The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Offensive Cartoons Expose Munafiqs and other Hypocrites

I’ll say it right off the bat, at least one of those cartoons was way over the top. But that simple fact is no longer particularly relevant. In case, you either ignored a story that has been stewing since September 2005 (!!) or have been asleep since sometime last week, the Swampmeister – himself now awake, after recently being slightly under the weather, and having for once not proved immune to the diseases of the fever swamp – wants to sound off about the Danish editorial cartoons depicting Islam and the Prophet.

Here’s an excellent Financial Times chronology and a Washington Post article on the events so far. But there are some facts and aspects that have gotten lost in the melee, and once you illuminate those, startling hypocrisy rises to the surface of this potluck.

Number one of which is: the cartoons themselves. These are editorial cartoons, hardly the most offensive ones over the years, but still obviously insulting to some. The thing about the cartoon is that few have seen them: Just readers of a few newspapers (inc. the only one in the U.S., the Philadelphia Inquirer) and those who have dug them up on the Internet. In line with blogiquette, here’s a link should you wish to see them.

Anti-Danish Sentiments in Baquba, Iraq
(c) AFP

In today’s, Amir Tahiri explains why these cartoons, or any other depiction of the Prophet, cannot be blasphemy. Sure, it’s his opinion. But considering that most reporting has assumed that there is a blanket ban on this kind of iconography, it’s important reading. Funny, how something becomes the Truth even though there are clear alternative views.

Secondly, and not unrelated, is the fact that the nature of the cartoons was totally misrepresented by a group of Danish imams, who traveled to the Middle East to spread the word of the blasphemy. Neglecting to explain the context of the publication and the nature of Danish society was not enough for these supposed purveyors of truth and God’s word.

In addition, they told crowds about non-published (and some non-existent) cartoons, ones that depicted the Prophet copulating with his mother and a pig. You do not need to know much about anything to understand that this didn’t come across too well. The fact that the imams were lying? No worries. Anything goes when you want to foment the mob.

Here’s a blog post that exposes more on this lie and a newspaper article about the deceptive imams. And here’s Flemming Rose talking about this and the whole sorry saga on C-Span (Very worthwhile! It’s only five minutes long. 1:56:27 into the program). Rose is one of the editors from Jyllandsposten (click here to read some of their articles in English), the Danish paper that originally commissioned and published the cartoons.

Something else to keep in mind regarding the mob and supposed outrage of the whole Muslim world. Here’s how it actually works most of the time: event happens, gets distorted beyond recognition, rabble-rousers with a government-approved seal stir up a carefully selected crowd of young MEN, flags burn, cameras roll, folks in Europe and America are led to believe that a) the mobs are gigantic or that b) they are a carefully collated and representative poll sample. OK.

But while all this is material, let’s not forget about the Scandinavians and other Europeans who are now the defenders of self-evident truths and universal rights. For they have major soul-searching to do as well. First of all, their interpretation of freedom of speech leaves a little something to be desired. Secondly, their sudden razor-sharp analysis of the Muslim Street stands in stark contrast to their usual hand-wringing piety in the realm of foreign affairs.

And lastly, and closest to my heart, their miserable history of dealing with immigration suddenly – and way too conveniently – finds itself behind the mother of all smokescreens. Now, you can really blame ‘those immigrants.’ Accordingly, Joe Scandi can now say: “Look at their reaction, they’re burning out purdy flag.!! Told ya so! What? Do we have ANY responsibility for their alienation? Well, it doesn’t matter now…”

So, freedom of speech and accompanying responsibility along the lines of not shouting “fire in a crowded theater.” There is a (strong) case to be made for a near absolute freedom of speech when it does not infringe on other freedoms, especially the freedom to life. Now, some might argue that cartoons cause harm and people have been dying. To those folks I say: who did the killing? Some might say freedom of religion is harmed. To those people I say where? You don’t mean that of Christian and Jews in Saudi Arabia, do you?

Still some, like Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a Washington-based journalist from Germany - a country where censorship esp. related to World War II, Nazism, and Holocaust Denial exists – go out of their way to find a lot of fault in the very mild U.S. position on this whole affair.
Plus when they criticize the US for adopting an admittedly clumsy, but still diplomatic stance, they somehow forget that most of their brethren EU governments were originally nowhere to be seen at all.

So you could claim that this is none of the U.S.’s business, AND demand solidarity AND complain when it arrives. But can you really claim that this is none of other EU. countries’ business? Let’s hope the Danes don’t forget about the telling sequence of deafening silence, then kowtowing to violence and finally begrudging partnership from their closest allies and neighbors.

For an American take on this I offer the views of Signe Wilkinson. This Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist has herself been picketed by irate Muslims, Christians, Jews and many, many more.

“I don’t go out of my way to poke fun at the religiously faithful. I have no grounds to criticize other religions, when my own is such a quirky (though perfect) little cult. Unfortunately, cartoonists are easily bothered. I am particularly bothered when some group wants to impose its way of life on me--and most particularly when its adherents want my tax dollars to help them do the imposing. Religious groups are often among those asking for tax dollars, or particular laws to advance their interest or legalize their morality... I know cartoonists will take into consideration the reaction to this caricature when drawing their next ones on Muslim issues. If the reaction of the “Arab street” continues to be violence whenever they don’t like something they see in someone else's newspaper, then I predict more such cartoons are on the way. My suggestion is that instead of threatening to draw blood, Muslims should pick up their pens and draw return cartoons instead.”

Call this naïve, but it is earnest and has humor. For more humor, I highly recommend the February 7th editions of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. You can download them (BitTorrent etc.) or catch the highlights on the Comedy Central’s brilliant website. Look for the ‘Kidding’ sketch on the Colbert Show. Awesome.

Disagree? Well, my ‘hero’ Christopher Hitchens is highly critical of the Bush Administration’s (initial) reaction and also lambastes just everybody else and calls for much more (but far wittier) mockery of religion. He’s definitely on to more than something. A man in the mold of Thomas Paine and H.L. Mencken. Provocation along intelligent lines for a real reason is never wrong.

“As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week's international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate… How appalling for the country of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration. What does he mean "unacceptable"? That it should be forbidden? And how abysmal that a "spokesman" cannot distinguish between criticism of a belief system and slander against a people. However, the illiterate McCormack is right in unintentionally comparing racist libels to religious faith.”


“…let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from (things offensive). But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find "offensive." ( By the way, hasn't the word "offensive" become really offensive lately?) The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization… civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts, and it is positively outrageous that the administration should have discarded them at the very first sign of a fight.”

OK, back to the Scandinavians. They are worried about the Arab Street, while somehow calling its bluff, realizing that the rhetoric bears no semblance to reality and the violence lacks any degree of proportion. Good for them. But it’s a classic latecomer apparition. American and Israeli actions IN GENERAL are almost always subject to this treatment. Unfortunately, the Scandinavians in those cases bend over backwards looking for a legitimate grievance on behalf of the baying mob.

This time, not only can they see no such thing, but they have forgotten how quick they were to take the opposite tack in the past. Funny that. And when the U.S. offers comments on this, well, leave it to the Europeans to find the U.S. at fault again. This time for not standing up for freedom of speech (and they do this without reasoning along Hitchens’ lines). All the while suggesting that those now pointing fingers at them need to engage in introspection. This from the master finger-pointers of times gone by.

You gotta wonder why similar situations are seen through concave or convex lenses depending on who is the object of irrational wrath. And while initial comments from the State Department were silly and mechanical, anyone believing that the land (we, the people NOT this or any other Administration) of the First Amendment is not going to stand up for free speech is stranded in left field. The State Department was being...diplomatic. Go figure.

Reporting on this from the U.S. reminds me of the Wonderland fantasies in Europe. You know the ones that claim debate is vigorous in the Old Country, but stifled here in the New World. Debate here on most any issue is earnest and vibrant. If I were to claim the consensus lovers across the sea came even close to that description, I’d just as well be sitting on top of a toadstool smoking a hookah.

Lastly, this whole spiel ties into Europe’s biggest issue, dilemma, crisis: Immigration. Denmark is justifiably well-known for open-mindedness, but also for being highly ambivalent about diversity when it comes to immigration, especially Muslim immigration.

What bothers me most of all about all of this is that this debate has received a million times more attention than the realities of immigrants in Denmark, Sweden, Germany or elsewhere in Europe. And that the reaction of fomented Muslim mobs will be used as proof-positive for those who love to misconstrue these realities. By those who somehow ‘know’ that immigrants are no good.

I urge you print out and read Christopher Caldwell’s piece from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s about the situation in Sweden, which by all accounts is better than in Denmark. You will find that hard to believe once you read it.

When I think of the situation in these countries and what I believe lies behind the debate that led up to the commission of the cartoons, I happen to agree with the brilliant Danish writer Carsten Jensen who said: “I don't want to live in a country that in order to love itself must look down on others.”

However, let me end on a positive note. The reaction among German Muslims to all of this appears to have been one of liberal moderation. Despite their own generally unsatisfactory situation, many came down on the side of their home country’s values. If you doubt that they not only enjoy the fruits of the open society they live in, but also embrace the principles, it would appear you need to think again.

And if the reaction in Denmark (and Sweden) is similar, we find ourselves face to face with a historical irony. The possibility, perhaps the likelihood, that the real close-mindedness resides in the hearts and minds of non-Muslim Danes, Swedes and Germans as well as some Muslims in the Islamic World. Are these people the true Munafiqs?

So you decide: did Jyllandsposten provoke entirely without reason and justification? Were the cartoons, thought up by various illustrators, in bad taste? Is the Danish debate on immigration out of bounds? Perhaps. Definitely. Absolutely. As for the reactions they provoked, how that fits into the world of geopolitics and just how connected to immigration in Europe this is, stay tuned.


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Blogger Give 'em enough rope said...

I hope you’re feeling better – clearly, you're at least well enough to write yet another eloquent post. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, especially and wholeheartedly with regards to Scandinavians, integration and hypocrisy.

(As an aside, I can’t resist mentioning that Caldwell’s piece made me smile (as well as scowl, obviously). The Swedish housing project he describes at the beginning of the article – Bergsjön – is in fact my place of birth, as stated proudly in my Swedish passport. My parents, who were young university students at the beginning of the 70s, figured these gleaming new high rises would make a better place to raise a family than some inner-city squat. They were wrong, and I haven’t been back to the place since toddlerhood, but I still claim a fair amount of street cred from this early habitat.)

Anyway, back to your analysis. I do have a small bone to pick with the following:

“There is a (strong) case to be made for a near absolute freedom of speech when it does not infringe on other freedoms, especially the freedom to life.”

What is that case, more specifically? You and I may worship a variety of freedoms, but others do not, and I am not sure I have ever understood the aforementioned case.

As Rami G. Khouri (editor-at-large of Beirut based newspaper Daily Star) writes in today’s Rocky Mountain News (Commentary section): “The current wave of intense protests was sparked when half a dozen other newspapers throughout Europe provocatively reprinted the cartoons last month. This was coupled with European political and press leaders flat out telling the Islamic world that Western freedom of press was a higher moral value and a greater political priority than Muslims’ concern that their leading prophet not be subjected to blasphemy and insult.”

I always find it interesting to hear people, talking on behalf of “the free world”, make comments like this one by Signe Wilkinson (as quoted in your post):

“I am particularly bothered when some group wants to impose its way of life on me--and most particularly when its adherents want my tax dollars to help them do the imposing.”

And those who use their freedom of expression – a human value as arbitrary as any other – to insult that which to some cannot be insulted without dire consequences are doing what?


“My suggestion is that instead of threatening to draw blood, Muslims should pick up their pens and draw return cartoons instead”

Am I the only one who cannot help but smile slightly condescendingly at such a proposal? Is it just to me that it seems almost absurdly naïve to suggest that in order to stop an ongoing conflict between my way and their way, everyone adopt my way and the problem’s out of the window?

10:19 PM  

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