Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Pen sparks protest, proves more destructive than sword

Hey folks,
Things seem to be going great for Matt as he gets work done in DC, so while I'm stuck back in balmy south Texas, I figured I'd make a post and see what readers of this blog thought of the current cartoon mess across the world sparked by the Danish newspaper. (The Times has an interesting article on the matter, and specifically, the divide it has exposed. And dear me, there's already a Wikipedia entry about it.)

Truly, there is a lack of understanding of Islam and Arab culture in general across the board in our country and Europe, and I too profess no vast knowledge of the matter. It follows that this lack in understanding is surely connected with the breeding of intolerance, death, and war. I must say I have been mildly alarmed by a lashing out that I have read on several blogs, not entirely unlike this one (although certainly not as enlightened!), against Arabs and Muslims in general. I can only imagine how things are over the Atlantic, closer to the heart of the fray. Spending the summer living in Austria, ethnic and religious tensions were certainly apparent between the "local" population, descended from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Turkish population.

There is no disputing that violence is violence, murder is murder, and the lashing out of extremists in response to a cartoon seems ridiculous. But in the fact that it seems so ridiculous to the Western mind, we see how much we truly do not understand of a culture that, voluntarily or not, we are being pitted against. Sure, this isn't the first or only instance of such offensive depictions of Muslims or their prophet Muhammad; an average night on Comedy Central is sure to tackle that. However, such images serve little purpose except in prompting those whom they offend to seek justice for what is seen as truly a wrong against them and their religion.

In another piece by the Times, Mike Kimmelman comments on this difference in culture that enables anger and violence to be stirred up in response to a simple image. A popular rebuttal to the defense of Muslim protests and subsequent violence is that similar caricatures are employed of everyone from Jesus to our good friend Bush, and don't incite such passions in the supporters of each. Kimmelman attempts to address this, if I may borrow from his article:

Educated secular Westerners reared on modernism, with its inclination toward abstraction, its gamesmanship and its knee-jerk baiting of traditional authority, can miss the real force behind certain visual images, particularly religious ones. Trained to see pictures formally, as designs or concepts, we can often overlook the way images may not just symbolize but actually "partake of what they represent," as the art historian David Freedberg has put it.
Still, if these be true, do we ever see certain more "touchy" figures given the same treatment? Would an offensive cartoon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not only be considered by all to be in bad taste, and rightly so, but also incite protests, some resulting in violence?

I mean to hit this point head-on: that an analysis of the situation in the Middle East should not be simplified to some notion that Muslims and Arabic peoples are of some inherently evil mentality, predisposed to evil and hatred. Reading this, surely you say, "Of course not Glenn, don't be ridiculous, we don't think that." And it is my hope that you don't, but I implore you to look around; am I alone in feeling a subtle but ever-present tide of this mentality throughout Western ideology?

Thus we come up to a larger question of just how far should freedom of speech go? Surely, as good Americans we agree that censorship is negative and our First amendment rights are among our most sacred freedoms. It is not uncommon for the exercise of this freedom to incite the passions and tempers of a body of people, as it has here. As a proud liberal, I stand by these freedoms. But let us not be reckless!! What end do these cartoons serve apart from angering Muslims and spreading a doctrine of hate? It is little more than blatant disrespect and disregard for fellow human beings.

The fire's been started. A response has already been instigated in Iran with a call to produce cartoons depicting the Holocaust. Is this violence necessary?

Tell me what you think.


At 10:13 PM, Blogger jamie said...

it's funny how cringe-producing the first ammendment is for many of us liberals. i can defend the RIGHT with energy and passion but then i have to allow Rush or Robertson's vitriol as well and i hate it. beliefs versus intellect.
america, in it's increasingly insular superiority, seems generally incapable of accepting other societies as equally valid. i include myself here; watching the walmart movie not long ago i found myself recoiling in distaste from working conditions in china and central america. it is a simple matter to extend that recoil to the power of the muslim clerics and treatment of women in islamic society.
guilty but aware of it

At 11:13 PM, Blogger Margie said...

Guilty of what? Guilty of having your own values that tell you that bad working conditions are wrong and that opression of women is wrong? Don't you feel the same way when these things are happening in our own country?

There's just nothing that can make rioting and killing in response to editorial cartoons be okay. It's not a question of "understanding other cultures." It's a question of what sort of values we're going to stand up for.

Glenn posted
"I mean to hit this point head-on: that an analysis of the situation in the Middle East should not be simplified to some notion that Muslims and Arabic peoples are of some inherently evil mentality, predisposed to evil and hatred. Reading this, surely you say, "Of course not Glenn, don't be ridiculous, we don't think that." And it is my hope that you don't, but I implore you to look around; am I alone in feeling a subtle but ever-present tide of this mentality throughout Western ideology?"

Well, no. It's not an ever-present tide. It's a reaction to what people who claim to speak for Islam have been doing and saying for a number of years.

As I understand, from listening to people who say that Islam is a peaceful religion, killing is not allowed, except when Islam itself is under attack. It seems to me, that some people, for reasons of their own, have taken that to mean (or perhaps, perverted it to mean) that the appropriate response in numerous situations is violence.

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Glenn said...

I would never side with gross exploitation of workers and oppression of any gender or group of society, and I don't believe anyone was suggesting that being "guilty" of having these values, which define such atrocities as wrong, is a cause for shame.

I agree that it's most unfortunate that extremists, on both sides of the aisle, can grab onto something as trivial as a cartoon and use it to heighten divisiveness between these two sects of the human community.

But, I'm not sure that keeping this reactionary view of the conflict serves any purpose but a continuance, and all-to-often a fueling, of the problem.

The situation of "hate" cartoons, as I'd label them, presents a paradox between absolute free speech and propagation of harmful ideas. We've seen such exercises of free speech before with anti-black cartoons, anti-Semitic cartoons, etc. My values tell me such things are to be grouped with the oppression of women and hideous working conditions as negative. The intent of my blog was to communicate this: punching the beehive is going to get you stung. Rather than wrong the very nature of the bees that sting, Westerners must moderate their view of the situation to acknowledge that a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban is going to provoke a negative reaction.

At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, children, in the first place there is no prohibition of drawings, depictictions of muhammed or whatever in the quran (read it and find out) .. the real problem is that very, very few muslims can read .. they are only sermonized by imams of doubtful sincerity .. next, have you seen any riots by republicans over parodies of bush .. or democrats over caricatures of hillary .. or catholics over cartoons of perverted priests ? .. where were the riots after coretta's funeral for or against carters' and other's anti bush comments ? .. doesn't happen here, doesn't happen in europe amoung non muslims .. sad to say, the only people rioting seem to be muslims .. although even u.s. muslims don't riot .. maybe because they can read ..

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Glenn said...

To quote Richard N. Ostling, the Associated Press [ref here]:

Islam forbids visual depictions of the prophet, and regards violations by Muslims as highly sinful and by non-Muslims as the ultimate sort of insult.

The prohibition is in part an application of the Quran's strict opposition to idolatry, the worship of a physical object as a god, including any hint of such devotion toward the faith's revered human prophet.

In the Quran, "shirk" (Arabic for "partnering" or "associating" anything with God) is the one unforgivable sin: "God does not forgive the joining of partners with him: anything less than that he forgives to whoever he will, but anyone who joins partners with God is lying and committing a tremendous sin" (4:48).

The Quran does not specifically address artwork of Muhammad, and through history a few Muslims have painted him. But the ban has been virtually universal in all branches of the faith from its earliest days.


A second aspect of the depiction ban is noted by John Esposito, editor of "The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World." Besides shunning any hint of idolatry, he says, the practice also expresses "the deep reverence and respect Muslims have for Muhammad" as "the ideal Muslim." He notes that when the prophet is named, believers always add "peace and blessings be upon him" and that he is sometimes called "the living Quran."

Bukhari says the cartoons, first published in Denmark, constitute a triple offense for Muslims: first by depicting Muhammad at all; second by treating him disrespectfully; and third because "in the present circumstance it is a symbol of the clash of civilizations that they want to insult the prophet and the whole of Islam."

Esposito, who is Roman Catholic, says the ban is so important that, for Muslims, the cartoons reinforce "a deep-seated belief that respect for Islam doesn't exist" in Europe.

It can be read as a deliberate attempt to provoke and test, not only religiously," he said. "It expresses the tensions toward immigrant communities. It says this is what democracy is about: nothing is sacred."

Interesting thoughts indeed, at least for this fellow child as he seeks a better understanding of this deep-seeded conflict.

At 4:38 PM, Blogger jamie said...

umm- this today from cagle adds another perspective[about the genesis of the storm, not the deeper issue]:

Two Kinds of Offensive Cartoonists
By Daryl Cagle

Crowds fill the streets in the Middle East, demanding the execution of the Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Bounties for the murder of the cartoonists have been offered by Muslim extremists and have been trumpeted in the press as the poor cartoonists live in hiding, under 24-hour police protection.

Why did the Danish cartoonists draw the cartoons? To test the limits of press freedom? To show disrespect for Islam? Because a Danish author couldn't find an illustrator for his book about Muhammad? No, the Danish cartoonists drew "caricatures" of Muhammad because a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, hired them and paid them $73 each, along with the promise that the cartoonists would get their names and photos in the local newspaper.

The cartoonists knew they were being hired to draw provocative cartoons accompanying an article about the limits on press freedom, but they had no idea that they would be the tiny spark that lit a huge bomb in the Muslim world. (If they had known, they certainly wouldn't have done the drawings in exchange for getting their photos in the newspaper.)

Some of the cartoonists even made fun of the assignment they were given; one of the offending cartoons shows a man looking at a police line-up who asks, "How can I identify Muhammad if I don't know what he looks like?" Another offending cartoon shows a turban-wearing cartoonist holding his drawing of a stick-figure Muhammad while an orange, labeled "PR Stunt," drops into his turban. (Dropping an orange refers to a Danish idiom and expresses the cartoonist's disdain for his assignment.)

As condemnation rains down on the Danish cartoonists an important distinction is lost ­the difference between cartoonists who are illustrators and political cartoonists.

I'm a political cartoonist; I draw cartoons that convey my opinions. Anyone who sees my cartoons will know what I think on a wide range of issues. Political cartoonists are journalists, just like columnists we decide for ourselves what we want to say, and we are responsible for what we say. Editors don't tell political cartoonists what to say (although editors sometimes stop us from saying things that are offensive).

The Danish cartoonists are illustrators; they are given assignments by clients who pay them for their work. Illustrators draw what they are hired to draw. No one can look at the work of an illustrator and discern what the illustrator's opinions are. Illustrators usually draw pictures that go with an author's words; they might be creative and inject their own ideas, but still they are working at the direction of a client. The Muhammad cartoons are not political cartoons, they are illustrations drawn to accompany a newspaper article about press limits, an issue that arose because an author couldn't find an illustrator for his book about Muhammad.

The Danish Muhammad cartoons are broadly - and wrongly - described as political cartoons by pundits and politicians who don't understand the difference between one kind of cartoonist and another. The "political cartoon" label unfairly condemns the Danish cartoonists, none of whom would have chosen, on their own, to express any opinion about Islam, press freedom or the Prophet Muhammad.

The perception of the Danish Muhammad cartoons as "political cartoons" is chilling to real political cartoonists who are suddenly perceived as ticking time-bombs that can explode at any time. Editors, who were already uncomfortable reining-in their unwieldy, bomb-throwing cartoonists, are now more timid than ever.

Everyone asks me why I don't draw Muhammad in a political cartoon - am I afraid to give offense or am I afraid for my own safety? I'll draw whatever I want; I'll be offensive if I want to be, but I want my cartoons to effectively convey my opinion, and my opinion about the Danish Muhammad cartoons issue is that the violent response to the cartoons is wrong and is far out of proportion to the provocation. If I were to draw a cartoon depicting Muhammad now, the only message the cartoon would convey is: "Hey, look at me, I can offend you too." That is not what I choose to say.


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