Sunday, February 05, 2006

Some Thoughts on Danish cartoons and Danish pastries

It’s difficult to know what to make of the controversy surrounding the publication of twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a violent terrorist. On the surface, it appears to be a battle between the medieval and modern, between Abrahamic religion and freedom of speech.

The cartoons were first published in the obscure neo-Conservative newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten in September last year. They have now been reproduced in newspapers across Europe. A number of major American networks, including CNN, have refused to allow the cartoons to grace their websites.

Across the Tasman, the New Zealand Herald editorialised on February 4 why it refuses to publish the cartoons. Its competitor, the Fairfax-owned Dominion Post, has reproduced the cartoons in full and explained their significance.

Muslim haters have had a field day over images of violent protests in various Muslim-majority countries. Neo-Conservative publications known for their venom toward all things Islamic have been at the forefront of using more extreme Muslim responses as an indication of what broader Muslim opinion on the issue is.

The reality is that Muslim opinion has been divided. If anything, the entire fiasco has prompted a mood of soul-searching amongst educated Muslims, especially those living as minorities in Western countries.

Canadian writer Safiyya Ally, writing for popular Muslim website altmuslim.com, hasn’t held back in referring to the entire issue in her headline: “Stupid Cartoons, Even Stupider Reaction”.

Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy, writing in the Beirut Daily Star, argues that the issue exposes the inconsistencies of some despotic Muslim leaders. “Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was right not to intervene, insisting the government has no say over media - the argument used by Arab leaders when they are asked about anti-Semitism in their media, by the way.”

She goes onto state that the Danish cartoonist may have offended Muslims but certainly did not call for violence against Muslims. Indeed, in August 2005 Danish authorities suspended the broadcasting license of a radio station calling for the extermination of Muslims.

Jyllands-Posten has since apologised for the publication of the cartoons. It claimed the cartoons were published in an attempt to test the limits of freedom of speech. Maybe. But why did the newspaper really publish the cartoons, knowing as it did that these would cause offence to millions of Muslims?

One needs to understand the political background of Denmark, in particular the ongoing claims of Danish neo-Cons that Muslims are not welcome in the country. The prejudice and hatred toward Muslims by some sectors of Danish society is reflected in an article entitled “Something Rotten in Denmark?” and published in Danish and American newspapers in August 2002. That article was written in the aftermath of the defeat of social democratic and leftist parties in Denmark’s elections.

In that article, veteran Islamophobe Daniel Pipes joined forces with Lars Hedegaard to claim that Muslim migrants “show little desire to fit into their adopted country.” Mr Pipes’ own Jewish background does not stop him from blaming Muslims for a host of Denmark’s social ills in a manner reminiscent of Nazi propaganda concerning European Jews.

American Muslim writer Svend White writes on his blog that too many commentators have ignored the role played by the offending newspaper in an ongoing debate about immigration. When one understands this context, it is clear that the Danish newspaper’s intentions were not as noble as first seems.

White, whose mother is Danish, claims that politics in Norway has made a sudden turn to the hard-right since the Conservative Party formed a government following the 2001 election. Despite an election win for a centre-left coalition in 2005, many politicians and media outlets on the conservative side continue to blame Muslim migrants (who hardly make up 4% of the Danish population) for all Denmark’s ills.

Even in Denmark itself, Jyllands-Posten has been criticised. One prominent Danish commentator, Rune Engelbreth Larsen, speaks of the cartoons and the paper in the context of “over 15 years of progressively humiliating rhetoric and propaganda attacks” suffered by Danish Muslims.

Larsen further comments on the complete futility of the exercise as a means to campaign for freedom of speech and other liberal democratic values. He says that if the paper was really concerned about freedom of speech, it would caricature the despotic emirs, kings, generals and presidents-for-life that currently rule the roost in most Muslim countries. Instead, publication of the cartoons has enabled despotic rulers of Muslim lands to shore up more support by fuelling popular Muslim sentiments.

Some 3 years ago, the UK-based Independent newspaper published a cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon as a cannibal eating the head of a Palestinian child. Jews across the world protested, some arguing that the cartoon reminded them of medieval Christian myths of Jews eating children. Today, the modern myths of Muslims as all being terrorists has been depicted in the name of freedom of speech. Surely European newspapers publishing the cartoons should understand that the Prophet Muhammad means more to Muslims than Ariel Sharon does to Jews.

At the same time, Muslims need to ask themselves how their Prophet would have liked his honour to be defended. The earliest Muslims were not known for holding violent protests, holding hostages or storming buildings. In their present response to the cartoons, many Muslims are displaying the sort of love and affection their own Prophet, had he been with us, would have condemned.

The author is a Sydney lawyer. iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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4 comments:

Wiag said...

Jyllands-Posten has since apologised for the publication of the cartoons. It claimed the cartoons were published in an attempt to test the limits of freedom of speech. Maybe. But why did the newspaper really publish the cartoons, knowing as it did that these would cause offence to millions of Muslims?

Yesterday, in a broadcast by the BBC in a program called HARDtalk where the Editor in Chief of Jyllands Posten and Abu Laban, a 60-year-old Palestinian were interviewed the editor said they apologised not because of the publishing, but because it caused offence in the Muslim world. See also the offical statement by Jyllands-Posten on their website.

I think to ask why did the newspaper really publish the cartoons, knowing as it did that these would cause offence to millions of Muslims? is a silly question. It concludes something which one could never know. To say that Jyllands-Posten knew what was going to happen is simply quite stupid, and so easy to do after the fact, but that doesn't make it true. Hindsight is an exact science. Predicting the outcome of public debate and publishing opinions is not.

Then you go on to quote:
Larsen further comments on the complete futility of the exercise as a means to campaign for freedom of speech and other liberal democratic values. He says that if the paper was really concerned about freedom of speech, it would caricature the despotic emirs, kings, generals and presidents-for-life that currently rule the roost in most Muslim countries. Instead, publication of the cartoons has enabled despotic rulers of Muslim lands to shore up more support by fuelling popular Muslim sentiments.

This is begging the question. Why not do this or that, knowing the outcome of doing something else. It's silly. Ofcourse they could have done that. But after being asked to depict Muhammed in whatever way they thought about him, the Cartoonists drawed these 12 cartoons. To ask why they did not draw something else is just well, a silly thing to say, and not argumentative or making a point at all.

At last you state:
In their present response to the cartoons, many Muslims are displaying the sort of love and affection their own Prophet, had he been with us, would have condemned.

Muslims believe that what the Prophet wrote in the Qoran is the word of Allah, and it is not to be misunderstood or interpreted: the infidel must be converted, and if he does not, killing him and taking his possessions is the proper thing to do. I think a lot of muslims will not be on par with Muhammed on this, or at least will not want to carry out this directive. But it does make the Prophet more bloodthirsty than you make him out to be.

You might find this article quite interesting: abricated cartoons worsened Danish controversy. The contents of story wasn't revoked by Abu Laban in the BCC interview, but he stated it was not his responsibility it happened.

Scott W. Somerville said...

This issue has me (an Evangelical Christian in the US) watching with wonder. I have endured so much intentional infliction of emotional distress from my secular neighbors, who view any mockery of Christianity (especially my kind of "fundamentalist" faith) as an act of heroism. I am waiting to see whether the Americans who champion the right to drench a crucifix in urine will stand up for the right to caricature Mohammed... or will there be some new rule they pull out of a hat that only makes CHRISTIAN blasphemy acceptable? We'll soon see, I suppose...

Here's my opinion. There are Western infidels who mock Christianity every day. Some will be true to their "principles" and defend the right to mock Mohammed, too. These people are principled but evil.

Others will call for a halt to cartoons that mock Mohammed while they continue to justify their scorn of Christians. These people may be motivated by fear of Muslim violence, or they may just be motivated by their loathing of Christianity. If it is the first, they are the true "Islamophobes," whose fear makes them sacrifice their principles. If they are the second, then they are truly "Christophobes," and are beneath contempt.

Wiag said...

@Scott W. Somerville:
Raised a Christian I've lost the faith, so call me an infidel, but I stand with you that I too wouldn't be suprised if they will call a halt to cartoons that mock Mohammed while still allowing mockery of Christianity. I think the infidel will much easier denounce his priciples than a man of faith will, much to my regret.

I still believe that mockery of anything should be possible, because living in a free society will only be possible if there is freedom of expression and freedom of ideas. Being a person of a certain faith will allways make you more susceptable to mockery I think, because most faiths refer to specific historic events and persons that they hold sacred. And mocking something or someone that one holds sacred will by definition lead to e.g. emotional distress or be felt as a personal attack.

That being said, you say infidels that who mock Christianity and Islam everyday are evil. It's probably hard not think this way being a Muslim or a Christian. I would want to encourage people to mock other peoples believes, but I sure don't want a lid on expression or ideas, how terrible they might be. George Orwell wrote it best where that would lead us, and a few decades of Communism has proven it's truth. Extremes define the common ground we all have. I wouldn't want to see it limited.

Anonymous said...

Irfan

Do you seriously think that the Danes, one of few European nations that went out of their way to assist their Jews during the Nazi occupation would invite mossies into their country and then start to 'oppress' them.