Tuesday, February 07, 2006

They're Only Cartoons

When some Danish editors decided to sponsor a contest among cartoonists to see which of them was courageous enough to publish under their own name in a local paper cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, several cartoonists jumped at the chance and burned their fingers on Islamic hotspots all over the world. Earlier in Amsterdam, the artist Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim who took offense at a film he had made that, in the opinion of his knife wielding critic, was demeaning to Muslim women.

As we say in the United States, “What were they thinking?”

The most amusing response to the current backlash – which included the burning of Danish embassies and the radicalization of Islamic moderates – was a lead line in a news report in the United States that began, “What’s all the fuss about. It’s only a cartoon.” Probably the cartoonists were thinking their work would create a mild dustup lasting a few days, after which they would be celebrated among the brethren as stout defenders of freedom of the press

It didn’t work out exactly this way. The ferocity of the Muslim response had people in the West scratching their noggins and wondering at it all. Wonder, says the philosopher, is the beginning of wisdom.

One thinks of the modest response here in the United States to ritualistic flag burning and the Andres Serrano art show in New York. Fundamentalist Christians and Catholics were mightily upset by Serrano’s Piss Christ, which featured a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Even then, cognoscenti in the art world were wondering what all the fuss was about. It was just art. On the other hand, the philistines did not burned down museums.

Before Islam reacted to the cartoons, there had been gentle hints in some newspapers that the desecration of religious things could lead to what we in the West might consider an exaggerated response among some Muslims. A false story that jailers in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had flushed Islamic holy books down toilets had caused a backlash that resulted in the usual blood and gore. The cartoonists and their editors, assuming they read newspapers, ought to have taken these early warnings as a hint that the use of Mohammed in a cartoon would lead to arson and bloodshed.

It’s difficult to imagine a happy ending in all this for the West. Once again, the West has shown itself to be the boorish elephant in a room full of religious nick-knacks. An Egyptian journalist noted in one of his columns that the impiety of picturing Mohammed in any fashion – although the prophet has been represented in Persian art many times – is an offense far less serious than the slaughter of innocents by Islamic heretics. "Who hurts Islam more” wrote the journalist, “a foreigner who excels in depicting the Prophet, or a Muslim with an explosive belt who blows himself up at a wedding party?" That fellow was promptly fired by editors who did not want to see their building in flames when they returned to work in the morning. The Danish cartoonists are all in hiding; so much for courage.

The United States will find it more difficult to persuade moderates in the Islamic world that exposure to Western ideas will not instantly transform them into liberated Satanists. And, finally, such stupidities till the cultural ground and prepare it for terrorists and enemies of the West, like the charming president of Iran who, following the Cartoon flapdoodle, has invited Western cartoonist to submit their work to Hamshahri, one of the largest newspapers in Iran. The paper is running a contest centering on the theme, dear to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the Holocaust was a Jewish hoax.

"Does the West extend freedom of expression to the crimes committed by the United States and Israel, or an event such as the Holocaust?” Hamshahri asked editorially. “Or is its freedom only for insulting religious sanctities?"

On a level playing field, Hamahahri and Ahmadinejad probably would go down to dusty defeat. The notions, widely peddled in the Middle East, that the Holocaust is a Jewish fiction and that the slaughter of Islamites by other Islamites is a virtue rather than a heretical sin heartily condemned by the prophet Mohammed would be pitifully easy to disprove, had not the cartoonists pitched the ground against the West.

Not all things lawful, said the prophet Paul, are advisable. It will take more than a brute assertion of rights to win to the side of the West people in the Middle East who must be weary of burnings, beheadings and a heretical righteousness that robs pious Islamic mothers of their children and Islam of its rightful future.
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