12 February 2006

'Toons. I hate 'toons

Of all the depressingly polarized reactions to the publication in a Danish newspaper of a dozen editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, this one is particularly troubling:
The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, comprising more than 50 states, published on its Web site a statement condemning "the aggressive campaign waged against Islam and its Prophet" by Jyllands-Posten, and officials of the organization said member nations should impose a boycott on Denmark until an apology was offered for the drawings. (The Ledger, Feb. 9)
I will admit that I was holding out hope that an organization representing scientists and a culture that was once the world's guardian of knowledge and wisdom would resist the temptation to demand an apology from a European government for the entirely legal and (given the context) mostly reasonable actions of a private newspaper. No such luck.

But the western mainstream journalism establishment isn't faring much better than the Islamic extremists, all of whom seemed to have turned off their irony meters. Most media outlets have failed to recognize the importance of the context -- the cartoons were published after a children's author working on a book about cross-cultural tolerance complained that he could find no Muslim illustrators willing to dare to supply him with cartoons.

As I pointed out to Tony Burman, Editor in Chief of CBC News in a response to his posted defence of the CBC's decision not to broadcast the cartoons, the fact that the original publication was prompted by self-censorship makes further self-censorship more than a little ironic. He then replied that:
... from our perspective, that wasn't the issue. For us, the question was simply whether or not we needed to show these offensive images to explain the controversy.
Context wasn't the issue? Seems to me that the CBC (and most other North American media, with a few exceptions), decided that avoiding further provocation of extremist violence is more important than comprehensive coverage. I also find the notion that a written description can do justice to an editorial cartoon to be patently absurd, but one argument at a time.

Playing it safe may be the only politically viable option for a public broadcaster. But it is sad that so few private media outlets have shown the courage to publish or broadcast the least offensive of the dozen cartoons. Indeed, only one of the 12 is in what I would call bad taste (the turban-as-bomb cartoon). And among the other 11 is an irony-laden drawing of a cartoonist looking over his shoulder in fear.

Instead we're bombarded with repeated claims that all Muslims object to any and all illustrations of Mohammed, a blatant mispresentation of the complexity and variety of Islamic culture. Daniel Engber has a good summary of the difference of opinion within Islam at Slate.

What I object to most is the implied false equivalency of freedom of expression on the one hand and the right to respond to insult with threats and violence on the other. Christopher Hitchens puts it succinctly:
"Civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient."

Speaking of irony, just before the cartoon protests turned deadly, one of my inspirational heroes, Richard Dawkins, laid bare his thoughts on religion in a British Channel 4 documetary called "The Root of All Evil." The network's summary of the two-part film includes this description:
In addition, though religions preach morality, peace and hope, in fact, says Dawkins, they bring intolerance, violence and destruction. The growth of extreme fundamentalism in so many religions across the world not only endangers humanity but, he argues, is in conflict with the trend over thousands of years of history for humanity to progress--– to become more enlightened and more tolerant.
When you think about it, what better proof for Dawkins' case than the death of Muslims in Afghanistan protesting the publication in Demark of a handful of cartoons that explore intolerance?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Some questions regarding your latest post:

Aren't you oversimplifying the issue by describing the issue as a classic battle between the "enlightened" free-speech secularists on one side, and fanatical religionists on the other?

Aren't you making a mistake by seeing these cartoons in isolation?

Wouldn't you agree that the "Mohamed with a bomb in his turban" was likely to be interpreted in Islamic countries as yet another expression of Western racist superiority?

For example, can you think of a single hollywood movie that portrays Arabs in a good light?

Do you not think that the foreign policy of the US and the legacy of western colonial policies has contributed to some degree to the mindset of Islamic protestors? Did you note that the Pakistani protestors were shouting "Death to America", and not "Death to Denmark" (Reminds you a bit of protestors in the west who start every chant with "hey-hey ho-ho. Maybe it's just de rigueur)?

Just wondering.

And no, I'm not defending a single act of violence, or even suggesting that I "understand it". I'm just suggesting that it seems to be a bit more complicated than the way you have framed it.

Otherwise, great writing! Keep up the good work.

3:59 PM  

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