Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Race to the Gutter and to Stir Up Senseless Killing is ON 

Some of the articles I read today:

The Danish newspaper that first published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, infuriating Muslims worldwide, previously turned down cartoons of Jesus as too offensive, the cartoonist said on Wednesday.

Defenders of free speech who were looking to western politicians to take up the sword have been gravely disappointed.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, though calling attacks on diplomatic missions abroad "deplorable," also said: "The sensitive issue highlights the need for a better understanding of Islam and of Muslim communities. Respect for cultural diversity and freedom of religion is a fundamental principle in Canada."

French President Jacques Chirac condemned "overt provocations" against Muslims. "Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided," Chirac said.

Even the U.S. State Department said Washington shares "the offence that Muslims have taken at these images."

It almost seems laughable, coming from a culture in which showing disrespect and causing offence are synonymous with enlightened thought and mass entertainment; yet here it is.

Muslims are teaching westerners the forgotten virtue of respect. Even the western media, if you can imagine that.

The Nation - In April 2003 Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons offering a lighthearted take on the resurrection of Christ to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Zieler received an e-mail from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, saying: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them." Two years later the same paper published twelve cartoons of Muhammad, including one with him wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a burning fuse. Predictably enough, it created an outcry. How we got from there to talk of "the Muslim threat" to the immutable European traditions of secularism and freedom of speech, while Scandinavian embassies burn in the Arab world, is illuminating.

Four months after the cartoons were published, Jyllands-Posten's editor apologized. In the intervening time Muslims engaged in mostly peaceful protests. Several Arab and Muslim nations withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark while demonstrators picketed embassies. According to Denmark's consul in Dubai, a boycott of Danish products in the Gulf would cost the country $27 million in sales.

All of this went largely unnoticed in the West, apart from critics who characterized the protests as evidence of a "clash of civilizations." In their attempt to limit free speech, went the argument, the demonstrators proved that Islam and Western democracy were incompatible.

Even on its own terms this logic is disingenuous. The right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. People must have the right to be offended, and those bold enough to knowingly cause offense should be bold enough to weather the consequences, so long as the aggrieved respond within the law. Muslims were in effect being vilified twice--once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them. Such logic recalls the words of the late South African black nationalist Steve Biko: "Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked."

Nonetheless, the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric framed the discussion for the almost inevitable violence to come. For as criticism mounted, other European newspapers decided to reprint the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. This was clearly inflammatory. Now the flames have reached all the way to the Middle East, where Danish and Norwegian embassies have been burned down. And the violence has been characterized as evidence that Muslims are plain uncivilized.

Neither the cartoons nor the violence has emerged from a vacuum. They are steeped in and have contributed to an increasingly recriminatory atmosphere shaped by, among other things, war, intolerance and historic injustices. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, racially motivated crimes doubled in Denmark between 2004 and '05. These cartoons only served to compound Muslims' sense of alienation and vulnerability. The Jerusalem Post has now published the cartoons. Iranian newspaper Hamshari is calling for illustrators to ridicule the Holocaust. The race to the gutter is on.


Last year the French daily Le Monde was found guilty of "racist defamation" against Israel and the Jewish people. Madonna's book Sex was only unbanned in Ireland in 2004. Even as this debate rages, David Irving sits in jail in Austria charged with Holocaust denial over a speech he made seventeen years ago, Islamist cleric Abu Hamza has been convicted in London for incitement to murder and racial hatred and Louis Farrakhan remains banned from Britain because his arrival "would not be conducive to the public good." Even here in America school boards routinely ban the works of authors like Alice Walker and J.K. Rowling. Such actions should be opposed; but no one claims Protestant, Catholic or Jewish values are incompatible with democracy.


And so the secularists and antiracists in both the West and the Middle East find their space for maneuver limited, while dogma masquerades as principle, and Islamists and Islamophobes are confirmed in their own vile prejudices.

Nor are we all that different. Sen. Trent Lott was ousted as majority leader for a birthday-party compliment to 100-year-old Strom Thurmond. Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker was almost lynched for saying he considers New York a social pigsty. There were demands that Rocker undergo psychiatric counseling.

We have "speech codes" in colleges and "hate crimes" laws to protect minorities from abusive remarks. But newspapers that hail these codes throw a blanket of "artistic freedom" over scatological art that degrades religious symbols ­ from putting a figure of Christ in a jar of urine to a "painting" of the Virgin Mary surrounded by female genitalia and elephant dung that hung in a Brooklyn museum.

What has happened in Europe is that the secular press, which loves to mock the beliefs and symbols of religious faith, has now insulted a deadly serious religion that answers insults with action.

Another example of double standard is the fact that in 2001 the European Court of Justice ruled that the European Union could lawfully suppress political criticism of its institutions and leading figures. British blasphemy laws are restricted to "scurrilous validation of the Christian religion."

The French philosopher Roger Grady was fined $40,0000 in 1998 for statements made in his book, "The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics." In another case of double standards, Ernest Zundel, Germar Rudolf and David Irving are serving time in jail in Europe for their views on the Holocaust.

The current violent reactions to the cartoons do not follow the teaching of Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslim leaders and organizations have condemned the cartoons as well as the over-reaction of some Muslims.

It is worth noting that American Muslims have not engaged in any violent reaction to the cartoons. In fact the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations (a national Islamic civil Rights organization) has issued a statement condemning the violence and initiated meetings with Danish officials.

We need interfaith dialogue more than ever before.

While the cartoons are sacrilegious and very insulting to all Muslims, Prophet Muhammad told the Muslims, "You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness." (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

A billion Muslims cannot afford to let a few extremists or a few ignorant cartoonists hijack Islam, for Islam is a religion of peace.

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