Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The cartoon wars

I assume that by now everyone is aware of the storm surrounding the publication in a Danish newspaper, back in September 2005, of some satirical cartoons that included depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. An editorial in today's New York Times sums up the facts of the matter pretty well.

February 7, 2006
Those Danish Cartoons

Cartoons making fun of the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper last September are suddenly one of the hottest issues in international politics. Muslims in Europe and across the Middle East have been holding protests with growing levels of violence and now loss of life.

The easy points to make about the continuing crisis are that (a) people are bound to be offended if their religion is publicly mocked, and (b) the proper response is not to go on a rampage and burn down buildings. If Muslim organizations want to stage peaceful marches or organize boycotts of Danish goods, they're certainly within their rights.

The pictures, one of which showed the prophet with a bomb on top of his head in place of a turban, violate a common belief among Muslims that any depiction of Muhammad is sacrilege. The paper that first published them did so as an experiment to see whether political satirists were capable of being as harsh to Islam as they are to other organized religions. If that sounds juvenile, Americans still recognize it as within the speech protected by our First Amendment.

The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words.

The cartoons were largely unnoticed outside Denmark until a group of Muslim leaders there made a point of circulating them, along with drawings far more offensive than the relatively mild stuff actually printed by the paper, Jyllands-Posten. It's far from the first time that an almost-forgotten incident has been dredged up to score points with the public during politically sensitive times.

The governments of the countries in which the demonstrations are occurring are responsible for keeping them nonviolent. Lebanese officials have rightly apologized to Denmark for failing to control a protest that ended with the torching of the Danish Consulate in Beirut. That's in stark contrast with what happened in Syria, a nation where there is no such thing as a spontaneous demonstration, yet where large crowds managed to assemble and set fire to the Danish and Norwegian Embassies.

(For some further details, see here and here and here..)

Regarding the issues at stake, this cogent statement by Marc Cooper, "Freedom, Fanatics, and the Feckless," says most of what needs to be said. Some of my own thoughts, from an e-mail exchange with a friend about this affair, are below.
--Jeff Weintraub

Hi X [2/5/2006],
PS. I am sure that you have paid attention to the Danish cartoon affair. The whole story is quite surprising, not to say ridiculous, but it does illustrate the problems that Europe has with its minorities and with its refusal to understand the new globalized world. A most revealing affair where newspapers and governments of Europe have shown remarkable irresponsibility.

In this affair, I think the emphasis in our responses is different. I agree that the Danish newspaper that published the original satirical cartoons was a bit irresponsible. (The extent to which western Europe has been secularized and de-Christianized is perhaps part of the background to this. The impulse here was classically Voltairean.) And a certain amount of anti-immigrant backlash is no doubt involved.

But the main "problems" that the rest of the affair reveals are those of Muslims around the world (including Europe), whose response has been hysterical and hypocritical in the extreme and indicates (to use your terminology) a "refusal to understand" the difference between criticism and government censorship. Also, there is a real question of basic principle involved here. Either we believe in freedom of the press or we don't. In this respect, the principled solidarity that many European journalists have shown with their Danish colleagues is encouraging, and shows that they grasp what is at stake. On the other hand, I am not surprised that the Catholic Church, the Bush administration, and a lot of mush-headed PC commentators and pseudo-experts have sided, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Muslim hue-and-cry and not with the entirely, unequivocally proper position taken from the start by the Danish government. (That is, the Danish Prime Minister said from the start that whatever his personal opinion was about the cartoons, it wasn't his business to tell newspapers what to publish. The Danish government has stuck to this position quite admirably despite a lot of pressure and misguided advice to cave in on the issue. If so many Muslim governments don't understand this position--and I can easily believe that they don't--whose problem is that?)

As I said in a recent message to another friend ...

Mention of SCIRI reminds me of a brief commentary by Shibley Telhami that I heard on NPR, about the calls by outraged Muslims around the world for the Danish government to censor a newspaper that had published satirical cartoons about the Prophet. His message was actually quite foolish and pernicious, since he essentially avoided the basic issue of principle concerning freedom of the press, and he tried to make out that all this anger by Muslims abroad was actually quite reasonable and fair--the usual, "what if these were anti-Christian or anti-semitic cartoons?" dodge. This is in fact quite silly, since cartoons are published in western newspapers every day that offend the sensibilities of many Christians & Jews. And not only cartoons. For example, many Christians, though obviously not all, thought that Scorcese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ" was blasphemous, and a theater in Paris showing it was even firebombed by some right-wing Catholic nut group. I have not seen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," but a lot of thoughtful and well-informed analyses I've read suggest that it has significant anti-semitic overtones ... yet amidst the controversy over the film, I don't remember hearing any calls for the US government to ban it, and I don't recall any US embassies being burned down as a result.

Furthermore, the Muslim protests about these cartoons are actually quite hypocritical, since large numbers of blatantly anti-semitic cartoons are published in Muslim countries every day. [This cartoon commentary is on-target, I'm afraid.] In short, a typical bit of pseudo-reasonable PC bullshit.

However, Telhami did make a few illuminating points about some of the underlying themes in world-wide Muslim public opinion. Apparently, opinion polls and other sources indicate that the Iraq war trumps everything. France can get away with a lot of legislation regarded as anti-Muslim and not face threats of retaliation, because it opposed the Iraq war. Denmark, on the other hand, did not oppose the Iraq war. Apparently, polling shows that most Muslims (outside Iraq, of course) see the Iraq war as part of a US-led campaign to attack and weaken Islam. Of course, this belief is delusional, but even delusional beliefs, widely and strongly held, are social facts. What is ironic about this is that many critics of the Iraq war claim, on the contrary, that the main result has been to bring Islamic fundamentalists to power (and, in the process, strengthen the hard-line Islamists in Iran).

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub