Monday, April 10, 2006

The Cartoon Controversy

The cartoon controversy is one of those things that might not bear close inspection. In previous blogs I have tried to understand the Muslim perspective and think my way into a happy solution. After spending more time reading and thinking about it, I am starting to back away from my previous tolerant stance. I think sometimes we have to stand up and say that something is wrong.

It's wrong that people are in hiding fearing for their lives over these cartoons. It's wrong that almost every media outlet is afraid to publish them for fear of violent reprisal. It's wrong that violent protests have destroyed embassies and killed people. It's wrong that book editors, film makers and politicians are being murdered because Muslims are offended by something they said. It's wrong that Danish imams published a booklet about the cartoons that included fake cartoons that are offensive and there's no scandal. It's wrong that moderate Muslims are condoning the violence.

I went to a lecture today called "Interfaith Dialogue & Diplomacy: The Cartoon Controversy" given by a PoliSci professor (who is from Pakistan) at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

She said that the belief in freedom of speech is not big "T" truth because it is not accepted by all. She argued that when we claim free speech we are claiming that our view of what is sacred is more important than another person's, and we can't do that. Now, there might be some justification for this argument within Muslim countries, although I'm dubious. There might even be some slight justification in the international community. But within western countries, freedom of speech is the law. It isn't some relativistic notion that we can choose to ignore if we have religious faith.

She admitted that each cartoon on its own was not offensive, but argued that the publication was offensive because the article was titled "Mohammed". She said that naming the article after the prophet was akin to walking into a church naked and constituted a great impropriety. She didn't really make the leap from impropriety to violence; in fact, she didn't really explain this whole bizarre line of reasoning at all. But she claimed that it explained (and implied that it justified?) the violent reaction.

I thought the speaker, Dr. Samina Yasmeen, said some offensive things. She described herself as an enlightened feminist, but she talked about the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh as if it were completely understandable. She didn't outright condone it but she described the murder as a reasonable reaction.

And yet some in the audience seemed to think that she was too soft on the issue. One said that dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims would never solve anything as long as atrocities were being perpetrated against Muslims. Just in case we didn't get who he was talking about, he added, "...atrocities which have been committed since 1948..." Now let's look at what he's saying: Palestinians are in conflict with Israelis, and that means that there's no point in any dialogue between any Muslims (about a billion of whom are not Palestinian) and anyone else. It is exactly when there is conflict that dialogue is most needed.

Another guy who identified himself as head of a local Muslim organization said that people in the west say they're open-minded but if they're truly open-minded then they must be open-minded about people who are closed-minded. I think he meant that westerners are a bunch of patsies who are so liberal that all the tolerance must come from them and none from anyone else, and to be liberal they must accept everything without question.

Around this point it dawned on me that if I keep backing up on these issues, I will be pushed and pushed and pushed until there is nowhere to go.

I had a question I wanted to ask but I was afraid to. I've read too many stories about people who spoke out and then got hurt. Jyllands-Posten originally published the cartoons to spark a dialogue about self-censorship due to fear of Muslim violence. And that's what we've got. And that's why we have to speak up and say it's wrong, and that's why sometimes we've got to do it anonymously.

I know this is a very sensitive topic, and I apologise if I've offended anyone.

The fake cartoons
When Danish imams wanted to stir up a reaction in Muslim communities, they created a pamphlet about the cartoons that included several fake ones (fake in the sense that they hadn't been published by Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that solicited and published the cartoons). One of the fake cartoons shows a dog humping a man who is praying with his bum in the air, and the caption reads, "This is why Muslims pray." Another fake cartoon is a very crude drawing of a horned man exposing himself and holding children in his hands, with the caption, "A sketch of Mohammed as a demonic pedophile." You can easily pick out the fake cartoons because they are dark and fuzzy, as if someone ripped them out of a newspaper and scanned them, except in one case where the quality of drawing is no better than a child's. The real cartoons were drawn by professional cartoonists and look it. Also, the real cartoons aren't offensive.

The cartoons are reprinted here.


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