Those Mohammed Cartoons

I was traveling when the whole thing about the cartoons of Mohammed his the world media. My first reaction was to think, “Jeez, guys, chill out. It’s just cartoons by infidels! It’s not as if your media doesn’t make nasty cartoons too, you know. Now, I know that it’s considered wrong to depict Mohammed, and that in Islam that’s rooted in a more deep and lasting taboo on pictorial depictions of Allah. Okay, fine, that’s their religion. But the thing is, nobody has any right to force others to obey their religion. For example, Muslim extremists would probably also like to sabotage the worldwide pork industry, because pork is a proscribed food in Islam, but that doesn’t mean they have the right do force us not to eat pork.

But that’s missing the point a little, of course. Devout Muslims tend not to give a damn whether I eat pork in my own house; it’s when I force it on them that they get disturbed, annoyed, or maybe angry. However, what I publish is another matter — there is a sense in which print media is a kind of cultural commons. Just as it’s wrong to inject poison into a shared water-well, it’s wrong to throw scraps of pig down a shared water-well. A culture is affected by its print media, and if caricatures make life harder for all Muslims, then there’s something irresponsible about printing them.

Then I thought about it some more, and thought, okay, let’s think about self-censorship. This is what the Jyllands-Posten guy says was the heart of the matter — it’s about people self-censoring when it comes to Islam-related topics. That’s an interesting notion, of course, considering that in Europe these days, Muslims are the new Jews — meaning, the main target of anti-Semitic nastiness is directed at Muslims, now, in something like the way it was once directed at Jews in Europe. Jews are the boogeyman of Europe; anyone who’s known a European knows a few of the jokes about how Germany will soon be populated completely by Turks, and Paris by Arabs, and so on. My impression is that, far from a situation to total societal self-censorship, in Europe there’s a kind of social open season on Muslims.

Well, today I finally got a look at those cartoons (which are being hosted at The Blog From The Core).

I have to say, my feelings are still mixed, but my main reaction was this:

THAT’S what they flipped out about? THAT’S what they burned down embassies and rioted in the streets over? How f*cking crazy do you have to be to riot over such crappy cartoons as that? I mean, most of them aren’t even well done, and a great number of them aren’t even obviously insulting. Come on, guys, you’re making it easy for the Western media to portray you as ruffians, barbarians, as violent madmen.

And that’s really an important consideration, in the big picture. Every riot goes onto TV. Every burned-down embassy gets discussed on the news. Riot pictures get posted, and people in the West — a great deal of them as ignorant about Islam as they are about world events, meaning, Westerners many of whom have fallen completely for the whole pack of lies advanced by Bush and his people — those Westerners, they get a sense of the Muslim world as dangerous, as psychotic, as beyond rational, peaceful interaction. And so, they back war.

America, Britain, their governments don’t propose war when America clashes with Canada on an issue like softwood lumber. France doesn’t declare war on Englnd (anymore) over things like horses or royal lineages. That’s part of the modern world — if you’re in the club, you kind of act differently, and people have more restrictions about how they can deal with you. The problem is that America related to the Arab world as it would to any society that it thinks of as a medieval society: it has much fewer restrictions, emotionally, cognitively, and in terms of barriers to support of the populace.

It wasn’t so long ago that the modern West had a nasty relationship with the Catholic Church, come to think of it: people considered the Church positively medieval, and Catholics couldn’t get work as professors, or physicians, or in government. Something happened, though, and I think a lot of it has to do with the Church coming to a point where it could play ball with the modern world, at least, within the borders of the modern world. Reconciling evolution with faith, giving up a lot of its political power, and in a sense forcing its members to be more secular — by simply secularizing the Church itself — all contributed to the modernization of the Church, and the repair of its relationship with the modern West. You can be sure that if any Pope or Cardinal started reacting to nasty cartoons with incitements to riot, burn down embassies, and kill people, the Church would lose a lot of its modern-world credibility and the result would be a setback for the Church itself, and for its members within Western society.

But this is what we see on TV with the Muslim world — imams calling out fatwa on people like Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoonists, men in the street setting fire to embassies, madmen calling out for blood. This is all selectively delivered, of course, and the deck is stacked. But part of the problem is that there are imams saying this stuff, there are madmen starting fires and calling for blood. You don’t see Catholic laity rioting in the street when priests accused of child-molestation, and their superiors accused of shielding them from the law, are lampooned in the popular media: you don’t see death and destruction as the result of cartoons.

And that’s the thing: Islam is simply going to have to secularize if it’s going to cope with the modern world. And the longer it resists, the longer it’s going to be given chances to shoot itself in the foot. For the religious extremist, this sucks; it’s impure. Trust me, I understand, as I find secularized Christianity baffling sometimes — how modernity and consumer-capitalist life can be reconciled with such an essentially antimaterialist belief system is well beyond me. However, as far as I’m concerned, this adjustment — secularization, meaning the learning of a habit of comfort with a pluralistic world society — is a necessary sep for a religion. Plenty of Muslims are living that way right now. Unfortunately, they’re going to suffer a lot of crap for as long as there are the people left in the medieval faith-world, by whose bizarre but self-consistent logic violence is a reasonable reaction to some cruddy cartoons in a newspaper.

But it also seems to me that publishing cartoons that are bound to anger that segment of the Muslim world also is a cheap trick, a kind of nasty move that is designed to make bad news, to piss people off and get them rioting. It’s like going to a foreigner bar in Korea and complaining about your boss — everyone else has a story to offer. The reaction is just so predictable, it’s kind of saddening to behold, and really says nothing about whether people are actually happy in Korea. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

And as far as it goes, I’m not for self-censorship, but that also doesn’t mean I think it’s cool to publish all kinds of of insulting, provocative material just to prove that it can be done, and ought to be possible even if it will cause awful results. If calling your neighbour fat will cause your neighbour to shoot a gun at your house, then even if she’s 350 pounds and 5 feet tall, it’s a bad idea to call her fat. She doesn’t have the right to shoot at you for being rude, annoying, or s jerk; but you are also an idiot for saying something that provocative. And if you call your neighbour fat just to prove you can do it, and she shoots at you, well, shes nuts for shooting at you, and you’re a damned moron for not taking her insanity into account. And now, consider her family, who has to deal with her shooting at you. That’s where your little self-righteous experiment begins to look more and more like an irresponsible action. So anyway, as far as I’m concerned, everyone’s at fault here.

6 thoughts on “Those Mohammed Cartoons

  1. Hey there!

    I don’t really see a comfortable way out of this. Both the western societies and the muslim societies have people who want a clash. And they both reinforce each other. And clashes make for better stories than people making sense. WHich in turn reinforces the worst opinions each side has of the other.

  2. Gord, can these cartoons really be compared to poison? And can it be said that the Muslim reaction was inevitable? As you pointed out, some of the cartoons were not even particularly offensive. There has been some work done to indicate that the worst parts of the reaction were instigated by regimes which would like to deflect criticism abroad. Furthermore, how can Muslims be the “new Jews” in Europe. I agree that Europe has done a very poor job at assimilating its Muslims immigrants. Discrimination is rampant. On the other hand, it is the Muslims who are threatening European norms. Death threats have been issued–but not against Muslims. Former Muslims like Hirsan Ali live under 24/7 police protection. A hate-killing of a Parisian Jewish man recently happened in France, one of a number of anti-Semitic crimes which are more or less weekly occurences in France.

    Westerners must be free to be westerners in their own countries. Furthermore, potentially everything we do is offensive to somebody. Likening our actions that offend others to poison would then prohibit us from doing absolutely anything.

    Also, I don’t really think this is about Bush; this conflict started in Europe.

    Having said all that, it’s great to see you back to blogging again!

  3. PS – J says ‘Hi’. He is worried about you and hopes you are doing as well as can be expected.

    PPS – I started a book today with Aabonim.

  4. Ritu,

    Yeah, you’re right, I can’t think of a good way out of this. Is this a limitation of imagination? I can hardly believe it, but then again, when we look at history from a certain angle, we see aeons of intelligent people bemoaning the fact they’re surrounded by the apathetic, and led by madmen.

    Say hi to J for me, too. Tell him I’m alright, basically, with occasional clouds and showers. And wow, this book with Aabonim sounds like a very cool, interestng project. I want to know more! And I need his address, remember. His book has been sent to my old teacher in Canada, but I have not had the chance to pass on my teacher’s book to him!


    Yes, I think it is fair to characterize offensive publication as a kind of social poison, in that it spreads out and damages social relations. Racist tropes are a kind of poison, as surely in Europe or America is they are in Tehran or Cairo.

    An example is that you said “it is the Muslims who are threatening European norms.” Yes, and it is the Germans who are still touting Nazi ideas. In both your sentence and in mine, a small minority of psycho fruitcakes are taken to represent a whole people.

    I agree that Westerners must be free to be Westerners in their home countries. I don’t think that Western countries are “owned” by Westerners, though; my own experience as an immigrant worker (of a rarefied, lucky kind, but an immigrant just the same) has taught me that nobody really owns a country or society, and the more people try to do so, the more they have to venture into the land of fantasy to keep the claim pure.

    And I agree that potentially everything we do can offend somebody. But there’s a difference between risking that for the sake of intelligent dialogue, and being purposefully offensive just to “prove” that some small minority of a group you don’t like is going to react very badly.

    For example, it’s one thing to say that people and their mothers often have complex relationships, and that perhaps total honesty with one’s mother is a dangerous thing. Some people might be offended, but it’s worth talking about. That’s not what the Jyllands-Posten did, though — it posted a naked picture of someone else’s mother just to see the guy get pissed off. It proves nothing much, at a ridiculous cost.

    And while I’m thinking of it, self-censorship has been around for ages and ages, probably as long as there has been human communication and clear hierarchies among humans — which, certainly, is much longer than communication has been around.

  5. Hi Gord! I enjoyed reading your response. I think we may have to agree to disagree: points of disagreement would include what makes something offensive, the size and significance of the Muslim minority who condone violence in the name of faith, and whether publishing a satirical caricature of Mohommed is “racist.” Anyway, glad you’re back to blogging again!

  6. Nathan,

    Maybe not as much as you think.

    I think something is offensive when it’s an action you know people will take offense at. For example, if I know that posting a naked picture of your mother online will anger you, and I do it, I am being offensive. If I come from some culture where everyone is always naked, and don’t know or understand your culture, then of course I’m not trying to be offensive, and while you might be mortified, you ought not to consider my action purposefully offensive.

    (It was obvious from some of the cartoons that people knew depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden in Islam and consider by Muslims to be offensive.)

    The size and significance of that violence-condoning minority is something I’m hardly sure of, but I am also quite certain that the Western, liberal, and increasingly anti-Muslim media is very much likely to make it look bigger and more significant for its own purposes — this kind of study sells, after all.

    And as for the issue of racism, I think of it this way; while Koreans are not the only people who eat kimchi, making fun of kimchi is, to the Korean mind, making fun of Koreans. It’s also equivalent in my mind, though I eat kimchi rather often. If you think that race and religion aren’t strongly correlated in European discussions of Islam, I think you’re wrong; if you think that race isn’t a factor in Europeans’ objection to the growth of Islam in Europe, I think that once again you are wrong. The issue of Islam seems to me to be understood in Europe very strongly as one of an encroaching group of outsiders, and the issue religion really figures into “culture” or better yet “ethnicity” rather than just religion per se.

    I don’t know if we necessarily disagree about these issues, or just see them differently. But in any case, I’m not really out to convince you, as much as to elucidate what I am trying to say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *