Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cartoons again: Another Perspective

Manorama Sarasvati has a thoughtful/scholarly response to the cartoons controversy, expressing some sympathy for the Muslim protestors (though obviously not for their violence). Her most provocative point might be this one:

When the larger narrative is articulated, as I have tried to do above, the particular argument that Muslims are overreacting to "just a few cartoons" becomes much more complex because of the context in which it circulates. In fact, the outrage of Muslims does not stem from a response to just a few cartoons, but rather to an entire visual economy which dehumanizes Muslims, and specifically, Muslim bodies, as a means of expressing and visually reinforcing western dominance. We need only to think back to the torture photos for another example in which the argument that the photos were the result of "a few bad apples" seems strangely familiar. It's only a few cases, we were reassured. Muslims have no need to get upset. And after all, there is a cost to freedom. The visual representation of what that cost is, and what it is has historically been, was hardly interrogated. It fit quite well into a narrative that relies on such logic for its continuation.

Though I agree with this particular point, I actually differ with Mano on the broader question of how to read the ongoing protests riots, for reasons indicated in my comments on her blog.

7 comments:

Chandra said...

Mano seem to play into the same old "everything that west does and doesn't do is an insult to Islam" sterotype. I am not sure why protesting Muslims (killing their own in the process, btw) need validation from the west about their religion.

Manorama said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Manorama said...

I deleted my above comment because I thought there was a better way for me to word my response.

Chandra, thanks so much for your honesty in how you felt about my post. Can you please tell me which part of it you read as my saying that Muslims need validation from the west for their religion? That's not what I meant to say at all, and I certainly want to revise/rethink the place you read that way. I certainly didn't write that and am having trouble seeing where that reading came from.

Also, I spent a lot of time trying to make the point that the outrage was sparked by a continuation of a larger narrative rather than just making blanket statements about Islam v. west or vice versa (this was the purpose of those first few paragraphs). Can you tell me where in the post you find me feeding stereotypes? Again, I'd like to rework that section to achieve the critical piece I'd intially set out to write.

Amardeep, thanks for linking to me and for your commens on my site.

Anonymous said...

The human mind is a mysterious thing. Why is it we defend ourselves by becoming what everyone believes.

The comics portrayed a religous figure with a bomb on his head. In retaliation they began rioting and burning buildings, killing people, and general destruction.

This is a lot of things come together, but not the way to prove that the comics were wrong.

vk said...

I find Manorama's point disturbing. Yes, there have been abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib. There has also been a history of western meddling in the Middle East and elsewhere. However, there has been considerably more violation of human rights and egregious behaviour by fellow muslims in all these places. Also, there is a serious double standard in these protests. There are hardly any muslim countries in the world where other minorities (both of other religions and other minority islamic sects) have been treated equally and their rights protected. So, to justify this rage on basis of persecution is a little shortsighted. Finally, muslims are not exactly the only group who have faced nasty western meddling. One could also logically extend these arguments to provide a reasoning for terrorist activity perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists (in fact this is exactly the narrative they use- Persecution in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechenya, Iraq etc, => killing people in non-muslim countries is o.k, which is a deeply fascist narrative.).

What is repellent to me is the nature of the response to the cartoons. I think they were in bad taste and offensive. However, the appropriate form is to protest peacefully or to ignore the cartoons entirely. It is not as if the newspaper in which they were published is widely read. The response is exactly of the wrong sort and tends to play into existing stereotypes of Islam. This response was also not entirely spontaneous, the protests were deliberately fanned by clerics from Denmark and elsewhere.

Manorama said...

vk, do I imply that human rights abuses perpetrated by Muslims in Muslims countries do not exist, or should be overlooked? Continued dehumanizing and offensive representations from a source which seeks to dominate would contribute to anger. The anger isn't just a response to one thing. That's the point I was making. This point does not equate to saying that the west is the only source from which human rights abuses or violence occurs. If I said that in my post it would seriously disturb me, too, and I did not intend to imply any such thing at all. Can you tell me what part of my post implied that so I can revisit what I wrote, please? What I was trying to do was deal with one particular narrative of power, but I by no means meant to imply that because I was focusing on that narrative, that violence from other parties never happens.

I agree with you that justifying violence by citing previous abuses is extremely problematic. I tried to make it clear in the last paragraph of my post that I am not in favor of any violence at all that was part of the protests, and the solidarity I indicated was in voicing opposition, not with violence. I am sorry if this was unclear.

vk said...

Manorama,
I apologize if I came across as implying that the points made by you are your personal opinions or justifications of recent events. This was not really my intention. I read your essay again, and I am in agreement with most of your description of the larger narrative behind the present expressions of anger.
I also agree that these protests are not isolated and completely trivial. To be honest, this is exactly
what is disturbing to me. My point regarding the narrative that you describe is to do with the exclusion
of any discussion or debate regarding the repression internal to these societies. There is a strange combination of anger directed outwards (at westerners and others) combined with a willingness to overlook
the grievously flawed nature of their internal social structures. This makes for a potent source for violent activity. A much more potent manifestation of this anger was in the 1980's when muslims from all over the Arab world were recruited to take part in the Afghan Jihad, and formed the nucleus of today's Islamic terrorist organizations. It is also telling that, in comparison, there were practically no muslims from countries like India and other places in the Far East with significant muslim populations who were active in
such efforts. Finally, I was only taking the narrative you described to its logical end, when I made that statement about the ideology of Islamic terrorist organizations.

However, I was puzzled by a part of your essay that Amardeep quoted. You state:
" In fact, the outrage of Muslims does not stem from a response to just a few cartoons, but rather to an entire visual economy which dehumanizes Muslims, and specifically, Muslim bodies, as a means of expressing and visually reinforcing western dominance. We need only to think back to the torture photos for another example in which the argument that the photos were the result of "a few bad apples" seems strangely familiar. It's only a few cases, we were reassured. Muslims have no need to get upset. And after all, there is a cost to freedom."

Given the way this is written, it is not clear to me whether this is your personal opinion, or describes what you believe to be a part of the narrative. If it is a statement of opinion, I cannot completely agree with this. The visual economy you speak of is not always directed at visually reinforcing Western dominance (At least I suspect this to be the case).