Sunday, February 05, 2006

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Mohammed Cartoon Controversy but Were Afraid to Ask

As of yesterday, the top three searches on were related to the current controversy about parodic images of Mohammed in the European press: "Jyllands-Posten," "Muslim Cartoon," and "Cartoon." (This flurry of Internet activity has yet to be reflected in Google's Zeitgeist, which still seemed fastened to the previous week's events and anticipation of the Superbowl.) Today, the story about the satiric images that depict the Prophet in ways seen as blasphemous is still at the top of the electronic mastheads of Le Monde and Der Spiegel, and the controversy now has its own Wikipedia entry, which has been locked because of persistent political vandalism. The equation of this historical leader of a major world religion with violence (by depicting Mohammed with a bomb turban, gesticulating about running out of virgins to supply jihadists , etc.) may also sadly be a self-fulfilling depiction that, if riots are generated in response, encourages similar forms of anti-Islamic representation.

From the perspective of the insulted protestors, these caricatures break two essential taboos: they mock the religious tenets of the founder of Islam, and they also commit a form of originary sacrilege by depicting Mohammed at all (although even Al Jazeera claims the latter objection is arguable).

Others like this blogger at the Damascene Blog view the incident through a counterfactual lens of political parity.

Suppose that during the Israeli invasion of the West Bank and the massacre of Jenin, the same newspaper published a cartoon showing Moses as a sniper, David standing on a checkpoint or Solomon riding a tank... What would have happened? Israel would summon its ambassador. The US and major European countries would follow. Everybody would stand against the newspaper. There would be a thousand lawsuits against the cartoonist and all publishers will boycott him. The hassle wouldn't come to an end before strong and sincere public apologies from the newspaper, the cartoonist and maybe the government. Every other cartoonist in the world would think a hundred times before coming up with a similarly foolish idea.

The Damascene and Blogspot blogger The Angry Arab are careful to point out that there's no fatwa-groupthink taking place. To them, Salman Rusdie's liberties were clearly defensible as art. They argue that it is the existence of religious bigotry -- not religious tolerance -- in Europe that makes the mockery of particular religions hurtful.

With embassies being set afire in Damascus and Beiruit, it's clearly an explosive issue with the potential for continuing violence, but some forms of resistance have peacefully targeted commerce. The New York Times' "Temperatures Rise over Cartoons Mocking Muslims" reports how boycotts of Danish products are also playing a role in the responses of political crowds in the Muslim world. As a parent, I am particularly interested in calls for a boycott of LEGO's. The company has a history of small-scale boycott attempts by a range of political stakeholders on issues ranging from its depicting minority groups to charges of anti-Semitism related to a 1995 Venice Biennale show. Certainly this global company maintains certain provincial attitudes: for example, despite the controversy, their spokespeople have been silent, and the search term "Muslim" only generates one response on the LEGO official site.

I personally think boycotting Danish products from companies that had nothing to do with the uproar makes about as much sense as boycotting political cartoons, and even an online poll by Al Jazeera shows their viewers to be divided on the issue. Furthermore, from my own work on the rhetoric of September 11th on the Internet, I know that political cartoons in the Arabic world on sites like "Cartoonopia" (currently down) also push the envelope of civil discourse.

(The day after I wrote this entry, the New York Times reported that an Iranian newspaper was soliciting Holocaust cartoons.

While I am updating this posting, it is also worth noting that David Folkenflik of NPR's "On the Media" has pointed to significant differences between traditional print and online news outlets in their presentation of the controversy in the U.S. Few mainstream newspapers have reprinted the cartoons, in fear of protest, and rather chose to describe the cartoons' representational strategies in words. Yet many online news outlets, including, in keeping with their "information wants to be free" ethos, point readers to the actual digital images to allow them to see the offending pictures for themselves.)

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which initially commissioned the cartoonists' work, has since published an apologetic "Open Letter to Muslims." By then, however, the digital cat was already out of the URL bag. The widely-forwarded Mahomet images, which I received via a link to a French Blog, have encouraged mass-e-mailing efforts (at the speed of the Janet Jackson Superbowl flashing pictures) by both free-speech advocates and activists for religious tolerance in the United States. Now Support Denmark websites have been launched in response.

I would bet that the patterns in which these "smart mobs" were deployed were also directed as much by electronic communication as they were by imams in mosques. It may be yet more evidence that proves Manuel Castells' thesis that the more social actors are interconnected by global networks the more the power of cultural identity is asserted. (In the days that followed, it became clear that Muslim resistance spread through both hierarchical and peer-to-peer organizations.)

Although the New York Times declares "U.S. also finds Cartoons of Mohammed Offensive" and reports about diplomatic responses intended to support Islamic dignity, these issues have earned little real estate on the State Department website, which seems to be more occupied with its big web makeover (which doesn't actually make the site any easier to use) than with the minor matter of friendly embassies in flames. In fact, when I visited, looking for the diplomatic statements reprinted in the New York Times, the search term "anti-Muslim" only generated this warning to Americans about the hazards of interfaith marriages! The self-righteous indignation expressed by American officials against European cosmopolitan secularism seems particularly ironic, given the amount of anti-Islamic "humor" generated in the U.S. If you trawl the Internet for political content, like I do, you see a lot of it, and some of it is also archived on this "humor" site.

In the days after September 11th, Samuel Huntington's concept of a clash of civilizations was ridiculed on the Internet by Slavoj Zizek and Edward Said. Yet I would argue that because it involves how the periphery reflects upon the center, this "clash" is still firmly rooted in the American psyche. For example, the word "civilization" can be found in 203 separate presidential speeches archived on the White House website, included several mentions in his most recent inaugural address.

Of course, all this publicity about the competing rights dilemma can be read as a distraction from the emergining collectivity of opinion against the Iraq War. Certainly there seems to be growing consensus outside the United States about disaster in this "laboratory" of democracy. This week, as Iraqis observed "Democracy Day," I noticed that even once fanatically pro-U.S. Iraq the Model and Realpolitikal citizen-journalist Salam Pax are agreeing. They finally reached their epistolary truce by a mutually held pessimism about institutions of democracy in their country.

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Blogger Bruce786 said...

So it's ok under the guise of "freedom of speech" to depict the Prophet as a suicidal bomber, womanizer and terrorist?

Picture this: A cartoon of Jesus, with his pants down, smiling, raping a little boy. The caption above it reads “Got Catholicism?” Or how about a picture of a Rabbi with blood dripping from his mouth after bludgeoning a small Palestinian boy with a knife shaped like the Star of David—the caption reads “The Devil’s Chosen Ones.”

I wonder if people around the world would just consider this free speech.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

I think the best response to hate speech is civil speech.

I support the use of blogs, the traditional press in Islamic countries, and even greater coverage by television stations like Al Jazeera about issues of political opinion, all of which I cite.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Mariata said...

The irony here is that state-sponsored newspapers in Muslim countries print vile anti-semitic cartoons all the time -- and THEY have the chutzpah to get upset when it happens to them? Respect for other religions does not mean only respect for Islam.

And yes, if a European newspaper printed an anti-semitic or anti-Christian cartoon, there would be a big outcry (I would hope, at least). But Jews and Christians would not be rioting in the streets and calling for the death of the cartoonists. Being offended is never an excuse for violence.

And, by the way, Liz, you mention the "Massacre of Jenin" as if it is a fact. This incident has been thoroughly debunked as a myth perpetuated by the Palestinians. Just wanted to make sure you were aware of that.

Thanks for your blog.

1:51 PM  

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