokesman of the French Muslims and the Director of the Al-Azhar-University apologise to me. Otherwise I will never spend a holiday at the Taj Mahal, I will call for a boycott of Palestinian fruit and I will set the embassies of Tunisia, Qatar and Bangladesh on fire.

I expect understanding for this at the very least – my feelings are absolute and must be expressed globally.

I feel offended.

Videos show journalists, truck drivers and NGO workers having their throats slit or their heads chopped off. Jews see themselves represented as cannibals and pigs, Western women as decadent sluts. Apolitical engineers have to fear for their lives.

All in the name of God.

I demand that all the editors in chief of newspapers and television broadcasters in the Islamic world apologise to me, because they do nothing to prevent these obscenities.

Many people are concerned that the clash of civilisation is near. Oh please, it has been going on for a while now, not only manifest in the monstrosities mentioned above but part of everyday life. How fragile, how superficial must Muslims' religious values be. How can cartoons in an unknown newspaper in a little European country cause such an upset and allow a handful of organised agitators to be able to drive many thousands onto the streets.

Joking how the prophet Mohammed is running out of virgins because so many suicide bombers are standing at the gates of paradise is dark and mean. And, given the reality of global attacks, lamentably effective (just as a side note). But I did not find it especially funny that the misogynous Taliban availed themselves regularly of prostitutes. Or publicly "executed" video recorders and televisions in order to watch pornos in privacy.

Just a reminder: the earth is not flat. It should go without saying that individuals in a secular democracy have every right to caricature and mock authorities, even religious ones. They should be prepared to meet criticism but not punishment. Freedom of expression has to be understood broadly and there are sufficient laws and rules that can be employed to prevent abuse.

The film "The Life of Brian" annoyed a lot of Christians and provoked letters to editors, calls for boycotts and quarrels within families. But nobody in New Zealand suspected a conspiracy against Christianity, nobody in Malta felt compelled to burn the Union Jack. Nor do political authorities have a natural right to protection. Margaret Thatcher was chopped to bits by British journalists, comedians and screenwriters and then put back together in a ghastly way; it was good for the mental sanity of that era and did not kill anyone.

Everyone had the right to turn it off, look away or toss the newspaper in the bin. Freedom of opinion was the Siamese twin of freedom from fear.

The fact that fundamentalists of all persuasions are completely incapable of self-reflection, self-criticism, and self-irony would not warrant a mention, were it not for their practice of imposing their issues on me and my world. They assume that we will kowtow to them as soon as we recognise who they are: "Look out! Religious feelings! We're leaving the private sphere."

In the self-referential world of God or Allah or Jahwe warriors, feelings are increasingly used as weapons and honoured as the highest authority. Readily summoned, merciless.

In the debate over the cartoons, the prohibition of pictures is being presented as a compulsory principle of belief. To be respected everywhere, even in the state of Denmark.

It gives pause to think that those who claim to be offended are so proficient with the Internet and other modern communication technologies but know little about their own cultural history. In Islam's heydey, pictures were made of the Prophet. Mohammed lightly veiled, for instance, on a horse riding to heaven – a wonderful Persian miniature in the Chester-Beatty-Museum in Dublin. ( more )

What next, bearded one? Boycott Irish butter?

I do not have to concern myself with the sales figures of Danish yoghurt. I am not easy to blackmail and I am free to find Immanuel Kant's "sapere aude" more conducive to successful communal living than a Fatwa.

I hereby refuse to feel badly for the chronically insulted. I refuse to argue politely why freedom of expression, reason and humour should be respected. I do not want to continue to have to provide creationists scientific proof that the earth has been around for more than 10 000 years. And I am going to stop waiting for them to say on Al Jazeera, "Did you ever hear the one about the Prophet's beard?"

(Sonia Mikich , born 1951 in Oxford, is a television and print journalist. She hosts WDR's political magazine “Monitor." The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on February 6, 2006.)

2. The Mountain Comes to Muhammad
The Danish cartoon controversy is a breath of fresh air for Muslims and non-Muslims alike
By Tim Cavanaugh

If freedom of expression isn't dangerous, it isn't worth defending. One of the pernicious elements of big free-speech conflicts—and the controversy over 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten has in the past few days blown up into a conflict of vast proportions—is an argument usually made by free speechers themselves: that there's no harm (and thus presumably no reasonable grounds for offense) in a simple picture or movie or book.

Have these people never heard of Das Kapital ? Of the Bible or the Quran? A book can cause plenty of harm. So can a cartoon. It's precisely the volatility of free speech that has made artists themselves among the most hysterical alarmists on the topic of forbidden language.

Free expression advocates have made an effort to frame the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as a responsible attempt to broaden the conversation on religious freedom, when in fact (as several of the cartoonists themselves acknowledged) the stunt is unambiguously provocative, juvenile, offensive, and irresponsible. That's why it needs to be defended.

And the last few days have suggested an interesting development for advocates of free expression: We're winning.

This may not be immediately obvious. As of this writing, gunmen in Gaza are checking hotel rooms for Danish nationals; a newspaper editor in Jordan has been fired for defending the cartoons and the president of Afghanistan has denounced them; demonstrators outside the French embassy in the U.K. are agitating to "Behead those who insult Islam;" flags of European countries are being burned around the world; and Christian and Jewish leaders are, not unpredictably, joining their Muslim counterparts in denouncing the cartoons. This afternoon, buttinskis at the U.S. State Department issued a craven condemnation of an affair that is none of their business.

But a closer look at those "Anger growing over cartoons" headlines reveals something more encouraging than just another story of the perpetually hurt feelings of Muslim community leaders. The actions of inflamed Muslims have been producing consistent reactions from their targets. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons have been reprinted by newspapers in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Hungary and Jordan, and on countless blogs. The longer the protests continue the more widely the cartoons get distributed. The issue will almost certainly lead to a revisiting of the lamentable laws against "hate speech" in Europe, and with any luck to a debate on whether these laws are more likely to destroy public harmony than encourage it. Muslim activists are finding out why getting into a negative-publicity fight is as inadvisable as wrestling with a pig: You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

A sign that the worldwide protest is at least a tactical error surfaced in this interesting passage from the weekly Al Ahram :

"Muslims might have miscalculated the manner in which they handled the crisis," noted prominent Islamic scholar Abdel-Sabour Shahine, who suggested that instead of pursuing a boycott of Danish products, the Islamic world should have shown more tolerance, by focusing on promoting dialogue with the west, and educating them more about Islam. "The Qur'an ordains Muslims to engage in peaceful dialogue and use a more logical approach with those of different creeds." The prophet himself, Shahine argued, was constantly subject to offence during the first years of his prophecy in Mecca, and his reactions were so tolerant that those who initially opposed him ended up becoming Muslim.

"After all," said Shahine, "we'd rather have the Danes apologizing out of conviction, rather than because they feel threatened."

The situation this week is almost the opposite of the case of Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses , not least because we don't (so far) have the most prominent Islamic leader in the world issuing a death threat and ordering a hit on a man who wrote a book nobody read. Anybody who can recall the atmosphere in 1989—when religious rage seemed unstoppable and there was always some crank or contrarian around to point out that Rushdie really brought the trouble on himself—will notice the difference. European opinion polls and the mood of the media today indicate a different attitude, more confident and determined, more ready to admit the obvious point that civilized people don't go to the gun over an insulting picture. About the only similarity to 1989 is that government officials in the United States and Europe remain lukewarm in their support for free speech.

This is not an exhortation for "Euro-weenies" to stand up to the enemy within. The cartoon controversy can not be removed from its context of European dysfunction in dealing with its Muslim populations. It's not particularly noble or admirable for the folks at Jyllands-Posten to set out to provoke their own country's second class citizens . And the protestors are right to question why free expression has to take a back seat when it's a question of girls wearing hijabs in public schools but becomes precious on the matter of publishing insulting cartoons.

But the important thing is that the issue is out in the open, and neither side is standing down.

Like all the most absurd controversies, the Jyllands-Posten issue has taken a while to blow up. The paper commissioned a group of cartoonists in mid-September to draw pictures of the first Muslim's face and published the whole collection at the end of that month. (Islam prohibits depiction of the prophet, and as the late filmmaker Moustapha Akkad found out, even a false rumor of prophet imagery in a reverential pro-Islam film can incite violence.) The controversy simmered for months, with a group of Danish imams and ambassadors from majority Muslim countries pressuring the Danish government, without success, to censure the paper. When Reason first mentioned the story in November, there was barely any coverage of it online. That has obviously changed in the past few days.

But the Islamic explosion over the cartoons has been interesting. While you can't call the reaction good, it has been less bad than we might have expected, ranging from the legitimate (open criticism, demonstrations, boycotts of the offending newspapers) to the outrageous (violence, rioting, murder attempts), to something that resides between these two poles. A boycott of Danish products is unfortunate because it carries the assumption that the government of Denmark should be actively suppressing Jyllands-Posten and its works. The same goes for embassy closures, diplomatic sanctions, and so on, as well as the mendacious efforts by a group of Danish imams to incite locals during a tour of the Middle East. But all these actions are more or less within the bounds of acceptable discourse. Hizbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah's grotesque invocation of the Rushdie case stands out not just for its outrageousness but because this kind of talk has been rare among prominent Islamic leaders.

That's all to the good. I'm going to go out on a very short limb here and say it's the Muslim community, not the West, that needs to learn a thing or two from this experience. There have been objections that this controversy undermines our own efforts to enlist potentially friendly Muslims in the struggle against tyranny. This is no doubt the motivation of the U.S. State Department in its decision to side with the rioters. But this view is not only unprincipled (free speech is to be defended even if it inconveniences the war on terror); it condescends to the perceived close-mindedness of Muslims and misreads the nature of the tyrannies in question. There isn't a single dictatorship in the Muslim world that isn't solicitous of the religious beliefs of its own population, that doesn't dish out harsh punishments for offenses against Islamic, and sometimes even Christian and Jewish, religious sensibilities. Religious respect, in other words, becomes another form of oppression. If that's the kind of respect freedom-minded Muslims can expect from the West, they're better off getting insulted.

The Jyllands-Posten controversy is disturbing, but ultimately it is a step in the right direction for both Muslims and secularists. In an ideal, or at least a slightly better, world, nobody would be drawing goofy pictures of Muhammad because there wouldn't be any pressing need to provoke Muslims. We don't live in that world, so the best thing we can do is let controversy rage. It's the only way to clear the air.

(Tim Cavanaugh is Reason's web editor.)

3. A post-Satanic journey
The contrast between the "Satanic Verses" affair of 1989 and the cartoon controversy of 2006 shows how far Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain have travelled, says Ehsan Masood.
By Ehsan Masood

It is an email subject-line I will never forget. "See: insulting photos of our beloved Prophet." The body of the message began: "To all Muslims, please see this website for the horrible photos."

This was one of many emails sent out over the past ten days inviting people to complain to the media and government agencies in Denmark following the publication in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten of twelve cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The irony was not lost on me: as a Muslim I am not supposed to see images of the prophet, yet here was an email that amounted to an invitation to do so.

I have never deliberately looked at an image of Mohammed, nor at any of the first few generations of Muslim leaders. The reasons (as explained to me in childhood), included that an image might lead to mindless hero-worship, perhaps even idolatory, when what was more important to take home was the message and the values of the faith I was born into. Besides, so the argument went, who needs pictures when you have an abundance of literature on the lives, politics, likes and dislikes of the first converts to Islam, down to the smallest details, all contained in everything from children's books to multi-volume biographies.

To my eternal embarrassment, I even missed out on The Message , a popular (though initially controversial) biopic on the story of Islam, which was made in 1976 by Syria-born Moustapha Akkad . Akkad, who would later produce the Halloween films, died in November 2005 , a victim of the suicide-bomb attacks in Jordan. The Message was made following much careful negotiation with Muslim authorities, including al-Azhar University in Cairo. In the film, the prophet, his wives and children are neither seen nor heard. Instead, the central character and narrative voice of the film is Mohammed's uncle, Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn.

Needless to say, I never bothered to buy or read The Satanic Verses , Salman Rushdie's 1988 novelistic riff on themes drawn from Islam's history, which caricatured the prophet to such an extent that most Muslims felt that a red line had been crossed. The response to Rushdie's book has become part of the modern world's cultural history – bans on its publication in India and South Africa, followed by a notorious book-burning demonstration in England's northern city of Bradford, then (on 14 February 1989) by a fatwa against the novelist and all those associated with its circulation declared by Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

It seems that for most Muslims, this red line has been crossed again in 2005-06 with the Jyllands-Posten affair in Denmark. A linkage between the two events seems compelling.

In 1988, a work of literature is published in Britain that lampoons the prophet. A British government, media and many in the world of academia, arts and letters feel unable to acknowledge Muslim concerns. They believe that free speech is under threat, and cannot understand why people are upset. Some groups of Britain's Muslims, failing to make headway in the domestic arena, burn books in front of TV cameras and then seek to internationalise the issue by bringing it to the attention of leaders in Muslim countries, including Iran. There are demonstrations in many of these countries – which cost the lives of protestors in Islamabad and Kashmir; calls are made to have the book more widely banned, and pulped; and Ayatollah Khomeini sentences Rushdie to death.

In 2005, a series of cartoons are published that caricature the prophet. Across the next few months, a government and media refuses to acknowledge that this might be problematic and defends rights to free speech. Unable to get a fair hearing at home, some of Denmark's Muslim leaders travel to Muslim countries and bring the cartoons to the attention of authorities abroad. Swift action follows. Muslim ambassadors are recalled from Copenhagen, there is talk of a trade boycott , demonstrations take place, embassies are torched and people killed.

Yet there are at least two important differences between Britain in 1989, and Britain and Denmark in 2006.

First, here in Britain, across the worlds of politics and the media, there seems to be a consensus that Jyllands-Posten made an error in publishing the cartoons; and that, by republishing the illustrations, the editors of other newspapers in Europe helped to make the situation as explosive as it has become now.

Second, Britain's Muslim leaders (some of whom wanted Rushdie's book banned) today believe that Denmark's Muslims should not have sought to internationalise the cartoons controversy, and that Muslim governments have over-reacted. They include Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the founders of the Muslim Parliament, as well as the Muslim Council of Britain ( MCB ), an organisation that emerged out of the Rushdie crisis. Both these organisations today believe in the right to publish material (such as cartoons) that some people may find offensive. Though in common with the government, and the media (from the right-wing Sun to the liberal-left Guardian ), they also argue that there is no need to offend your own citizens, just because the right exists to do so.

This must surely represent more than a chink of good news amid what is otherwise a gloomy scenario. At the same time it also represents a ray of hope for the future. The hope being that the only way out of this crisis is for more and more meaningful engagement between people from Muslim countries and those outside, particularly in Europe.

As the fires rage, it is easy to be despondent, but reality has to prevail once the smoke clears. Denmark's Muslims must go beyond the ritual of "dialogue" with their government and media and begin to work together, as partners and as equals. At the same time, do the heads of state of Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia really want to isolate themselves and their people from a small Scandinavian country and its people? I doubt it. For all the rhetoric, a unilateral trade boycott is illegal under WTO rules (which they all aspire to) and I have yet to hear of any moves from Muslim countries to sever relations with Danida, Denmark's official development agency , which is also one of the world's largest aid donors as measured as a proportion of per-capita incomes.

The relationship test

Anyone who makes a living from the media or academia knows that the freedom to think, to speak and write without fear of prosecution is critical to open societies, to justice, representative government, equal rights for minorities, the progression of knowledge and innovation.

All journalists also know that there are limits to what we do, and where they lie. Rupert Murdoch , for example, is often in the news, but no editor of a Murdoch-owned newspaper anywhere in the world could ever publish a story that was critical of its owner, the owner's business interests, or members of his family. In the same way the Economist would never publish a leading article in support of anti-capitalist demonstrators, just as Saudi Arabia's Arab News would find it hard to publish an article entitled "Why Islam is not the religion for me".

There are other ways in which people working in the media exercise care. On balance, for example, we try not to poke fun at people because they are poor, marginalised in other ways, if they have a name that the majority will not recognise, if they don't have good language skills, if they pray to a different God (or to no God), or because they have a different skin colour.

As a writer, do I have the right in law to caricature other people if the net result is merely to cause offence? Absolutely. But will I exercise that right knowing that these "other people" are also likely to be my friends and neighbours, my parents' neighbours, my children's friends, people I have known for decades? The answer is self-evident. No.

In Britain, clarity over these limits – both their "external", commercial and political, aspects and their "internal" dimensions - has developed and sharpened over the past sixteen years. Both present continuing challenges of principle and practice. But a cause and consequence of the latter shift is that there has been a conscious and deliberate deepening of relations, a building of trust and a forging of friendships between Muslims, the media, the state, civil society and ordinary citizens. There is clearly a long way to go, but we have also come a long way since 1989 when the mood on all sides was one of anger, mistrust, betrayal, and a lack of confidence that relations could ever improve.

I like to think that this goes to the heart of the reason why Jyllands-Posten chose to go ahead with the original dozen cartoons , why the paper was backed by others in continental Europe, but not in Britain – and why this singular difference holds out hope for the future, in Denmark and elsewhere.

Any foreign correspondent will tell you that something happens to people who make an effort to mix with those of different backgrounds: they, we, stop using loaded categories in speech and in writing. Instead of talking about "immigrants", "foreigners", or "others", those we encounter become familiarised: as simply people, fellow humans, with the same rights, but also the same responsibilities. Behind the headlines and the flames, this is part of the long, slow – and still difficult – path from Salman Rushdie to Jyllands-Posten, and beyond.


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