Even More on the Mohammed Cartoons:
Or, Mikhaela's Cartoon Wars FAQ
(see my earlier thoughts here)
Today, the race to the bottom in the Danish cartoon controversy continues. A Pakistani Muslim cleric and his supporters are offering cash and cars to anyone who will kill one of the 12 Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. (see MSNBC article, found via Masheka).
Maulana Yousef Qureshi, a cleric in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said during Friday prayers that he personally had offered to pay a bounty of 500,000 rupees ($8,400), while a jewelers association was putting up $1 million, and others were offering $17,000 plus a car.
Qureshi repeated the offer at rally later in the city to protest against the cartoons.
This is just terrifying, and of course very reminiscent of the threats against novelist Salman Rushdie some years back. Maybe I need a new profession. Cartoonists are apparently worth far more dead than alive.
Meanwhile, buildings are burning, people are dying in protests, and this whole mess shows no sign of simmering down. So what the hell is going on here? Is this Cartoon World War III? A "clash of civilizations"? Are these protests just a "spontaneous" reaction to religiously offensive cartoons? Why would protesters torch a KFC if what they're really angry about is a collection of 12 Danish drawings?
As a cartoonist, I've been asked a lot lately for my opinion on this whole mess, so the following is a summary of my thoughts on the mess (the BBC has an FAQ as well). Please note this is just a rough summary of how I understand this controversy, and I've had to leave a lot out, but hopefully I've included enough links to factual articles for folks to be able to draw their own conclusions.
Which side are you on, anyway? Before you start reading this, I've been getting a lot of emails/responses to this post accusing me of somehow supporting fundamentalist Islamists and their desires to behead cartoonists and oppress women and gay people. So let me make this clear: I'm a feminist pro-gay atheist cartoonist of Jewish descent, I believe in democracy and freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and I in no way support any forms of religious fundamentalism or bigotry or repression of women and GLBT people. I just think a lot of the historical and other complexities have been totally left out of discussion of this controversy.
How did this all start?
Back in September a right-wing Danish newspaper editor named Flemming Rose decided to commission a bunch of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Mr. Rose claimed it was his intent to comment on the self-censorship of illustrators who were afraid to draw Mohammed, but it seems likely his intention was to deliberately offend Muslims, who are a minority group in Denmark and often the targets of racism and xenophobia in Europe. Mr. Rose's paper, the Jyllands-Posten, had rejected cartoons depicting Jesus for fear they'd cause an "outcry." More importantly, the paper has a history of strong anti-immigrant leanings, and played a key role in the rise of a conservative government in 2001 in an election focused on immigration issues. Further, Mr. Rose has been linked to notorious xenophobe Daniel Pipes. In fact, some of the cartoonists actually commented on Rose's xenophobic agenda--instead of depicting the prophet Mohammed, one drew a cartoon calling the Danish paper a bunch of "reactionary provocateurs." The cartoonist were paid a measly $73 each with the promise their names and photos would be published.
It might have ended there. But some Muslim clerics saw an opportunity to further their own hate agenda, threw in a few extra even more offensive cartoons depicting Mohammed as a pedophile and a pig, and took the package on road show throughout the Muslim world. And a few months later, right-wing newspapers (and some left-wing papers as well) in Europe and elsewhere fanned the flames by reprinting the cartoons in a "defiant" show of "free speech" (or another deliberate attempt to piss off Muslims, you be the judge). Then the protests and burnings began. (See the BBC cartoon row timeline, the NY Times timeline, and a Washington Post rundown.)
Were the cartoons offensive to Muslims?
Sure--they were designed to be offensive. But did the papers have a right to print them? Of course. I believe in free speech, even though I think that paper's editors exercised terrible judgment.
Do Muslims have a right to be offended?
You can't draw something with the intention of offending and then be totally shocked when someone gets offended. There is nothing wrong with protests or boycotts, and most of the Muslims who are upset are protesting peacefully. But violence, calling for beheading cartoonists, burning down embassies, that's something else altogether. And insisting that governments tell their newspapers what to print or tightly regulate speech is also totally unacceptable.
What else might be going on here? Were these protests spontaneous?
I think this whole business could use some historical context (watch a short ad to read that piece). Large numbers of Muslims were deeply offended by what they saw as an all-too-typical assault by the West. There's a history behind this--until recently, much of the Muslim world was heavily colonized by Europe, Muslim immigrants in Europe are constant targets of racism, and then there's the U.S. bombing and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. So it wasn't like relations between the so-called "East" and "West" were all that rosy to begin with. Tensions were already running high.
So I'm sure some of this feeling is spontaneous, but I doubt it's just about the cartoons--it's like the Jyllands-Posten dropped a lit cigarette in a dry forest. A lot of these protests, the things being burned, seem to be less about the cartoons themselves than about local issues--the cartoons almost seem to be a catalyst or an excuse for protests against local governments, or rallies for radical groups. Also, a lot of these protests seem to have been carefully engineered and calculated by various Muslim groups and government leaders, both secular and non, to gain political capital. For example, in Egypt, you have a fairly secular government denouncing these cartoons to gain political capital with more hardline fundamentalist Egyptians.
So what do we have as a result?
On the one hand, we have Muslim clerics offering a $1 million reward for the murder of Danish cartoonists, we have burning buildings and riots and dozens dead at this point, and many Muslims who hate Europe and America even more than previously. Iran has commissioned a disgusting Holocaust-themed cartooning competition (never mind that the cartoons were for a right-wing Christian paper, Iran is somehow claiming these cartoons are the work of Zionists, which is unsurprising since their psycho leadership claims the Holocaust never happened).
On the other, we have a bunch of Europeans and Americans convinced that all this just proves their racist stereotypes about Muslims were right all along, that all Muslims are crazy and violent and against freedom of speech. Right-wing pundits like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter (who called Muslims "ragheads" in a speech recently) are in heaven, all of a sudden they are crusaders for free speech but they've forgotten their own attempts to get cartoonists like Ted Rall fired for drawing left-wing cartoons they didn't like.
They're ignoring the moderate Muslims who have spoken out against the violence, and the peaceful protests, and most won't admit that these cartoons could be seen as offensive. Many mainstream and even left-wing editorial cartoonists are drawing giant hooknosed Arab Muslim caricatures with scimitars and turbans chopping off cartoonists' heads and hands. Way to go for raising the level of debate.
Even when right-wingers like Coulter admit that Christians and other religious groups are also inclined to vigorously protest when they feel offended, they insist that only Muslims do so violently, and only Muslims insist the rest of the world must live by their beliefs.
But aren't Muslims being "more violent" than other protesters would?
Muslim fundamentalists have no monopoly on violence or imposing religious beliefs on others or the suppression of free speech. What do you call invading Iraq and killing thousands of innocent civilians? I'd call that violence. Hell, Bush is so under the spell of the American Christian Right that we've got a global gag rule blocking desperately needed funding for global family planning programs for fear they might mention abortion or support condom use. That's not imposing religious values on other people? Goddamn, the U.S. teamed up with IRAN of all countries to help exclude gay groups from the U.N. Iran EXECUTES gay people.
As for freedom of speech, at the same time as the Danish cartoon controversy took off, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff condemned Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles for drawing an "obscene" cartoon that criticized Rumsfeld. And then there was the whole business with the U.S. military in Iraq killing Al Jazeera journalists (supposedly by accident) and placing fake news reports on how well the war was going in the Iraqi press.
So that's wrong too. But that doesn't IN ANY WAY excuse the behavior of hate-mongering radical Islamist clerics or any other violence. Sure most of the cartoons were offensive and tasteless and pointless, but a cartoonist who draws tasteless cartoons reasonably expects angry letters and possible picketing, not a million-dollar reward for his beheading. All of the cartoonists, whatever their intentions or beliefs, have been forced into hiding afraid for their lives.
Is this really just about free speech? Are there double standards at work here?
No, and yes. If this was just about free speech, that same Danish paper wouldn't have rejected the Jesus cartoons for fear of offending readers, and the right-wing Americans championing the cartoons wouldn't be so quick to condemn American liberals for their "blasphemy" and "treason". And speaking of double standards, newspapers in the Muslim world are full of viciously offensive racial caricatures of Jews.
Also, free speech may not have been the real goal of the Jyllands-Posten to begin with, but it may become a casualty nonetheless. Fellow cartoonists tell me their editors have become more skittish and fearful about what cartoons they might run.
So what's the solution?
Damned if I know. Diplomacy is certainly needed, but not to the extent that the mainstream media or governments abandons free speech and becomes even more timid and watered-down claptrap than it already is (see the BBC Forum for some of their listeners' answers to this question).
- If you want to see the cartoons for yourself, Daryl Cagle is providing links in his cartoon blog, and I believe there is also a Wikipedia entry.
- The Nation has a conversation with Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman about this, and I tend to agree with Sacco here.
- The Comics Reporter and The Daily Cartoonist have been doing daily updates on this.
- See my earlier thoughts here...
- A Danish historian blogger has some thoughts on how the controversy began and on xenophobia in Denmark.
- Famed cartoonist Pat Oliphant has an excellent commentary, "When Cartoons Inflame."