Friday, 22 February 2008

All Cartoons Are Created Equal, But Some Cartoons Are More Equal Than Others

The Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) cartoon controversy raised interesting valid points of discussion and the range of opinions expressed was often very revealing regarding what innervated individuals and groups.

I thought the re-publication of one of the more insulting cartoons recently was a bad call by the Danish press. Along with the fact it did not help to promote civil harmony, it came across as petulant, churlish, immature and pathetic as it’s a clear symptom of an unfocused and unhealthy way of expressing chronic underlying problems.

Those who were motivated to riot, destroy property and incite death *and* those who were motivated to defend the “Right of Freedom of Speech” have been both emotionally manipulated unthinkingly by trouble-makers.

And here are my reasons:


The cartoons were first published on 30th September 2005, in a country dominated by right-wing parties in parliament, by the right wing paper Jyllands-Posten claiming it was an attempt to highlight issues of self-censorship and difficulties in criticisms of Islam – issues that were certainly worthy of discussion. Public fury by Muslims did not occur, in fact some Danish Muslims supported the paper and some Danes criticised the paper.

An open polite letter to the Danish Prime Minister by Muslim leaders from at least 11 countries to refrain from abusing the rights of democracy and freedom of expression in a growing political climate of a smearing campaign against Islam was sent as well as a call for a meeting – which was rejected. Subsequent Danish court hearings ruled in favour of Jyllands-Posten.

So the cartoons were re-published in February 2006. And in numerous other European papers – which was exactly the textbook way of playing right into the hands of radicals.

By that stage the flames of discontent had been spread deliberately and unwittingly by individuals to the wider Muslim world of even more highly offensive images and cartoons that were not originally published in Denmark. Thus misunderstandings on both sides allowed the proverbial manure to collide with the air-conditioning. Various local political climates resulted in some highly publicised rioting, embassy destruction and death of individuals by a minority of agitators with political agendas riding opportunistically on the coat tails of the controversy. For example, chants of ‘Death to America’ in the Pakistani riots were common – uhm, what exactly did America have anything to do with the cartoons?

There are actually depictions of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) in Islamic art (those not showing his face and those showing his face). God is certainly not allowed to be depicted in Islamic art and that attitude usually extends to the Prophet to prevent the growth of idolatry. The Prophet is held in high respect but not worshipped. Despite the calls of respect from Muslims, the initial repeated printings of the cartoons in 2006 did two things that offended Muslims – first, depicting him in the first place was a minor but significant point but secondly and more importantly, mocking him as a terrorist, truly showed the attitude of some of the Western media to a person whom the Muslims hold in high esteem (and one who had been voted as the most influential person in history)

The Prophet himself was insulted and slandered during his lifetime but he never called for death or rioting on that charge alone. So how can the wanton destruction of property and inciting of death remotely be Islamic behaviour for a Muslim? Muslims should certainly voice their displeasure by other more civilised means and in fact they had but this tended to get ignored by the mainstream press.

There were thousands who protested peacefully in London, Toronto and Montreal, Paris, Strasbourg, Berlin, Oslo, Brussels and other European cities; in Bosnia and in Indonesia, Rabat, Morroco, tens of thousands in Istanbul, Turkey and half a million in Beirut, Lebanon.

An Austrian court had found the right-wing British historian David Irving guilty of denying the Holocaust and sentenced him to three years in prison in February 2006. Irving insisted he never dismissed the Holocaust and that it was only ever a small part of his research.

Censorship exists

The claim by Jyllands-Posten to defend the freedom of speech was patently false as it refused to print a cartoon of the resurrection of Jesus in 2003. The paper feared that publication of the cartoon would provoke anger among Christians.

And in 1984 it campaigned against the artist Jens Jørgen Thorsen, who was commissioned by a local art club to paint the wall of a railway station. The work showed a naked Jesus with an erect penis. But the same paper certainly showed no such sensitivity towards Muslims.

Insult to religion, although not explicitly mentioned in European secular laws, is considered an “ethical crime” in many European countries. These legal arrangements, primarily designed around Christianity, do not see people breaking such rules, and as such are not implemented most of the time. Many European countries ban acts which seriously insult religion and instigate religious hatred – so long as it is Christianity and Judaism, it’s a-okay.

In Denmark where the cartoons were originally published, there are articles in the Danish criminal code for punishing “whoever explicitly insults or humiliates any religions officially recognized” in the country.

This is the law § 140. Den, der offentligt driver spot med eller forhåner noget her i landet lovligt bestående religionssamfunds troslærdomme eller gudsdyrkelse, straffes med bøde eller fængsel indtil 4 måneder...

Translated: "He who in public redicule any, in this country, legal recognised religions, are punished with fine or prison up to 4 months."

Where is the much vaunted freedom of expression again?

And Holocaust denial laws do exist in Europe.

Where is the much vaunted freedom of expression again?

Trouble-makers giving themselves free licence to insult whilst cowering cowardly behind a claimed Right, a Right enshrined by the lives of many past brave souls, not only dishonour themselves and reflect badly on others by inciting animosity, but unwittingly risk curtailing or even losing the very Rights they claim to insincerely fight for when they abuse it.

I support the right of freedom of speech and expression but I also believe in exercising rights with responsibilities. Yes, people had the RIGHT to publish such cartoons but it was IRRESPONSIBLE to do so, especially knowing it would be deemed supremely insulting to the beliefs of the followers of an entire religion, regardless if the original intention was to insult or not. People seem to forget that where a Right “exists” it can also mean having the freedom to tactfully not exercise the Right where appropriate.

The point had been proven in the past so I see nothing to be gained by re-publication of an insulting cartoon – it just comes across as childish and promotes an unhelpful “Us vs Them” attitude. After all there are more elegant and less inflammatory ways to address valid issues.

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