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May 27, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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From Denmark With Love

“We all know that these worthless creatures calling themselves journalists and caricaturists… have nothing better to offer the world except their filth and debauchery! These barbarians in so-called democratic countries are showing their true colours. Civilised people do not go around insulting people, more so, an esteemed personality in the person of the Last Messenger of God, Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Saviour of Mankind.”
-Zainol Abideen, www.bismakaallahuma.org

On the 30 September 2005, Denmark’s best-selling daily newspaper, the conservative Jyllands-Posten, published twelve cartoons satirising the prophet Muhammad, a central figure in the monotheistic religion, Islam. And pretty much no one gave a toss. Five months later, thousands took to the streets across the Islamic world, Danish and other Scandinavian embassies came under direct attack from enraged protesters in Africa and the Middle East, and riots linked to the cartoons have been held responsible for over one hundred fatalities in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Libya. The comically-named editor of Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose, said that he had been trying to encourage debate about self-censorship by journalists when discussing Islam. He got a debate alright.

To many in the Western world, the Islamic reaction to the cartoons was as incomprehensible as it was violent. Out of nowhere a gulf seemed to have opened up between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Muslims audiences could not understand why Western newspapers would print such needlessly provocative insults to their faith; Western audiences could not understand how Muslims could become so incensed over a few cartoons. Adding to the ideological chaos, media in the US and UK, nations conventionally thought of as “anti-Islamic”, refused to print the cartoons citing a new found sense of responsibility, aided in no small part by their respective governments’ weighing in on the issue. Britain’s foreign secretary labelled the publication of the cartoons unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful and wrong. The US state department deemed the cartoons to be an incitation to religious hatred.

Meanwhile the media in European countries, such as France, so often on the frontline of the war-on-the-war-on-terror, saw it as their civic duty to express solidarity with their northern cousins and reproduce the offending cartoons in the name of free speech. French President Jacques Chirac proclaimed that the right to free speech was a foundation of the French republic, an Italian MP printed T-shirts featuring the contentious cartoons and the European Parliament ruled that the freedom of speech is an “absolute” and can not be curtailed by any form of censorship.

In New Zealand, any debate on the issue quickly settled into a bizarre inversion of the tired old formations of right-wing, left-wing point scoring. Socialist pundits, accustomed to moralising, started offering the same arguments of mandatory media tolerance and respect for multi-culturalism that were being espoused by 10 Downing St and the White House. Conservative commentators took a page from the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and harped on at great length about saintly role of free expression. For the cartoons’ apologists it was a grand battle of repression versus enlightenment; for those opposed, the issue swung on insensitivity versus tolerance.

Given the media’s direct role in the controversy (a newspaper could not excuse itself from the debate, to not print the cartoons was just as telling of the editorial stance as to print the cartoons) much of the journalistic jousting was consigned far from the serious news, and rather it was played out across editorials and columnists. The Listener, for example, signalled their intent and complete lack of familiarity with the situation in the first sentence of their February 18 editorial, where they invoked the image of, “Danish cartoonists sucking on the ends of their coloured pencils, coming up with ideas to fit their anti-Muslim brief.” The Dominion Post however was more keen to focus on ideas of solidarity with the international media community, resulting in a wussy slapfest with the New Zealand Herald over market share masquerading as obsolete notions of journalistic integrity.

The Muslim community, both at home and abroad, was also split over their reaction to the cartoons: contrary to the majority of media reports, not all Muslims immediately rushed down to the local drive-through to commit wanton acts of arson and destruction. Zeenah Adams, ex-president and member of MSVUW, the Muslim Students at Victoria, says that local Muslims were pretty relaxed about the whole thing, “To be honest, I don’t think anyone really cared too much. I was talking to a few people and they were kind of like, ‘Are we supposed to be offended? Am I a bad Muslim because I’m not offended?’” Her reaction, and those of her peers, was one of disdain, not blind anger. The cartoons were perceived as offensive, not simply because they depicted, or satirised, the prophet Muhammad, but because it seemed the cartoonist had set out to deliberately offend Muslims in a crude, unsophisticated manner.

“I thought that what they did was rude in the fact that they were clearly trying to get a reaction out of us,” says Zeenah, “What they did was so blatantly provocative… they were just fishing for a reaction.” In the Islamic world, it is generally regarded as poor show to depict the prophet Muhammad in a satirical context, though there is some debate as to whether it is acceptable to depict him in a respectful manner. While the minority Shi’a denomination have no issue with a tasteful portrayal (no full-frontals, for example), the Sunni majority, roughly eighty-five percent of the six billion Muslims worldwide, believe that it is contrary to divine law to depict Muhammad. Dr Art Buehler, a senior lecturer in the Victoria Religious Studies department explains that “there’s nothing in the Koran that says that you can’t depict the prophet,” he says, “there’s one hadith that is against it, hadiths are the collected sayings of the prophet. The hadith says something to the effect of, ‘Anyone representing a sentient being will be asked on the day of judgment to bring that being to life’, and of course since God is the only one who can give life, the person will obviously fail and be punished accordingly.”

So when the international media began distributing satirical pictures of Muhammad, anyone who was even the slightest bit conversant with Islamic attitudes towards the prophet could see what was almost inevitably going to happen as a result. “It’s kind of like someone offending your mother; the prophet is regarded as part of the family,” says Sheemam, like Zeenah, a previous president of MSVUW. “It’s hard to describe it to non-Muslims, but people love him, they really love him.” The cartoons, then, were the most offensive and biting yo-mama joke you’ve ever heard one thousand times over, and broadcast round the world on loud speakers. And they weren’t so much about your mother, because we all know she can take it, but about your cousin who’s not quite right and who everyone’s sensitive about (not to say Muhummad ain’t quite right, for the love of all that is good, please don’t take that the wrong way). When we begin to see the cartoons in this light, it starts to become more apparent why thousands of Muslims around the world were so pissed off by what at first glance were some harmless, if mildly distasteful, cartoons.

Dr Buehler agrees with the idea, that in Muslim community, Muhammad is not to be bought into disrepute. “For Muslims. who predominantly live in honour/shame societies, this is a matter of honour.” For many Muslims, Muhammad is not a distant abstract religious figure, in the way that many Western Christians relate to Jesus, he is immediately relevant and a crucial figure in the everyday life of devout Muslims. As Dr Buehler puts it, for many Muslims, “this is our prophet, he is the most perfect human being that ever lived. He’s our leader, our community’s led by him in a sense, so we’re going to stick up for him.” This is a loyalty that is largely absent in the modern world: Catholics may protest and murmur about boycotting CanWest Media after the screening of a particular South Park episode, but they do not take to the streets and demand the heads of those responsible. Republican Americans live with a steady stream of anti-Bush satire, jokes and parody without batting an eyelid. So what is it that makes Muslims so touchy? Is it that Islam is a religion of hate, an opinion often espoused by right-wing critics?

“We’re all living in the contemporary modern world in terms of time and space, but in terms of culture and perspective, I would say at least fifty percent of the Islamic world is living in a pre-modern reality, and in that reality religion is real and it’s a major part of one’s identity,” says Dr Buehler. The protests and violent attacks upon icons of Western imperialism, such as McDonalds and KFC, are not therefore because the rioters are Muslim, but because they are living in a “pre-modern” world. “It’s hard for us living in the modern world, and even harder for those of us who take religion in more relative terms, to understand that people take this identity very seriously and see this as a personal attack.” The violent reaction to the cartoons then moves from being a simple problem of East versus West, or Christian versus Islamic world-views, and becomes a question of how modernity has changed the way we conceive our personal identities. Dr Buehler clarifies the point: “I would say that when it comes to religion [Muslims] take it more seriously in very personal identity terms. I would say most Muslims take Islam in more personal and literal terms than most western modern Christians.”

Then, of course, it doesn’t help your persecution complex if you’re repeatedly shat on by your neighbours, a history that doesn’t seem about to change anytime soon. “There’s historical baggage here. Roughly one thousand years ago, serious parts of the Christian world became the Muslim world, and there’s been an ongoing antagonism between Christian Europe and the Muslim world from the beginning,” opines Dr Buehler. In case anyone is unable to read between the lines, many people regard the invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’ as merely the most recent incident in a long standing conflict between Europe and the Middle East, with America picking up the slack where Europe left off. “The Americans and the American hegemony really relegates the Islamic world to pretty much a back row seat. I don’t think they appreciate it and I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t appreciate it either, and then to have these same people go one step further and denigrate the prophet, it’s a little to much, you know enough is enough.” From this angle then, the cartoons become the straw that broke the camel’s back, after centuries of economic, social and occasionally blatant military domination, to turn around and take a cheap shot at a religious hero is just one step too far. There is also the more insidious conspiracy-esque notion that the higher-ups in countries such as Syria and Iran actually encouraged the riots. Drawing on information from his colleagues who specialise in the area, Dr Buehler says “that if you look at their governments, people are not allowed to protest in those countries, and [these protests] were encouraged by these government’s as a way to let off steam. It was a way people could protest in a way that focused it towards the West rather than toward their own government.”

The violent riots across the Muslim world were quickly condemned by Western media and moderate Muslims alike. Even those who had initially attacked the cartoons as insensitive and exploitative, were quick to wag their finger just as furiously at the images of looting and pillaging Muslims presented to them in their nightly news. Local Muslims were horrified to see the extent to which the previously heated, yet peaceful, conflict had escalated. Zeenah was deeply disappointed by the violent response of Muslim communities in some of the more theocratic countries. “The Muslim reaction only deepened the rift,” she says. “If Muslims had just kept their heads, then it wouldn’t feel like ‘us’ and ‘them’. “For some in the West the images of Muslims raging through the streets of Damascus, holding aloft signs such as the much quoted, “Behead those who insult Islam” and “Free speech go to hell,” confirmed pre-existing prejudices, just as the publication and distribution of the cartoons confirmed Muslim ideas about Westerners as disrespectful, without a sense of values or decency.

“I had a friend and she saw on TV a protester with a sign that said, ‘Behead all the people who did these cartoons’,” recounts Dr Buehler. “That stuck in her mind, and now all Muslims in her eyes are associated with that. That’s one person making a sign. We see all these Muslims and there’s this undercurrent of, ‘see, see how barbaric they are? They want to behead people!’.” And then on the other side, the cartoons, and their coverage in the Islamic media, played to exploit a sense of persecution that is never far below the surface, “they’re out to get us – this is the Muslim perception, and then [the cartoons] comes along and see, ‘now we’ve got proof!’” Both sides are given an image of one another that has more in common with their darkest fears than any reality, and thus a debate ensues in which no consensus can possibly be reached. “It’s a set up for the Muslims to have a bad view of the west and the Christians, and it’s a setup for the non-Muslims to have a bad view of Muslims. It creates an ‘Other’ that perpetuates unfortunate stereotypes that don’t do a good job of bringing people together.” Those more inclined to wild speculation have seen in the chaos the clear outlines of sinister plots that would put a Scooby-Doo villain to shame. One Listener reader noted that the cartoons had been printed by “rabidly pro-Israel newspapers,” as a way to goad Iranian Muslims into civil unrest as a precursor to US invasion.

Zeenah feels that New Zealand Muslims for the most part feel safe and accepted. “I don’t think there is any discrimination happening around the Victoria campus, or Wellington, or New Zealand.” She says that most members of the Victoria Muslim community, “thankfully have enough education to look at [these debates] from an objective point of view.” And while she says there some aspects of Islam that she would be prepared to laugh at, such as the Islamic stand-up comedy show Allah Made Me Funny, whose references to suicide bombing and airplane hijacking have earned them a fair raft of controversy in the States, she also says “there are some things that I feel are just too taboo to laugh at.” Sheemam adds that, “every society has some things that you can’t laugh at; every ideology has things that they hold sacred.” Dr Buehler agrees with Sheemam, that everybody has their touchy subject: “you could probably find something in any group of people that would outrage them, it’s just a question of whose back is up against the wall.” The question is then , is there anything that could offend New Zealanders so much that they’d take to the streets with pitchforks?
Art Buehler thinks the answer might lie with rugby, “The thing that come to mind, I’ve only been here two years, I wonder how people would react if the Japanese were to maneuver it so that the rugby world cup doesn’t happen in New Zealand – it’s a feeling I get that rugby is sacred in New Zealand.” The recent incident where the local Catholic church threw their toys over an episode of South Park springs to mind, but one can’t shake the nagging doubt that the spat was blown all out of proportion by the local media in a vain attempt to echo the global cartoon controversy. Dr Buehler helps us understand why the CatholiccChurch couldn’t work up the balls to picket CanWest Media and smash the CEO’s wing mirrors. “New Zealand culture is like Danish culture, it falls into the secular end of the spectrum. The notion of what’s free speech and what’s offensive is very different for a modern/postmodern person, because if religion is all relative, and religious symbols are relative, then what’s the big deal? It’s like anything else, it’s Muhammad, James Brown, Jesus, Madonna, these are just people.”

The only really comparable local incident in recent history would have to be the national response to the French nuclear tests at Moruroa Atoll in 1995. New Zealanders reacted passionately and mindlessly, taking to the streets with placards, burning French flags, and ensuring that any French citizens unlucky enough to be in New Zealand at the time were excluded, insulted and abused. Elements in the community encouraged boycotts of French products and bakeries rebranded French bread as kiwi bread (freedom fries anybody?). Syria and Kuwait reacted similarly to the Danish cartoons: The Kuwait Danish Dairy Company lost millions of dollars due to boycotts despite being entirely Kuwaiti owned for the past twenty years, pastries customarily referred to as Danish Rolls were rebranded as Rose of the Prophet Rolls, and Westerners were told to take extra precautions to protect their safety. The only thing stopping New Zealanders from marching in the streets and burning the French Embassy to the ground was what Dr Buehler referred to as our distinctly modern condition, where our sense of identity is much more fluid and less tied to any singular ideology, be it religion or quasi-religious nationalistic anti-nuclear fervour.

Perhaps a more comparable recent event was the trial of David Irving in Austria for the crime of Holocaust denial, which has been singled out by some Muslims as an example of Western hypocrisy relating to freedom of speech. Irving was jailed for three years for arguing that the number of Jewish fatalities during the Holocaust had been greatly overestimated; it is a crime in several European countries to deny the historical existence or scale of the Holocaust. It is also worth noting that Irving was denied entry to New Zealand in 2004 for a planned lecture tour. Muslims point out, and rightly so, that such an attitude stands in stark contrast to the much celebrated notions of free speech that many have used as an excuse for reprinting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin called for, “a new understanding of the European Convention on Human Rights that would strike down the Holocaust-denial law and similar laws across Europe for what they are: violations of the freedom of speech,” in a recent column for the New York Review of Books.

When the editor of Jyllands-Posten originally published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad he was seeking to encourage debate on a topic which he felt had become taboo. It would be fair to say that the cartoons did their job, some would say a little too well. There can be no denying, though, that the whole incident has led us, on one hand, to examine the role we expect our media to play, and on the other, to realise that we perhaps don’t understand those who are different from us quite as well as we should. We’ve also learned that sometimes you can’t understand the power of words, or in this case images, until they are unleashed. Dr Buehler says that, “you don’t find out what the taboos are until you transgress. You only find out these things by transgressing.” No one is going to forget anytime soon that Muslims are offended by disrespectful depictions of the prophet, but it would have been difficult to predict the scale of the global reaction prior to the fact. In a multicultural society conflicts will arise due to misunderstandings both unintentional and, occasionally, intentional.

The issue of freedom of speech was for many considered a done deal up to now, a given fact of live in a modern democracy, but we have now rediscovered that free speech isn’t as straight forward as saying what you want, when you want to say it. It’s all well and good when people are saying what you want to hear, but what about when things start swinging the other way? The French philosopher Voltaire is often credited with the phrase, “I disagree with what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say them,” which incidentally is a summary of his position from a posthumous biography. Perhaps one of his lesser know quotes is more applicable here – “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”

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About the Author ()

Nick Holm, feared by his enemies, loved by his friends, is the whore of student media. Having cut his teeth working for the California Aggie, and come closer to committing hate crimes than anyone will ever really know while the News Editor of Massey\'s Chaff, he\'s somehow beached himself at Salient for the near future. Haunted by prophetic dreams that show him tantalising glimpses of a future that may come to pass if he fails to prevent the robot uprising he will like you if you bring coffee or malt liquor.

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