Thursday, February 02, 2006

L'affaire Cartoons of Mohammed

Having been totally oblivious to this whole controversy (ah, there's that wonderful word again) about the Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, my state of blissful ignorance was invaded by headlines such as 'OIC calls for calm in cartoon row' and reports about the boycott of Danish milk products in West Asia. Anyone who's been reading the news knows the story by now, so I won't recapitulate, but I do have a few things to say.

First, I think that (some of) the cartoons were indeed offensive. Not so much because they were 'blasphemous' (I have very little sympathy for any religious strictures on how people must behave; naturally, I respect the right of those who do believe to consider themselves bound by these strictures, but I see no way to justify their imposition of these standards upon others. Thus, if you're a devout Hindu of the RSS dispensation (if I'm not already contradicting myself) you may consider it inappropriate to draw Saraswati in the nude, but you have no right to say that M.F. Hussain should share your stance and censor his art. Likewise, if you believe that the very act of drawing the Prophet is un-Islamic, then don't do it. But you cannot insist that other people do so. This is just my extreme distaste with organised religion coming to the fore, so I'll save that for anotehr rant.

To come back to my original point, I said that the cartoons were offensive because at least one of them suggested that Mohammed was a terrorist, and that by extension Muslims are terrorists. So, I think that the fact that none of the statements that I have seen from the Danish administration have acknolwedged that the content of these cartoons was potentially offensive, or insulting to a group of people, says a lot about the state of Denmark, if I may be permitted to channel the Bard. It says something to me about the view of Muslims that must be prevalent in a place where saying Muslim = Terrorist is an unproblematic statement. I'm not a Muslim, but I can see why this might offend an observant Muslim. In fact, it offends me, particularly coming as it does from within a country where Muslims are a small minority and presumably have little voice in the media, government, etc. It seems distasteful to demonise an entire community of people without basis and particularly where they do not have the power to demonise back. Distasteful, and stupid, and not particularly funny: but - and this is my next point - legitimate.

So do I think the cartoons ought not to have been allowed to be published? In a nutshell, no. And this is because, fundamentally, I do believe that freedom of expression is a very, very valuable right, but also that it's real value lies in its lack of limits. Words, actions, pictures, music all have the power to offend; this power is their true worth. If the only things that anyone ever said were pleasant and innocuous, we would not need to guard free speech so zealously. And we do need to guard it zealously. In my ideal world, nothing would not be fair game for ridicule, satire, or plain offensiveness. Yes, this is an extreme position. Yes, it would make for a noisier, more heated, less amiable discourse. Yes, I do repeatedly take offense at the rantings of the Christian and Hindu right wings, the ravings of fatwa-happy Mullahs, and the idiocy of many journalists. I get mad when Jerry Falwell and his cohorts demonstrate with banners saying 'Fags Must Die' or whatever. The institutionalised homophobia and sexism of the Muslim establishment, for example, makes me deeply uncomfortable. I would be happier if they were to change their minds. I wish that the NeoCons would see reason, would stop demonizing Arabs as terrorists. I could go on, ad nauseam. The content of much that constitutes public discourse is more or less offensive, sometimes deeply hurtful to me personally.

But I do not have any right to ask any of these people to shut up. To not say what they think. To force them to agree with me. I can debate, I can discuss, I can rant back, I can hope to persuade. If all else fails, I can choose not to listen, not to engage, simply to ignore. But I cannot under any circumstances ask for anyone's speech to be limited, however hateful, offensive, or derogatory it may be.

So do I then wholeheartedly support the editors of various European newspapers who have chosen to publish these cartoons? Unfortunately, I cannot say that I do. And this is because it is abundantly clear that these people are not in any way committed to the absolute freedom to offend that I'm holding up as a standard. The editor of 'Die Welt' was on BBC Newsnight and he made it clear that he would not, under any circumstances, permit an anti-Semitic cartoon to be published in his paper. And therein lies the rub. Because what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I've run out of cliches. But if the 'feelings' of Jews must be respected, so must the 'feelings' of Muslims, the 'feelings' of every conceivable religious/ethnic/linguistic group. My original point was that there should be no limits on free expression, however offensive a form this may take. But no limits means no limits, and unfortunately does not mean no limits only when it comes to Muslims. And here I doubt strongly the bonafides of these journalists and editors. They're no champions of free speech, merely people who want to use the idea of free speech to shield their own desire to offend a particular group of people. Several of the people involved appeared on Newsnight and the line they took was this: 'Look, we have the right to offend. So stop being offended, because you're in our country, and we make the rules'. And this is not acceptable. As instrinsic as the right to offend is the right to be offended. And if you're offended, you protest. So the only acceptable outcome according to me is this: I say whatever I want. You then get as offended as you want, and insult me as much as you want, right back.

Which sounds like a rather unpleasant state of affairs. And it might be. But the point of free expression is, hopefully, to lead to some sort of understanding of opposing positions, an agreement to disagree, at the very least. And positions can only be understood if they are allowed to be stated. What stands out most starkly to me in this entire imbroglio is the cussed immaturity of both sides. The journalists in question need to see why the analogies they make between Islam and terrorism are problematic and offensive. And those Muslims who are offended by the cartoons need to make a reasoned case for why they think they are wrong, offensive or distasteful, while recognising that people have a right to be wrong, offensive and distasteful. Offended Muslims need to recognise that free speech is a fundamental right, and that it includes the right to offend; but at the same time, the 'offending' journalistic and general establishment needs to get off its high horse and recognise that the actual choice of who to offend was consciously made, and owes as much if not more to a prevailing climate of Islamophobia as to the much-vaunted 'commitment to free speech'.

In the end, it appears that the European press, or at least it's right wing, has suddenly discovered Voltaire and his famous defense of free speech. I'd like to suggest that they take a step back and recall the words of anotehr person, who said: 'Everybody has the right to be stupid. Some people misuse the privilege'.


Blogger radhaballavi said...

nice post. btw, the hindu had a revealing article by tabish khair on the danish political context:

9:39 PM  
Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

From the last line, I thought this was a good post. Except that tiny white letters on a black background are just too much trouble to read.

1:54 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

But honestly, I do think that Danes do not have the same sort of sensitivity towards religion as the Muslim world does. So perhaps it is really inconceivable for them that the cartoons would be considered offensive.

In Germany of course things are different, and anti-Semitic views can be prosecuted, which is why I can expect Die Welt to not publish anti-Semitic cartoons. In the US and Europe there are literally countless blasphemous depictions of figures revered in Christianity. Then how can you say the Western media has double standards?

On the other hand, militant groups in Muslim countries get so worked up about such depictions in the Western world, and yet their own media villifies Judaism and Christianity on a regular basis. Why is that par for course then?

On the whole, organized religion of any kind irritates the hell out of me.

10:30 AM  

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