Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

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The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad pictures controversy: my $0.02

As you may have heard, there has been a brouhaha building over the last 4 months due to 12 satirical images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad that the Jyllands-Posten printed in September, 2005. As Wikipedia reports:
The newspaper was accused of misusing free speech by Muslim groups - as well as groups of progressive Danes, and the resulting controversy led to the withdrawal of ambassadors by Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria, as well as consumer boycotts of Danish products in several Islamic countries. The newspaper has apologised for offending Muslims, but maintains it has the right to print the cartoons (and whatever else it likes), saying that Islamic fundamentalism cannot dictate what Danish newspapers are allowed to print. The newspapers' headquarters was subject to several bomb threats. (Article on Jyllands-Posten)

A large consumer boycott was organised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Arabic-speaking countries. Recently the foreign ministers of seventeen Islamic countries renewed calls for the Danish government to punish those responsible for the cartoons, and to ensure that such cartoons are not published again. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark. (Article on the cartoons and the controversy surrounding them)

Both European newspapers and the Islamic Society in Denmark have come under criticism for "adding fuel to the fire"; the former for reprinting the images and the latter for escalating the controversy through calls for hate speech trials, international sanctions, repudiation of diplomatic relations, etc.

Here is my personal opinion on the issue.

1. As always, and as with many other rights, free speech is a right that comes with the obligation of responsible use. The crux of this debate seems to be more about what people feel the extent of this right is, meaning whether the consequences of irresponsible use extend as far as the revocation of the right. I have seen many opinions posted by Muslim critics of the cartoons that assert: "if you do not use free speech responsibly, then that right must be taken away from you". Immediately the response comes, mostly from non-Muslim North Americans and Europeans, that the writers are unclear on the concept of free speech. Is it really that simple and clear-cut? Actually, I don't think it is. For example, there has been a broad and rather significant boycott of Danish products in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and lately Kuwait. Whether one has the right to curtail another's free speech does not actually account for whether one has the ability and will to do so. Thus, boycotts can also become weapons, for good or ill.

2. The compulsion to control others runs rampant in controversies of this type. On Tue 31 Jan 2006, I was editing the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy article on Wikipedia, just to correct some simple errors of grammar, style, and usage, and right before my eyes it was edited and reverted several times. Several times, the image was replaced by Islamic POV editors with "racism is prohibited by international law" GIFs (in an act considered vandalism by most other Wikipedia editors). In fact, this happened so often that the cache got poisoned with that text-only GIF!

3. Love the complainer, hate the complaint; love the ignorant, hate the ignorance. By this, I mean that if a complaint is legitimate, it should be heard and addressed, but as jereeza noted here, the object of the complaint usually has deeper roots. We should attack the ignorance, prejudice, and apathy at the root of this divisive struggle, and tear down their defenses, rather than simply humiliate or provoke those who hold opposing views.

I do think it was a pretty damn stupid and moreover odious thing to to do, because it was deliberately, obnoxiously provocative, as many have noted. I would go as far as to call Clinton's POV relatively neutral or at least uncolored by fanaticism in any relevant regard here, and as you may have read, he denounced the cartoons as irresponsible and appalling. While it may be justifiable to go looking for depictions of the prophet Muhammad in pop art for the purpose of documenting some perceived attack on free speech, soliciting them or collecting the (IMO relatively harmless and) neutral ones with the really obviously offensive editorial cartoons is just incitement.

As many cartoonists have noted, not everything is funny to everyone; but when something is deliberately calibrated to enrage a huge number of people and is not particularly amusing in its own right to any, what are we to make of the motives of the publisher? Ratings and publicity whoring is perhaps a charitable accusation.

4. The middle ground is important. Islamic tradition varies on the topic of respectful portrayal of its prophets. Wikipedia notes: "Many Muslims have believed, or do believe, that any pictorial, or sculptural, representation of religious figures, or sometimes human figures, or even any living creatures, is wrong. However, the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, does not directly prohibit the depiction of human figures; it merely condemns idolatry." In other words, the latter is a latter-day, perhaps transient, conservative tradition, a point of doctrine accepted only among some, but not all, sects. As is often the case with fundamentalist religious beliefs, however, it is so often and throughly propounded by the more conservative or extremist practitioners and elders of the religion that it is adopted by the mainstream believers. Thus, while you simply would not see an image Muhammad's face in a mosque, neither does the mainstream Muslim heed calls for violence against the authors of the cartoons.

"Gasoline on the fire" cuts both ways. It's telling that though many centrist imams have accepted the Danish PM's apology, and have urged calm, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait have continued to push for sanctions. Without defending the cartoons themselves, I think that while activism can be a good thing, provocation is almost always less than beneficial.

5. Analogies can be specious, and often are. You can't really judge a person without walking a mile in his or her shoes, and that's not technically feasible here. I've seen the analogy: "Well, I don't mind if you draw Jesus Christ/the Buddha/the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so why should you..." and I've seen "What would you say if I depicted Jesus/the Buddha/the FSM killing a child?" Why should either analogy apply? Why does there have to be an analogue?

An illustration of Muhammad's face is not the same to a Muslim, as it risks idolatrous context. That's hardly the issue here, but it's not at all the same as an illustration of Jesus' face, or Christ on the cross, since we Christians do view those as images of the divine. As for cartoons featuring Christ, we see and laugh at those all the time. Does that mean that the same standard should apply to Muslims? Of course not. What is impious to one culture is not necessarily so to another, and it is very unreasonable to impose one's standards on another when it comes to what is funny, acceptable, or blasphemous. IOW, if you do it, then be aware what you are doing, and be prepared to receive criticism and protest.

Conversely, there are definitely those Muslims who have no room to talk if we are comparing standards on editorial cartoons. Many people who are familiar with graphic depictions of Jews in Arabic newspapers report extreme vilification. These are of generic Jews or sometimes political leaders, so I'm not many an analogy or comparison, but it is a two-way street.

6. Not all cartoons are created equal, whether they are doodles, jests, or insults. (Edit, 10:00 CST Sun 05 Feb 2006) The 12 images (whose legible versions are here) vary greatly in degree of disrespect and in apparent intent. Does "running the spectrum" make it good journalism? I disagree that it does, because in deciding how far to go with that spectrum, Jyllands-Posten seems to have made little or no consideration of Muslim mores, but only of Danish law (if that). If your answer to that is "so what?", I think we've reached an impasse.
1. Of the 12 images, the only one I personally thought was funny was the one of the fearful-looking cartoonist with Muhammad on his drawing board. This also happened to be one of the only two (including the "relax, guys" one) that made a direct statement about free speech. I suspect that any protests would have been very muted and would never have escalated to violence if this had been the only one printed. It's important to understand why Muslims may refrain from even an illustration such as this one, but IMO it alone would not have required any apology from the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten or from the Danish prime minister. (The headdress seems a little anachronistic, though I'm not sure.)

Five of the images seem to me to fall under the rubric of "unnecessary insult to a religious figure".

2. The image of the prophet with crescents forming devil's horns seems to be an anti-Islamic statement straight out of Dante's Inferno. What is it doing in the 21st century? It's one thing to make others aware of such demonization of other religions by documenting it, but isn't knowing better than to perpetuate it part of being enlightened (if we dare claim such a thing)?
3. The knife-wielding Arab with eyes blocked out, flanked by wide-eyed women in black burqas, makes some kind of a statement that might be interesting (if stereotypical) in a generic context, but is rather egregiously disrespectful when the knife-wielder is identified as Muhammad. If the artist or editors think that that contextual effect is clever, they need to get out more.
4. The "lineup of holy figures" may seem to be general good fun, but it's actually a bit disingenuous IMO. "Others don't take such offense; why should you?"
5. As with the devil-horned caricature of Muhammad, the stylistic one, with star-and-crescent faces and an insulting caption, seems completely unnecessary.
6. The bomb-in-the-turban one seems calibrated for maximal outrage. Of images that are not outright obscene, I can't think of any that demonize their object much more, considering recent history. That one has rightfully incurred the most censure for inflaming prejudices and criticism as hate speech, subtle though it may be as such. Moreover: why?

Four of the others are intended to be funny but don't succeed, IMO. Of course, you could argue that editorial cartoons are supposed to be thought-provoking first and amusing second, but are they supposed to be incitatory first and throught-provoking second? It goes to motive.

7. The one with Muhammad greeting Muslims killed by violence at the gates of heaven, who are implied suicide bombers or martyrs (depending on imputed POV) makes a statement, but it is still very divisive and as a caricature of militant Islam seems to exploit the worst stereotypes. From a "Western" POV, this one is not quite the same as the ones that directly poke fun at Muhammad, but it's a fine line as the insinuated premise is that violent jihad (especially homicide bombing) really is martyrdom and that the (apocryphal) promised reward of 72 virgins is genuine.
8. Similarly the one with Muhammad looking at the cartoon, addressing armed jihadists coming up next to him: it may not insult the prophet, but painting his followers as reactionary dim bulbs doesn't serve much useful purpose, either. That one, OTOH, doesn't actually label the figure under the star as Muhammad, so it's largely a matter of context. I found it unfunny more because of the punchline, which is probably too regional to mean anything to me.
9. One of these things is not like the others. The boy named Muhammad at the chalkboard is clearly not the Islamic prophet, and as you can see from the caption, it's actually poking fun at Jyllands-Posten. My take on this is: what is the point of this kind of humor? Whether it's self-deprecating or a surreptitious jab at the editors, it's a little too subtle - perhaps because of the ambiguity between those possibilities.
10. The "PR-stunt" one has a similar idea, though the stick figure of Muhammad is intended perhaps as silly humor. I have the same critique of this one as the chalkboard one.

11. The camel sketch seemed almost inserted almost to provoke. Presumably the artist gave approval for the image to be included in a collection of cartoons featuring Muhammad, but I've read that some were done before; was this one even supposed to be Muhammad?
12. The stylized star-and-crescent framing Muhammad's face looks like a linoleum print done by a child who doesn't know any better. It doesn't offend me at all, but why should it? If any Muslims are offended by it, I suppose it might be for the shoddy quality rather than any apparently intentional disrespect. Of course, this image points out a property of print media that I wish jereeza would comment on: namely, that context matters. If that same image were done in neon green with a Nike swoosh over it, or if, say, this were reprinted with large Warholesque dithering - that would say something commercial and perhaps negative in and of itself. I mention this because the actual stylized image is already green, for no apparent reason.

7. It does go to motive. (Edit, 11:10 CST Sun 05 Feb 2006) I think the body of 12 cartoons as a whole goes to what bqggz is calling "Jyllands-Posten's motives" (and is an undercurrent in Denmark and perhaps most nations of Europe and the world that are not predominantly Muslim). That is, when a caricature includes Muhammad alongside other religious figures, the artist is obliquely pointing out: "most people of other religions don't take offense, and of the few who do, they swallow that offense, nor do they call for boycotts or even violence - see how silly these believers are?". bqggz and aristeros are both right: between militant jihadists and militant advocates of "freedom without consequence", there are "equally silly" beliefs being propounded. By this I mean not Christianity, Judaism, atheism, etc., but the Golden Calf of Free Speech - complacency about malicious speech, stereotypes and sacrilege should be met by responsible speech.

This reminds me of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade: my Chinese students could not be dissuaded from the notion that it was intentional, and not only so, but intended to make the Chinese back down and lose face. This is actually an insidious feedback loop of distrust, and I think that the provocators, where there are such, are primarily to blame. IOW, some reactionary Muslims are proving their detractors and mockers right, they were goaded into it, and I think the goading is incredibly irresponsible, lethally so.

There are many places in the world where such goading is morally, if not legally, tantamount to incitement and negligent homicide. The lesson this incident is teaching us is that globalization tends to erase the qualifier "there are many places in the world". Denmark is now such a place, Norway is, etc.

8. Lest I lapse into hypocrisy, let me state my personal view. (Edit, 10:50 CST Sun 05 Feb 2006) I respect the religious rights of people of faith, including Muslims, and of people of no professed faith. I think it's important for us to respect those rights - the right to believe what they choose - whether or not we share those beliefs. Part of that respect is forbearance from insulting certain beliefs, and that includes sacred figures, icons, principles, and insofar as we are able to, we should be considerate.

That said, I personally would look at a cartoon featuring Muhammad and laugh if it was funny. Some of these are sacreligious to Muslims, no doubt about it. That doesn't mean that I would go drawing, printing, or defending cartoons that I know are offensive stereotypes. I am not a Muslim and I do not believe that a ban on depiction of Muhammad, even in jest (if we take that to be "worse" than a serious reverent depiction), pertains to me.

Tags: boycotts, censorship, free speech, politics, religion
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