So, as smoke and ashes from what's left of Asia and the Middle East drift past my window, a word or two about what I urgently hope history will christen the Cartoon Riots. First, a cartoon:
The initial Islamic ban on pictorial representations on humans and animals probably had more to do with the fact that those religions who were happy to portray any living thing were seen to be godless heathens, rather than a fear that some well-meaning artist would get Muhammad’s nose wrong or something. It’s a dead cert that whichever stern ascetic desert cleric started enforcing this rule never foresaw that his holy Prophet (peace be upon him) might some day be rendered as a rather cute cartoon character in a turban, though it would be worth inventing time travel to go back and tell him, just to see his little face.
Yes, it’s about freedom of speech. But we in the West need to remember that with freedom comes great savoury snacks. Also, responsibility. If you’re not a Muslim and you live next door to someone who is, it behoves you not to pop round every day, shout “you Muslim €√∏†!” and pour beer in his sandals. It is not your inalienable right. For us all to be given a sporting chance of co-existing, we have to know we cannot unreasonably attack one another. (Plus our neighbour might just bite back.)
That’s where the cartoon above comes in. It’s not really “taking part in a debate”, or challenging the “idea” of the Islamic religion; it’s outwardly and baldly equating Islam with violence, and, moreover, doing so in a way similar to many anti-semitic cartoons from the 1930s. When the Jewish Anti-Defamation League condemned the publication of the Danish cartoons, they cited as one of their reasons precisely this equation of Muhammad/Islam with sinister, violent intent. Like this one:
And this one:
And this one:
No, wait, that’s not a sinister, wily Muslim—it’s a sinister, wily Jew! And which dusty archive had to be trawled for this comically retro slice of anti-semitism? It’s from the Saudi state-backed Arab News, published last year. In fact there’s a rich tradition of racial or religious vilification in the region, although admittedly of one particular group:
[This last was one of the cartoons cited by the ADL in their yearly anti-semitism round-up. This is unfortunate because, if the cartoonist hadn’t worked so hard to demonise the Israeli spy that he managed to make him look a whole lot like Bluto, the cartoon would have successfully raised the problematic question of what exactly the fuck the Israelis thought they were doing, spying on their own greatest ally. In fact the cartoon exactly sums up America’s response at the time, and is ruined only by the decision to insert a sinister, wily Jew in accordance with local traditions.]
So mocking or profoundly insulting a religion or a racial group—even in picture form—is clearly absolutely fine. It’s just that pesky question of representing the Prophet Muhammad himself. Like this:
I’m still not sure why Muhammad has a throwing star in his eye, but overall it’s an imaginative use of the Islamic crescent, and a nice use of simple colour.
[“Vision On” music starts]
Poul has chosen to draw Muhammad with what looks like a lovely bright yellow halo around his head, but might actually be meant to be horns—maybe a reference to Danish Vikings. Good work on the beard there too.
Erik has chosen a more abstract theme for his picture. It's an unusual portrait, Erik, but keep plugging away and I'm sure you'll be a successful artist one day.
Actually, I don't know what Erik's beef is. If a hairy priest dictates that in any legal context a woman's word is worth precisely half a man's, then it must be the incontrovertible holy word of God, who is Compassionate and Merciful. Any gainsaying and a hot and crispy eternity awaits. So God hates women. What's new?
Muhammad represented as a perfectly ordinary guy with a donkey. Deeply offensive to the kind of credulous nork who believes that plants sprang up wherever the Prophet trod and the very trees did speak his name, etc etc.
In turn, I think the conservative American site I nicked the cartoons from (as they’d handily gone to the trouble of translating them) wouldn’t know a sense of humour if it pinched the back of their knee.
Like Lars’s cartoon, this one is also having a go at Jyllands-Posten’s senior staff, rather than a dig at the Prophet. This will not save “Bob” from burning in hell, however, as technically a stick figure is still a pictorial representation. DIE, INFIDEL!
Actually, contrary to appearances, the words “forgive”, “tolerate” and “reasonable” do in fact exist in Arabic, but it’s always the hardliners and the inveterate flag-burners who get their voices heard. In vain do more reasonable Muslim commentators appear on TV pointing out that Muhammad himself never responded angrily to insults flung his way. As for many Christians, the hero of their holy book is far more of a mascot than someone to be emulated.
But anyone who attempts to characterise the world’s billion-odd Muslims as sharing the exact same views and practices—be that crazed jihadis or fool Westerners failing to conceal with bravado the fear and hatred of Islam they now have thanks to crazed jihadis—is by definition an idiot. Even if every Scandinavian embassy in every country were aflame right now, you could not claim that all Muslims, or even that the majority, wanted to exterminate secular Westerners. All it takes is a guy with a match and, as at least one dead embassy protester can attest, no clear idea of how he’s going to exit the building afterwards.
There’s pluralism and tolerance in spades across the Muslim world, but that tends to happen among the more educated strata; i.e., the people who don’t allow themselves to be convinced that they’re eternal victims. Also, as ever, moderation by definition isn't going to go on the rampage to get its point across. "I'M QUITE UPSET BUT I DON'T THINK ANYONE SHOULD DIE OVER ALL THIS" is officially the world's least popular protest banner.
[I suspect to be immersed in the true hilarity of this you need to recognise not only Jesus and Mohammed and... possibly Buddha...? but also other characters from contemporary Danish cultural life. Let's just assume it's great.]
This is all spiralling out of control because, for good or bad (hint: bad), global Islam takes its cue exclusively from the Middle East, not a part of the world given to huge self-restraint. The recent Egyptian ferry disaster proved a case in point. Every stage of what happened showed the region at its worst. A fire started on board shortly after the boat set off. Passengers alerted captain and crew but no-one was particularly bothered (ding!). However, safety equipment was minimal to non-existent (ding!), and as the fire worsened, the captain was apparently one of the first off the ship, taking a lifeboat with him (ding!). As word spread that the ferry was sinking, authorities were slow in mobilising any form of search and rescue (ding!). As hours became days, there was precisely no word from the authorities as to how many dead there were, whether any bodies had been retrieved, or anything at all (ding!). In response, the crowds of friends and relatives started rioting. Police responded with teargas and weapons. Rioting continued over the next couple of days, with crowds breaking into the offices of the ferry’s owners, ransacking them and burning in the street everything carrying a picture of a boat. Eventually the authorities relented and started releasing the names of a few of the dead.
I’m not remotely saying these mourners were wrong to riot. Bad enough that you should suffer senseless loss; far worse that this should be compounded by senseless bureaucracy and the helpless flailings of indolent, witless authorities who normally only have to take a few bribes and sit around a lot. My point is that, provoked beyond all measure, the crowds were the antithesis of British about the whole thing.
And it’s that question of “provocation beyond measure” that sits at the heart of all this. Is that truly what these cartoons are? Was it really worth anyone dying over the dishonour of these pictures? Or is that in fact the only way to measure how worthy something is? The jihadis would have us think so.
The Bahrainis at least acknowledge that Islamic extremists pose a real problem for mainstream Islam—but look who’s to blame!
The hand on the right belongs to the CIA and Mossad, who are holding the “extremists”, who in turn are stabbing “Islam”. Because, and I hope you know this, Islamic extremists really need Mossad to stir them up. All those nutjobs parading from Regent’s Park mosque to the Danish Embassy on Saturday, with their banners reading “BEHEAD THOSE WHO MOCK ISLAM”; “EUROPE YOUR 9/11 WILL COME” and “BE PREPARED FOR THE REAL HOLOCAUST”? Mossad. No question. I thought they looked Jewish.
A couple of Afghan protesters have died after they went on the rampage at the Americans. That’s the Americans, who haven’t even published the cartoons. You know how sometimes, when you’re in a relationship, you get the feeling the things you’re arguing about aren’t really the things you’re arguing about…?
“They want to test our feelings,” Afghan protester Mawli Abdul Qahar Abu Israra told the BBC. “They want to know whether Muslims are extremists or not. Death to them and their newspapers.” So... is that a “yes”?
By far the cleverest, and the most prescient, cartoon of the lot:
So on the one hand there are people being recklessly provocative—essentially, poking hornets’ nests—in the name of free speech, and on the other people hijacking their own religion’s legitimate expression of protest—essentially, acting the hornet—in the name of their god. So the moderates in the middle are left looking and feeling pretty marginalized, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for the extreme wing of either side. I’d be tempted to fall back on the old adage, “Nuke the lot of ‘em and let God sort ‘em out”—but thankfully there’s no country involved in this hair-trigger situation that would actually use its nuclear weapons over an issue like this!
In unrelated news, Iran has speeded up its uranium enrichment programme.