The latest press buzz these days is about the protests by Muslims over the depiction of Muhammed in European editorial cartoons. By now, you either know about it, or you can claim to be one of the happy(?) few totally disconnected from current affairs.
To recap: a number of editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammed were published by Jyllands-Posten
(The Jutland Post), a Danish newspaper with a history of sympathy for right-wing causes, including anti-immigrant sentiment
. The cartoons were originally published in September 2005, but have only now in February 2006 stirred international reaction within the Muslim world. Prior to the past week, criticism existed, but built slowly until it crescendoed within the last few days with protests, riots, calls for boycotts, and threats and acts of violence
My take: As far as the newspaper is concerned, I have mixed feelings. Obviously, in the West and especially here in the United States, we value the concept (if not always in practice 100%!) of freedom of speech, enshrined here in the Constitution and in many of the constitutions and charters in European (especially Western European) nations. It's an important right, and freedom of the press is one of the few core Western values I'd love to see enshrined worldwide. So on one hand, I do support the right to comment on, criticize, and satirize any topic, and that includes religions of all types
. On the other hand though, the press and the media in general wield enormous power, whether they choose to recognize that or not, and as such hold (or should
hold) ethical and moral obligations to society at large. Unfortunately, newspapers, TV stations, and the like do not always maintain consistency; here in the U.S., the New York Times
sat on information regarding Smirk's secret wiretapping program via the NSA for a year, only publishing the story when it was clear a book
(which is on my to-read list!) was about to be published outlining the wiretaps. Such esteemed *cough* programs as "Entertainment Tonight" and other gossip shows and magazines often push the boundaries of privacy and taste. Overseas, Jyllands-Posten
chose to deliberately publish cartoons and caricatures they knew would be extremely offensive to a large segment of the world.
Without putting strictures on press freedoms and rights, there does need to be a discussion on ethical and moral boundaries. Ideally, newspapers and other forms of communications sole raison d'etre is to inform, as neutrally and objectively as possible, their readership and the public at large about the news and events of the day. That charge does not include being inflammatory or overly provocative to the point that the initial news/message/content is overshadowed.
Much has been made of the fact that readers and editors tolerate cartoons and satire concerning Judeo-Christian philosophies and personages. Yet Jylland-Posten chose not to run cartoons satirizing Jesus
; to my mind, that's a rather inconsistent position to take. Others have pointed to the fact that Arab and Muslim-oriented newspapers run anti-Semitic cartoons in their press
. While this is sadly true, does that mean two wrongs make a right? Rather than matching rhetoric for rhetoric, cartoon for cartoon, sometimes the nobler action is to maintain moral and ethical stances, even when the temptation is great to do otherwise. Additionally, as this piece
relates, it isn't just the Middle East that caricatures and demonizes Jews and Judaism; the West has its own past and attitudes to answer for. To me, that suggests that yet another discussion needs to take place: Where does honest political satire or commentary cross the line into gross mischaracterizations, racist iconography, and exaggerated stereotypes that do nothing other than to demean, degrade, and inflame? How do we identify, and more importantly, maintain appropriate boundaries?
This is important given the Western tradition of appropriating Christian themes, persons, and ideas for a wide variety of materials, ranging from Broadway shows such as "Jesus Christ Superstar" to the book and film "The Last Temptation of Christ" to plastic Jesuses
on dashboards to photographs of crucifixes immersed in urine
. Such openness and flexibility doesn't extend to all creeds though; throughout history and theology, there have been conflicts over exactly what is permitted when it comes to iconography. Within Christianity, there is variety: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox persuasions contain icons, statues, three-dimensional crucifixes with the Christ in the midst of his Passion, while many Protestant faiths, especially at their outset, shunned veneration of images, statues, and the like. For Jews, the second commandment in the Old Testament was a clear indication of how to worship; when was the last time you saw religious statues or pictures of God or any of the other Old Testament personages in a synagogue? For that matter, observant Jews do not speak the name of the Lord. Such diversity is welcome, but it also needs to be respected.
For example, one of the cartoons depicts Mohammed with a bomb in his turban-- could there have been a better way to draw a cartoon bringing attention to the violent tendencies of extremists rather than insinuating all adherents to Islam are inherently violent? This would be somewhat akin to picturing Jesus as a Crusader, slaughtering Jews, Muslims, and other pagan enemies
(see the sections titled The German Crusade and the Siege of Jerusalem for pertinent examples).
has since apologized, it isn't just the press that bears some responsibility here. While I expected criticism and some protests, I don't think I, nor the world, expected the intensity and the violence that has accompanied the Muslim world's outcry. Threatening executions, boycotting Danish firms
, and burning embassies
all seem a bit overboard to me, and I suspect to a lot of others. For one thing, it reinforces (rightly or wrongly) the perception that Islam and all Muslims are violent. At a time of strife and conflict between the West and Arab nations, Palestine and Israel, and the United States and Iraq/Afghanistan, it would seem the better part of valor to save such animosity and energy to highlight real differences, not just a cartoon. Instead, the average person watching this on the news or hearing about it on the radio will just go, "There they go again..." Rather than using the controversy as a way to teach and educate and hopefully broaden minds, certain provocateurs within the ranks of the clerics, secular leaders, and others have provoked agitation among the general populations.
That such feelings can be so easily stirred points to faults that the West must correct; from the days of colonial endeavors in the Middle East and elsewhere (French and British protectorates in the wake of World War I, aggression in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan stemming back to the 19th century, European colonies in places like Algeria, Indonesia, and India), the "White Man's Burden" has extended not only to governmental involvement but also to attitudes and stereotypes directed at the other
-- those that are not like "us" in so many different ways. Cartoons like these are merely one manifestation of these continued attitudes, which need to change if anything is to be different. Commenting on the hypocrisies of a religion that is at its heart peaceful with the actions of extremists is one thing (and this applies to Christianity as well-- turning the other cheek and all that doesn't square with "killing infidels," bombing clinics, and other such acts of mayhem), but projecting thinly veiled generalizations and racism is another. While I strongly believe that at some point the past cannot continue to be used as an excuse by anyone for any action, it would behoove both sides to examine history with objective clarity, and craft some solutions for the future. Simply repeating cycles doesn't do anyone any good. For the West, and especially the United States, it means staying out of the affairs of other nations (Exhibit A: Iraq). For the Arab world, it means taking some responsibility for its own actions and intents.
I hope that perhaps some much-needed conversations come out of all this, but given the many lines in the sand drawn by various individuals and organizations for their own ends, I'm not sure a lasting dialogue will emerge. In any event, when harm is intended, one doesn't always have to pull out the guns-- sometimes just a pen will do.