Cartoons & Fences

As this article is being written, late in reading week, riots continue on a daily basis in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, India and elsewhere. This ongoing furor has arisen from the printing of cartoons in some newspapers. Twelve cartoons were first printed on September 30, 2005 in a Danish paper. Over the couple of months that followed, the only public reaction was from a few “Muslim Ambassadors” who lobbied formal complaints to the Danish Prime Minister. On January 10, 2006, a Norwegian paper reprinted the cartoons, and then in response, on the 26th Saudi Arabia recalled their ambassador to that country. Four days later in Gaza, armed militants demanding an apology raided an EU office.

The Danish paper, the Jyllands–Posten printed an apology. The preamble to the apology was as follows:

Honourable fellow citizens of the Muslim world. Morgenavisen Jyllands–Posten is a strong proponent of democracy and freedom of religion. The newspaper respects the right of any human being to practice his or her religion. Serious misunderstandings in respect of some drawings of the Prophet Mohammed have led to much anger and, lately, also boycott of Danish goods in Muslim countries.

The apology went on to explain how additional offensive cartoons were added to the original dozen. However, the cartoon that had the seal of Mohammed printed on a bomb atop the Prophet’s turban was one of those original twelve. Carsten Juste, the paper’s editor, “categorically” denies that the cartoons were intended “as a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and the rest of the world.” He also denies that the cartoons were intended to be offensive. Fortunately, he at least acknowledged that he realized in hindsight that they were.

Contained in his apology was a fairly staunch defense of the actions based on the paper’s stance of supporting freedom of religion, their commitment to “upholding the highest ethical standards based upon the respect of our fundamental values,” and the fact that in the past they had printed articles highlighting the “positive aspects of [ethnic] integration.” It seems that what Juste and the Jyllands–Posten were saying was this: sorry that the cartoons offended people, but it was simply a “misunderstanding” and there was no racist or anti–Islam agenda behind them. People were expected to believe Juste simply because the paper believes in “fundamental values.” The paper is not racist, because they say they are not.

That was on January 31st. The next day papers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain reprinted the cartoon. On the 4th of February the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were attacked and burned down by an ‘angry mob.’ The next day the same happened to the Danish embassy in Lebanon. Things have continued from there. Not so much with escalating violence (although riots have inevitably lead to deaths in many parts of the world), but with unrelenting anger and protests.

On February 8th, our student newspaper The Cord reprinted a censored version of the cartoon described above. Within a couple of days, taped to the newspaper stands all over campus, and in the following week’s paper was the following apology:

On page 19 of last week’s international section, the censored image accompanying the article “Cartoon ignites Muslim furor” was not meant to explicitly show the Prophet Muhammad, but it has been brought to our attention that he was clearly identifiable in the Arabic text of the picture. The Cord regrets the cultural ignorance of the oversight and apologizes to anyone this may have offended.
[The Cord’s attempt to censor the offensive part of the cartoon failed.]

On our campus there has been minimal reaction despite the weakness of the The Cord’s apology. Meanwhile, there have been deaths in a half dozen countries from clashes with the police, and embassies and/or Western targets destroyed in just as many. In Western countries, there has been only protest.

Much Western media analysis has been focused on the ‘freedom of speech debate,’ discussing whether or not the papers had a right to print the cartoons. Many North American papers have defended in principle the right to print them, while having the decency not to do so themselves. This is an appropriate response. What needs to be more acknowledged is that there is a moral and ethical difference between what is legal to print and what ought to be printed.

However, other debate seems to have taken a ‘nasty’ turn. There seems to be somewhat of an impulse to justify the printing of the cartoons on the basis of the violent response. This is not only an unintelligent analysis, but a dangerous one. It takes the actions of a number of people as being representative of a global Muslim population that nears half a billion. It is very small minorities who have reacted in these rightly condemnable ways. That is hardly grounds for generalization. But the generalizations about Islam did not by any means start with these cartoons.

In the post 9–11 era the Western world has become openly phobic of Islamic religion and its followers. There is an open acceptance of anti–Islamic talk in the media and also in
conversation.

This is not to say that there has been a huge rise in overt and practiced racism against Muslims in Canada. But there has been some, and one might suspect, much more of it than has been reported. This is also not to say that people are necessarily aware of the fact that they are being racist. Of course that does not mean they are not, and The Cord’s printing of the cartoon is a good example of this. The Cord claims to have believed the offensive part of the cartoon was eliminated when they refrained from showing the depiction of the Prophet’s face (such depiction is prohibited in Islam.) They were wrong, but there is little need to question their initial motives. They did print the offensive cartoon, and they have based their apology on the notion of “cultural ignorance.”

I maintain that newspaper journalists from multicultural and diverse communities have an obligation to be aware of issues that are culturally sensitive. They knew people all over the world were enraged by the cartoons, and made no effort to make sure they were avoiding recreating that offense. All they had to do was ask — our school happens to have an excellent department of religion and culture and many Muslim students who could have advised them. Given the political climate and the role of a student owned newspaper, to have failed in this duty to be culturally inclusive is unethical and racist, whether intentional or not.

One question that has not been properly answered and explained for people is why everyone is so angry. The standard explanation is that Islam explicitly forbids the depiction of the Prophet. There are other religions that have similar rules. But we are to believe that Muslims all over the world are riotous with anger because of a drawn image of the prophet, as if it would be equally offensive regardless of the context. It does not seem rational, even by fundamentalist religious standards that without the racist context a drawing of the Prophet would be similarly offensive. I fail to believe that it is the violation of the law alone that is the root of these displays of anger. If I am wrong, then this is another example of how little understanding there is between cultures.

One of the most infamous concepts associated with the modern cultural schism between Islam and the West is Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilizations.” But any self–respecting Global studies student should be able to tell you that when Huntington was talking about “civilizations” in the early 1990’s, and still at the time of 9–11, it simply was not the case. There was no unified Islamic world bent on any singular global mission any more than Torontonians and rural Mississippians have some sort of unified agenda. The ‘Muslim world’ is just as diverse as the ‘Western world.’ Since 9–11, with this “cartoon furor” as a symptom, it seems as if both ‘camps’ are bent on doing the best they can to create that clash. All now seem to be engaged in reciprocal demonization and generalization. These things never end well.

But there is a logistical problem to ending this cycle. The media portray the Muslim world as inherently violent, anti–freedom, and fueled by an intrinsically violent religion.
However, the Koran is not what one who has read it would call a violent book. But despite that, what is presented as ‘their’ responses, are flag and effigy burnings. This ‘violent’ response seems to justify to many people their generalized prejudices.

My short and to the point counter to this type of thinking is as follows: When a few priests were found out to be child molesters, no responsible person suggested that all priests were pedophiles, no sane person considered whether Christianity was an inherently pedophilic religion, and no newspapers printed cartoons of Jesus fucking little boys…as they should not have.

But none of this actually explains the riots. In Western democracies rioting and large scale aggressive protests are not part of people’s daily lives. But there were riots in Quebec and Seattle, and there have been several substantial race riots on North American soil as well. They rioted in Vancouver after winning the Stanley Cup, and in England they riot on a nearly weekly basis after soccer matches.

That being said, it seems insane to me to get that angry over religion. But history says otherwise, that humans have always taken religion rather seriously. And there are religious fundamentalists in the West as well, entire communities full of them. Secular people and religious people rarely understand each other, and in private may be prone to cast judgment on each other. Atheists by Christian standards are destined for hell, and monotheists by atheist definition are deluded and misdirected. Yet even within countries as multicultural as Canada, we have proved ableto at least respect each other, and get along well enough to accomplish a vast array of productive things. Despite lack of agreement, we have created diverse and relatively inclusive cultures throughout the West (to varying degrees.) And within Western democracies, to a certain extent, we have peace. We have failed to create a similar situation between the broader cultural divides in the world. But there comes a time, when we must accept that our global neighbors do not necessarily have the same cultural sensibilities, sense of humor, or notion of the formal relationship between religion, government and media that ‘we’ do. In fact, we know that ‘they’ do not. There appears to be a need to stop exercising our perceived rights and freedoms at the expense of global and human relations.

There is an old saying that good fences make good neighbors — but not if your neighbors are from a culture that is deeply offended by fences. Not understanding why, and claiming ignorance will not make anything better.

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