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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Why has a cartoon turned into a crisis? (Toronto Star)

Why has a cartoon turned into a crisis?
History and geo-politics are feeding fear and mutual hostility, says Haroon Siddiqui

Toronto Star


W e like making sweeping declarations about freedom of speech but that right is fettered by laws of libel and hate, and other factors.

In newspapers, cartoons are routinely rejected for reasons of taste or because they may be unfair or unnecessarily hurtful. A good editor errs on the side of pushing the limits of freedom. But on occasion, she says no.

The artist may not like the call but must live with it. The drawing is his but the space in which it is to run is the newspaper's.

The Star's legendary cartoonist Dunc Macpherson once argued that I was misguided to have axed his day's work on the basis that his premise was all wrong. "Artists are not bound by facts," he growled. But the paper is, I said.

The Danish paper that invoked freedom of speech to justify caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad is, thus, only half right. But let's say that it did have an absolute right. Equally, though, Muslims had a right to be offended. Defenders of the first principle have had difficulty acknowledging the second.

"Why the fuss? These are only cartoons," many said of the Arab boycott of Danish products.
The peaceful consumer revolt was a legitimate response (until overtaken by gun-toting hotheads issuing dire warnings).

Yet many Europeans derided the boycott, with the unmistakable underlying message: "We can treat you the way we want and thou shall shut up."

Those days are gone. Still, why do Muslims react so strongly?

By now, readers know that Islam forbids depictions of the Prophet. Non-Muslims can no more mock that than Muslims can deride some aspect of the Christian or Jewish faith.
Imagery was not the only problem with the Danish cartoons. They were insulting, which is, of course, the point of a cartoon. But they also portrayed the Prophet as a terrorist and, by extension, all Muslims, thereby engendering hate against them.

The drawings were hurtful to a people who are, arguably, more attached to their prophet than others may be to theirs.

Each time they say his name, Muslims invoke "peace and blessings" on Muhammad. Nearly 4 million visit his grave in Saudi Arabia every year.

But more than religion, it is geo-politics, past and present, that hangs over the controversy.

When Muhammad appeared 600 years after Christ, Europe saw him as an impostor and a false prophet. Pope Innocent III called him the Antichrist. Dante consigned him to the ninth of the 10 ditches of the Inferno. Voltaire, Gibbon, Bacon and others demonized him as the Prince of Darkness or the Beast of the Apocalypse or Mahound.

Such characterizations were used in more muted forms by European colonialists occupying Muslim lands. The bigoted imagery had begun to subside during our contemporary era, only to be resurrected after 9/11.

Go to any bookstore in a European city and you will see anti-Muslim tracts selling well.

Europe's 20 million Muslims have borne the brunt of this Islamophobia, from rightwing anti-immigrant parties and conservative media. Here's a sample from the Danish People's Party: "Muslims who come here reject our culture. Muslim immigration is a way for Muslims to conquer us, just as they have done for the past 1,400 years."

Add to all this some contemporary realities affecting Muslims.

Iraq was illegally and unjustly invaded and remains occupied, with contemptuous disregard for Iraqi lives. Palestinians have just been warned they may be starved because they dared to elect Hamas. Iran is being isolated over its nuclear intentions, even though it has not violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it has signed, while non-signatories Israel and India enjoy full American backing.

The arguments for and against those policies aside, there's no doubt that they have left Arabs/Muslims feeling under siege.

They see double standards in the Danish affair as well.

A cartoon Thursday in the al-Quds newspaper showed an artist at work at Jyllands-Posten. In the first panel, he rejects a grotesque drawing of a black person: "This is racism." He rejects the second, which equated the Cross of David with the swastika: "This is anti-Semitism." He keeps the longer third panel, of the Prophet's cartoons: "This is freedom of speech."

Conversely, the criticism from Arabs/Muslims has sounded hypocritical, given their own intolerance and an ongoing anti-Israeli polemic. Much of that is encouraged by unelected, despotic governments keen on diverting domestic anger abroad.

This context shows there is a great deal of mutual ignorance. However, it does not prove any inherent incompatibility between Muslims and non-Muslims, as extremists on both sides would have us believe.

Haroon Siddiqui writes Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiq@thestar.ca.

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