Thursday, February 02, 2006

Try Not To Waffle: the Anti-Islamic Cartoons Controversy

It's very hard not to waffle a little in response to the Anti-Islamic cartoons controversy. The cartoons in question are now all over the internet, though they were first printed in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper a couple of months ago, and reprinted in many European newspapers this week. One is tempted to say: "Well, I support freedom of expression, but these cartoons sound very offensive. So while I defend this newspaper's right to print what it did, I disagree with their decision to print these particular cartoons."

And someone from my particular ethno-religious background might be especially invested in this, as one of the cartoons portrays the prophet Muhammend in a turban with a bomb sticking out of it. Such images do not do much to help the Sikh community in Europe or North America.

But aren't there ways to react to this other than storming the Danish Embassy and the E.U.? Are we really in the midst of a major diplomatic incident over cartoons? And is there any way to respond without making that slightly awkward waffling motion?

There are, incidentally, other cartoons that appeared with the 'Muhammed-turban-bomb' cartoon. They are described in the Nation, and they are pretty unsavory sounding:

I've been following the controversy over editorial cartoons published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper that show the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb under his headdress, saying that paradise was running out of virgins for all the suicide bombers, and holding a sword with his eyes blacked out. Since Islam forbids any visual depiction of Mohammed, and since these cartoons basically argue that terrorism is inherent to Islam, Muslims across Europe have taken offense, some countries have boycotted Danish goods and a few are up in arms--literally. (link)

Offensive? Yes, very. (Of course, it stops short of the high mark for blasphemy set by the The Satanic Verses. That was not something Rushdie printed because he thought it would be funny; he was trying to draw blood -- and he did, only he came dangerously close to having it be his own. But I digress...)

--The London Times, wafflingly, decided not to reprint the cartoons, but says it will provide links to the cartoons for those who wish to see them.

--The BBC did show the cartoons as part of a story on the controversy, according to Bloomberg.

--The International Herald Tribune reports that the Jordanian Times tried to run the cartoons, though the publishers later withdrew all issues.

--And here is my own attempt to not waffle: Muslims in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere are overreacting. These are offensive cartoons, but they represent the views of a small group of individuals, and they appeared in a short-term venue where they were going to be forgotten quickly (unless someone were to specifically start a controversy over them). If the beliefs of the faithful are as strong as they claim, they will withstand a couple of nasty caricatures in a newspaper somewhere. Hysterial anger and threats of violence are well out of proportion to the offense. And it distracts from the real issues: the disastrous American occupation of Iraq, and the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Also, people who are outraged about the cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten should have a look-see at the Arabic press sometime. Have a look at this array of offensive cartoons from Arabic newspapers in recent years. I can't confirm that all of the cartoons he provides are real, but if they are legit this is a pretty powerful visual rebuttal to the charge that there is a one-sided pattern of insult here.


Anonymous said...

Oooh .. how cuuuute .. how ***** secular *****.

" If the beliefs of the faithful are as strong as they claim, they will withstand a couple of nasty caricatures in a newspaper somewhere. Hysterial anger and threats of violence are well out of proportion to the offense. And it distracts from the real issues: ..."

Er... if some Hindus were outraged and did the same at paintings of Saraswati would you & other ****secularists**** make the same kind of comments ! Lets be honest !

Who the F@#$ do we Hindus turn to, on one hand are the Hindu fundmentalists & on the other apologists for Islamic fundamentalism. (And yeah, you guys only bash Christian fundamentalism in the US.) ALL fundamentalism has to be opposed ... whether its by a majority or minority. When you see a mouse you guys get a cannon and when you see a 1000 lb gorilla you guys get out a pea shooter.

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Quite aside from all of these cartoons failing in the cardinal requirement of cartoons being funny, I disagree that anti-Israeli cartoons in Arab newspapers should be seen as a counter point to a cartoon insulting Muhammad of Islam. Neither Christian nor Jewish faith is caricatured in the Arab cartoons. It targets US & Israeli army, media and politicians. Surely that's fair game. And comparing Nazism to Israeli treatment of Palestinians might be seriously over the top, but isn't that the definition of cartoons. None of the cartoons appear to suggest that Judaism or Christianity is the source of the violence on Palestinians.

electrostani said...

Are you reading my post correctly? Just to restate: I am opposing the Muslim world's overreaction to these cartoons. I am saying that the freedom of expression comes first. There is sarcasm in my post: I find it hard to believe there is all this mess over a cartoon in a newspaper.

And yeah, I would say the same thing about a Hindu overreaction or a Sikh overreaction to potentially equally offensive representations. Look at my archives: I've gone after both Hindu censoriousness and Sikh censoriousness (in fact, multiple times). I've also said pretty directly that India needs a Uniform Civil Code.

Ruchira Paul said...

No, this is one of those issues where it is impossible to not waffle. While I would like to come out unequivocally on the side of freedom of expression (and I do, for the most part), it is difficult to ignore the fact that the nature of that expression is sometimes unnecessarily provocative and even mischievous. But that said, none of it deserves to spill over into violent overreaction.

The link to offensive cartoons in the Arab media is an eye opener. However, you'll notice that none of those cartoons is a religious put down (ethnic and political, yes) in the sense that the ones about Prophet Mohammed in the Danish paper are. But then, that may not be due to any magnanimity on the part of the Arabs. Being the newest of the Abrahamic faiths, all the prophets of Judaism, and Christ of the New Testament are venerable to Muslims also and hence out of bounds for insults.

Before 9/11, every year during Diwali and Passover, the conference of Southern Baptists used to issue a call to Hindus and Jews to forsake darkness and see light in Jesus. In that appeal were several very offensive characterizations of the two religions (and the Baptists were not joking either). For some reason, they left the Muslims alone. Some Muslim leaders in Houston would boast that the Baptist did not bother them because they knew that " in Islam, they were up against the Ferrari of faiths." After 9/11 everything changed of course.

But hypocrisy is not the hallmark of any one religion, as we know well. The question is whose holy ox (or cow) is being gored. Guest bloggers and I have been engaged in this discussion for the past couple of days at my own blog. I may be one of the few readers here who is old enough to remember the halcyon days of the cold war. I am nostalgic for the seventies when the dividing lines were political ideologies and not whose god can beat up whom.

Anonymous said...

Hey, do you remember the time you hosted offensive comments about the Hindu God Ram on your blog? As I recall, they were on the occasion of Diwali, completely unprovoked, for no reason, completely random.

There was no apology from you, as I recall.

electrostani said...

My earlier comment was for D. Singh, not Suvendra.

And actually I do think that some of the Arab cartoons do exploit anti-Semitic stereotypes -- the bearded Jew with the hooked nose and so on.

I suppose one could argue that it's not so much religion as a skewed version of 'culture' that's being marked in the anti-Semitic images. But as we know, the two often overlap.

electrostani said...

And anonymous, surely you aren't holding me accountable for something offensive written by a commentor. I think you are, since you wrote "hosted" and not "wrote."

At any rate, if it's what I think you're thinking of, I deleted it within a few hours.

If there is something currently on the site you find "offensive," write me an email and we'll talk it over.

BeeDee said...

but surely the fact that the arab media indulges in stereotypical cartoons is no excuse for the european media doing the same?? it might be a reason to say look, u have no right to point fingers as us, but it is no reason to say, 'we have the right to publish racist offensive cartoons because you do'. doing so has eroded the ground away from ordinary danish/french muslims, who are almost certainly not religious fanatics, who are possibly offended by these cartoons, but equally horrified by the reaction to it.

where is the space, either in the arab media, or in the european media for expressing their views? the european media this time is as guilty as the arab media, of doing this 'either you're with us or you're against us' thingie. the issue is hardly that simple.

i am quite apalled by the cartoons and their implications (they are so not funny), but horrified by the arab world reaction. but i feel as if this is a minority opinion...that either i have to explicitly espouse a 'freedom of speech' cause (and i personally don't think that this freedom is absolute), or i have to side with fundamentalists. fantastic.

this is just a terrible cycle of bigotry and counter bigotry.

and finally, as i wrote in a blog post today, there will be no winners in this game. there will be more kidnappings and beheadings in the name of a much beleagured God by terrorists who will use this as an excuse. and there will also be increased racism on the streets of paris and copenhagen by those who will see muslisms (or coloured ppl) as a legitimate target for an open expression of hatred under the guise of freedom. as i said, no one wins.

Saheli said...

Boycott the paper, and send it angry letters all you want. Despise anyone who buys the paper and enjoys it. Fine. Most of the other reactions are out of line, plain and simple. Words with words, and only sometimes physical action with physical action. Fighting words (or lines on a page) with physicial action is the mark of a three-year old. Striking out at everyone in spitting distance of the true cause of your anger is not a whole lot more mature.

msingh said...

I haven't seen the cartoons, nor do the feel the need to. This whole affair raises a number of questions for me:

* What is the role news media in the work they do? Do they have any responsibility for the betterment of the country / world, or are they just driven by the need to stay alive and make profits?

* Even allowing for freedom of speech, should there not be some agreed standards to prevent news media from generalising and painting entire nations / peoples with the same brush? And does freedom of speech mean the media are free to jeopardise any attempts being made to solve world problems differences between people?

* Should the mantra of “constructive criticism” not apply to the news media?

Presenting a case with facts and figures is one thing, but saying that an entire group of people are terrorists, albeit by depicting their prophet as a terrorist is not a very adult, sensible or correct thing to do. Newspapers should give more thought to the repercussions of what they print. At the end of the day I suppose we also have the freedom to choose whether we bother to read newspapers (and which one).


Chandra said...

While I usually scratch my head when I hear Islam is religion of peace, I did find the cartoons pretty offensive. Muslim media and intelligentsia usually are hypocrites when it comes to religious portrayal of non-Muslims in Islamic country and Muslims in non-Islamic countries. Just read a Pakistani school book (or media) portrayal of Hindus or Arab newspapers/TV of Jews and Christians, I guess. But portraying Mohammad as the way Danish papers did is completely out of bounds. While free press and secularism is fine, it can become a slippery slope. I would be up in arms (my arms, I mean) if they did the same to Hindu gods - but probably won't blow up things. Anyway, I would think more car bombs and killings are on the way to European countries.

Dee said...

I thought the point of freedom of the press was to allow people to have information--not to smear and libel religious figures.

electrostani said...

I thought the point of freedom of the press was to allow people to have information--not to smear and libel religious figures.

Actually, the point of freedom of the press is that there doesn't need to be a point to it. It is a good in itself.

Certainly it is used for unfortunate ends quite often (just think of the cancer represented by paparazzi and the tabloids), but most people who support it agree that its value goes beyond particular good or bad uses. It is somehow hard to imagine the idea of democracy without it.

Saheli said...

It is a good in itself.

Absolutely Amardeep. Absolutely.

Really, I'm pretty shocked that people are even willing to consider that any *force*--governments or mobs--should dictate what person can and cannot say or write or print when such speech does not directly affect other people's safety. Everyone faces choices in life, and if the choice is between being popular, or even having a job or selling papers, and not restraining one's tongue, why then, yes, of course one must suffer the consequences of ones choice of speech. Direct incitement of violence and false cries of "Fire!" are the notable possible exceptions with the condition of immediately, directly impacting other peoples' safety.

But no free person should ever have to choose between what they want to say and express, however vile and disgusting, and the avoidance of physical force--the rightful administration of which is the fundamental privelage of the state, and the wrongful administration of which is the fundamental sin one human being can committ against another. As soon as you are faced with that choice, you are not free and your fundamental humanity is being impinged upon.

Ruchira Paul said...

Except that Saheli, this one comes pretty close to crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Consider the following:

1.Jyllands-Posten is a fundamentalist Christian paper and probably not far in its deeply held beliefs from the cruder, less restrained Muslim counterparts.

2.With Europe's own virulent anti-Semitic past, do you see European papers publishing Nazi style anti-Jewish cartoons in the name of free speech? (Or anti-Black jokes in US papers?)

3.With the Iraq war brewing and the "us vs them" paranoia which has the Muslim world on edge, the result of the provocation was surely predictable.

I am myself non-religious and it always irks me that so much human energy is wasted defending religious "values" and not current day social ills. I do also believe that free speech and offense go hand in hand and free speech ought to take precedence over all other considerations - even blasphemy. But I am also a realist and recognize the raw nerve that religious "insults" tend to hit in a large portion of the world population. My own opinion is that the non-Muslim media would be much better off publicizing the offensive "Arab" cartoons that Amardeep links to, in order to expose Islamic hypocrisy and vitriol against others, rather than play the "my god is great and yours is scum" game with them. I am afraid that the situation is going to get very ugly. And indeed it is a vexing case of "waffling" for all of us sane folks.

Faylasuf said...

How can you compare the anti-Israel cartoons in the Arab news to the anti-Islamic cartoons in the Danish newspaper ? You must be out of your mind or very sympathetic towards Israeli terrorism or self-defence. Please don't be so pathetic in your logic.

Rebecca said...

Ruchira, some of the cartoons that the European press printed in the last few years criticizing Israel and Prime Minister Sharon have used anti-semitic stereotypes, despite the anti-semitic past of Europe.

And Razib - take a look at the anti-Israel cartoons in the Arab press. They aren't just being critical or mocking of Israel - they freely use anti-semitic stereotypes to criticize Israel.

Of course, I think the Arab press should be free to publish these caricatures - under the principle of free speech. But I feel equally free to denounce them as anti-semitic and vile.

SikhsRus said...

Great post, Amrinder Ji!

Razib Rashedin: Actually if you read his post carefully, Amrinder seems to have pro-palestinian views because he seemed to disagree with Iraq war and Israeli occupation of West bank.

Anonymous said...

For a group of people who are wanting to prove the cartoons are wrong and unjustly embody their religion, they are finding a "great" way to prove it.

Let's blow stuff up, cause violence to show that the cartoons saying that we worship violence are wrong.