Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cartoons as Politics; Politics as Cartoons

(I've edited this post from its original form, because I want to clarify some things, lest my views get distorted.)

This blog hasn’t focused much on political events thus far, but I’ll slowly phase in some material in that vein, starting now.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest chapter in the Clash of Civilizations, Muslim fundamentalists are pretty angry, this time about a series of cartoons depicting Muhammad that ran in a Danish newspaper and has now been reproduced by several European publications in a show of free-speech solidarity.

Thumbnail background from the New York Times:
The trouble began in September in Denmark, when the daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons lampooning intolerance among Muslims and links to terrorism. A Norwegian magazine published the cartoons again last month, and the issue erupted this week after diplomatic efforts failed to resolve demands by several angry Arab countries that the publications be punished.

The cartoons include one depicting Muhammad with a bomb in place of a turban on his head and another showing him on a cloud in heaven telling an approaching line of smoking suicide bombers, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!"

They have since been reprinted in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Hungary. The BBC broadcast them on Thursday.
More specifically, to quote another account: “Muslim fundamentalists have threatened to bomb the paper’s offices and kill the cartoonists.”

That seems like an eminently reasonable reaction to a few drawings, doesn’t it?

Oh, it doesn’t? Right.

(You can see the cartoons here if you scroll down.)

I'm not condoning whatever blatant insensitivity might have been present in those cartoons (some of the cartoons seem pretty nonsensical to me, actually), nor am I labeling as lunatics the five billion or so people who are deeply religious on this planet. I'm just condemning a response to published material that includes armed gunmen. It doesn't seem like that will get either side very far in negotiating the cultural and political divides that currently exist around the world. My friend Nick made the point that you couldn't get away with similar cartoons about priests or rabbis. (Personally, I can imagine sharp cartoons about priests being published in the Village Voice and other alternative papers pretty easily, but the point is taken.)

No one I've heard is defending the extremists’ response, and one continues to hope said extremists can be classified as a fringe movement. The Times, optimistically, writes: "Many Muslims say the Danish cartoons reinforce a dangerous confusion between Islam and the Islamist terrorism that nearly all Muslims abhor."

We’re in the midst of a global epidemic of people taking themselves too seriously. It’s also happening in this country, of course, but with fewer guns. Witness the recent furor over the TV show “The Book of Daniel,” which portrayed an Episcopalian priest and his dysfunctional family, and also featured Jesus himself in a supporting role. NBC pulled the plug on the show, presumably because it stunk, but Christian activist groups didn’t wait long enough to allow the show to die based on its own merits (or lack thereof).

Just today, Nick was telling me about World War II memorabilia that decorates a diner near his hometown in upstate New York. One recruiting poster depicts a burly American soldier getting looked over by a French woman who's peering at him around her boyfriend, a scrawny French soldier. (Stealing the girl of an ally! An ally portrayed as a cowardly weakling!) Another piece, a framed newspaper article from VJ Day, refers to the enemy, several times and with a straight face, as "the Japs."

I suppose the point, in a roundabout way, is that the Western world, for all its continued arrogance and stubborn policies, seems to have gotten exponentially more cautious about offending people. And that's a good thing. But maybe it's keeping us from dealing rationally with offense when it does occur.

At his blog, Norman Geras, as ever, has written something ten times smarter about this very subject.


Blogger Muslim said...

They shouldn't have published pictures like that.

In Islam we're not even allowed to draw pictures of the Prophet peace be upon him.

We dont draw pictures of Jesus or Moses, we respect all the prophets.

We love our prophet peace be upon him.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Wow, lots to consider in there. One thing I am happy about, is that WWII took place when it did vs. modern times. We would have had a more difficult time (necessarily) pummelling the Japanese and Germans into submission to end the war if our troops had to take time out for sensitivity training and to learn the cultural traditions so they could make sure that the POWs were as comfy as possible. But that aside...

We in the West are a bunch of pussies. We are so afraid of upsetting people that we don't acknowledge reality. As soon as we can admit that it is not just a "small little minority" that would like to see our destruction, the better. Just watch what is happening in France.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Ogilvie said...

Your friend Nick hasn't watched much TV, or read many books or magazines, or seen very many Hollywood movies, if he thinks you couldn't get away with displaying something offensive about Catholic priests--or anything Christian, for that matter.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

That wasn't quite my point. I was saying only that a hardline Catholic is as likely to be offended by, say, a cartoon of a priest touching up a little boy as a hardline Muslim is by an image of Muhammed with a bomb. I'm not condoning an armed response to political cartoons; I'm just saying that Muslims aren't the only ones who are protective of their icons (viz the furor over The Passion of the Christ).

3:22 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I should be more careful when paraphrasing friends on the blog. Nick was agreeing with you in a way, Ogilvie. He was actually arguing against my point that the cartoons should be accepted. He wasn't arguing that mockery of Christianity doesn't exist, just that it can and often does also elicit a response. Like yours, I assume.

As Nick and I discussed this afternoon (here I go again), the real point vis a vis humor is that it's always been "ok" to make fun of the enfranchised, powerful majority -- in the case of our country, white dudes and Christians spring to mind. Whether or not it should be ok is a different story, but on some level it makes sense. Humor can be quite a weapon and/or just a way to vent grievances, and certainly a better -- and sometimes more effective -- one (for everyone involved, I think) than a gun.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

No. I prefer the use of guns to solve problems. But then, I live in Texas.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

muslim, I understand and respect that your religion doesn't allow ANY depictions of Jesus, Moses, or especially Mohammed. As I understand it, this is because the pictures might encourage idolatry, or worship of the image rather than God.

I respect that. I understand that. But not everyone agrees with you. And part of living in a multicultural society is that you have to be able to deal with differing viewpoints -- even some that are directly opposed to your most cherished beliefs -- without resorting to violence or threats of violence.

And there's some measure of hypocrisy when you protest the fact that someone offended you by threatening to kill those people. So any depiction of Mohammed (even a mundane one) should be punished, but threatening to kill someone else should be protected speech?

The current response seems like a parody. "Danish cartoonist depicts Muslims as violent. Muslims protest depiction by threatening to behead Danish cartoonist."

Some photos of the protest in London:

-- The Comish (sic)

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a pretty recent lurker here, I haven't felt the need to comment 'til now, because, well... actually, I was compelled to comment on your "religion of the city" post, as I found it gorgeously written, think that you should submit it to a variety of literary journals immediately, and was saddened that more people didn't say so.

Anyway, "vis a vis" the political cartoon issue (you guys are really too cute with your vis-a-vising left and right): cartoons are an entertainment medium. Over the years all other entertainment media have evolved (for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint), and this is no different than the fact that what was considered porn a couple decades ago is now readily categorized as PG-13.

6:25 PM  

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