Cartoons and Provocation

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Let me
tell you a few things about blasphemy. Been there, done it.
Got expelled from high school for it.

That was
a few decades ago, and for those seeking titillation, I’ll
give you the details at the end of this screed. First I have
to tell you about a massive propaganda coup. You’ve been
had by some of the most bigoted people in the world – and
I’m not talking about Muslim fundamentalists.

The big
news about blasphemy today is in the Muslim world. A Danish
newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in September published 12 cartoons
mocking the prophet Muhammad. It took four months for that fuse
to reach the powder keg of religious sensibilities – the
flame was relentlessly pushed along by the right-wing, neo-conservative
press until it exploded. The dumbed-down media depiction was
free speech versus intolerant Muslim fanatics. That’s not
entirely wrong, just very incomplete. Ultimately, crowds erupted
in protests in Muslim cities. The picture of the burning Danish
consulate in Beirut is the icon of the day.

I have
to admit a severe conflict of principles here. On the one hand,
I want to shout: “I am Danish! Cartoons don’t kill,
bombs do!” I don’t countenance any prior restraint
on freedom of expression, and when I first read of the Muslim
outrage over cartoons – such as one depicting Mohammed’s
turban as a bomb – I sighed a deep sigh of regret. There’s
no dialogue in burning embassies.

Should
free speech have constraints? Official censorship is anathema
to a free society. Self-censorship and spinning for a regime
– la Fox News – is just as corrosive. On the other
hand, I think the media should be very judicious about gratuitous
offense. I’m repulsed at such things as artist Andres Serrano’s
“Piss Christ.” And, I feel no need to antagonize Muslims,
Hindus, Wiccans or any other religious groups by intentionally
creating an affront to their faith. I even have respect for
the misbegotten gospel of the (un)Christian Coalition.

That the
Muslim world reacted with violence to the cartoons is abhorrent.
That Christians have done the same thing – lighting up
town centers and hilltops across Europe with flaming heretics
and blasphemers – is just as abhorrent. Indeed, the theocratic
movement in America, which would enshrine one narrow view of
Christ’s teachings as the law of the land, is simply a
variation on the Muslim fundamentalists bellowing hatred at
Scandinavian businesses and government offices.

There are
other caveats that need to be stated: The Muslim world has been
under assault from western, Christian crusaders for a thousand
years. We’ve colonized and despoiled their lands. Many
in America regard their oil as rightfully ours – an underlying
if not complete explanation for George Bush’s war of conquest.
We’ve carved up the Middle East, overthrown democracies
(pre-Shah Iran, for example), and fostered despots to suit the
West’s imperial whims. And we wonder why THEY don’t
like us, and why THEY take insults from us so seriously.

So, let’s
look at the guy who started this whole cartoon escapade. He’s
Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper.
In all of the Lexis-Nexis database of stories from the American
media on the Mohammed cartoons, there is absolutely no mention
of the fact that Rose is a close confederate of arch-Islamophobe
Daniel Pipes. Indeed, there is almost no context at all about
Rose’s newspaper. On a brief mention in the Washington
Post gave a hint at a fact desperately needed to understand
the situation. The Post described the affair as “a calculated
insult … by a right-wing newspaper in a country where bigotry
toward the minority Muslim population is a major, if frequently
unacknowledged, problem.”

How bad
is Pipes? He wants the utter military obliteration of the Palestinians;
indeed, from the Muslim world, his racism is about as blatant
as that of the Holocaust denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Pipes’ frequent outbursts of racism – designed to
toss gasoline on the neo-cons’ lust for a wholesale conflict
of cultures – earned him a Bush nomination to the U.S.
Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded think tank. Rose
came to America to commune with Pipes in 2004, and it was after
that meeting the cartoon gambit materialized.

It’s
also worth noting that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen
wrapped himself in protestations about freedom of speech, and
that’s commendable. But he is one of Bush’s few fans
in Europe, steeped in the we-versus-them rhetoric, and having
sent troops to the Iraqi Crusade.

Is Rose
an equal opportunity offender? No way. As the British press
reported last week, his newspaper refused in 2003 to run cartoons
that ridiculed Jesus. And, of course, free expression in Europe
is very relative. Many of the democracies have laws banning
certain speech.

Rose gave
a rather misanthropic rejoinder to AP when asked about whether
he would have published the cartoons in light of the subsequent
protests. Rose said: "I do not regret having commissioned
those cartoons and I think asking me that question is like asking
a rape victim if she regrets wearing a short skirt Friday night
at the discotheque."

That, of
course, makes the assumption that women are responsible for
being raped. It’s just as fallacious as assuming the Muslim
world should passively accept an intentional provocation, one
that gratuitously attacked one of the religion’s strictest
prohibitions.

Was the
reaction overwrought? Absolutely. Was it predictable? Absolutely.
Was it an intentional scheme to provoke Arab anger, and thereby
engender Western disgust with the Muslim world? The involvement
of Pipes and Rose argues that that is exactly what happened.

Now, my
confession of blasphemy. In 1963, as an art student in Miami,
I was assigned to a safety poster, “Cross at the corner.”
I (humorously) depicted a crucified Christ at a Miami street
corner looking down very sadly at people doing all sorts of
horrible things to each other. My principal wasn’t amused,
called me sacrilegious and a blasphemer, and tossed me from
school. I got back in – the First Amendment was still alive
and well. And, fortunately, none of my supporters (there were
quite a few) burned any consulates.

February
16, 2006

John
Sugg [send him mail]
is senior editor of Atlanta
Creative Loafing
. Visit his
blog
.

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