Flemming Rose, cultural editor of the Danish Jyllands-Posten, told me he commissioned the cartoons to test Europe's "self-censorship". He cited illustrators' refusal to lend their name to a Danish children's book with Muhammad on the cover, and mentioned similar problems finding translators for works by Ayaan Hirst Ali, the Somali Dutch parliamentarian who has criticized Islam and now must surround herself with armed guards. The Tate Gallery withdrew a John Latham installation with torn copies of the Bible, the Talmud and the Quran, fearing that after July 7, 2005 "it might be misunderstood." Rose's deeper background was the murder of the Dutch Theo Van Gogh for a caustic film about Islam.
A radical imam who could not extort a Danish government apology for cartoons in a private newspaper then formed delegations that carried to the Middle East a 43-page dossier. Besides the original cartoons, the dossier featured three items never published: Muhammad as a pedophile, a Muslim at prayer being sodomized by a dog, and a photograph of a man dressed as a pig, with the caption "this is the real picture of Muhammad." These last, rather than the ones published by Rose, circulated among outraged Muslims in Europe and the Middle East.
The Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Unity, Arab cabinet members, ambassadors and politicians, state-supported muftis plus the state-controlled Arab media all advanced the cause. Secular Arab tyrants were eager to demonstrate their religious bona fides to rising Islamist movements. What motivated them was not any exquisite religious sensibility but the tyrants' fear of their subjects.
The Islamists chose to counter the cartoons not with letters to the editor and commentaries but with government coercion: boycotts and mayhem fomented by tyrannical regimes where religious toleration is as unknown as the rule of law. What they wanted in their studied outrage was not respect but surrender, or more precisely submission. They demanded an exemption in countries where satire of religion is a staple.
The western media provided little relief to this hypocrisy, selective outrage and double-dealing. While several European newspapers printed the cartoons in solidarity, major American media refused with the pretext of a supposed Islamic prohibition against depictions of the Prophet. It is the Salafists, the Islamists, not Islam, that prohibit such depictions. Portraits of Muhammad adorned the galleries of Muslim rulers for centuries. Some may be viewed today in Istanbul and in European museums. The Janissaries even carried a medallion stamped with the Prophet's head.
In America, the same media that on Monday assume the heroic role of uncompromising defender of the First Amendment, on Tuesday cannot let their readers judge whether or not the cartoons merit an international scandal. The New York Times and CNN can reproduce art that smeared elephant dung on the Madonna but not a few juvenile cartoons satirizing Muhammad. Taxpayer funds for Mapplethorpe and "Piss Christ"; censorship for "depictions of the Prophet".
Flemming Rose, harassed and probably delirious from lost sleep, gave as one reason for soliciting the cartoons that a Danish comedian felt free to urinate on the Bible and the Talmud but not the Quran. But that kind of "biblical criticism" belongs in the toilet, not on the stage. Have we become a people who cannot tell the tube from the toilet? Are we incapable of drawing a line between real and imagined offense?
Arab tyrants and Islamists demand an apology from western governments for an item in a private newspaper. Did they apologize for the 41-part series based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion shown on Egyptian state television? The same Syrian government that encourages violence over cartoons ran a prime time TV series showing rabbis drinking the blood of a gentile child they murdered. The tyrant who gassed, tortured and slaughtered hundreds of thousands in the dark raises lawyerly objections in his televised trial "in a fine frenzy rolling". These impostures should be met with contempt, not apology; with solidarity, not self-censorship.
But when a small European country runs afoul of Arab boycotts, do European institutions close ranks? Not the EU; not President Jacques Chirac, who one day threatens to use French nuclear weapons against terrorists (making Ahmadinezhad's day) and the next finds it opportune to "condemn the manifest provocation" of a French newspaper's solidarity.
Western intellectuals faced with accusations from the third world readily admit guilt or become anthropologists anxious to show "understanding" and "sensitivity". When hostile, underdeveloped countries experiment with exotic doctrines like communism, fascism or salafism there is never a shortage of westerners to extol those doctrines and to issue proclamations such as "I have seen the future and it works", "the fascists make the trains run on time" and "Asian values". But do we have to obey supposed "eastern rules" in the West?- Published 16/2/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org