Saturday, February 04, 2006

Danish Cartoons (not pastries): the controversy continues, and the protests have spread. Israel was bombing South Lebanon yesterday, after killing an innocent Lebanse shepherd, and the protests against the cartoons increased in intensity. There are so many layers to the story. As those who know me know, I used to draw political cartoons—and sometimes I still do it--, so I have a particular fascination with and admiration for cartoonists, worldwide--the good ones for sure. I discovered many great cartoonists in the US over the years (Toles at WP and Mike Luckovitch at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, etc). But this one started with several cartoons, that offended the religious beliefs of Muslims, who were insulted not merely—as is mistakenly being implied—for the depiction of the Prophet (whose images and portrayals are banned—and this is a central belief of Islam) but also due to the intention of the cartoons to associate the ugly menace of terrorism with Islam, the religion. The cartoonists knew what they were doing, for sure, even though they did not anticipate the reactions. The offense got worse, when European publications began reprinting them in the name of “freedom of speech.” Really? Would those same publications dare to reprint the grotesque anti-Semitism of, say the Nazi "historian" David Irving (who sits in an Austrian jail for violating the law there which bans anti-Semitic speech, and we don't see people defending his right of freedom of speech--I would not either), in the name of “free speech”? This is something that is at the heart of the controversy. The double and triple standards of Western governments are quite clear, even if you take “freedom of expression” as a criterion of analysis. Al-Manar TV, for example, has been banned from Europe and the US for anti-Jewish messages and statements contained in a few of its programs. European media did not defend Al-Manar, and did not rebroadcast the programs in question in the name of solidarity. And the very political (in the vulgar sense) director of Reporters without Borders (who seems to have become almost a member of the Lebanese Hariri movement) stressed this notion of journalistic solidarity. I did not see this eagerness on his part when Iraqi (and other) journalists were being killed in Iraq, either by insurgents or by US troops. I don’t remember him ever speaking about the lack of press freedoms in Saudi Arabia, for example, or the harassment of journalists by Israeli occupiers? If this was a matter of freedom of speech in a fair world, I would understand, and I would have been one to express solidarity too. But the hypocrisy is only increasing, and angering even me—somebody who refused, and still refuses, to be more outraged at the cartoons than I am about poverty, occupation, and oppression. I rank my outrages, and refuse to make reactions to cartoons high on my list. Just as Western media and governments did in the case of Salman Rushdi (and I signed petitions in support of Rushdi and still support the right of artists, writers, poets, and journalists to offend). But Western governments and media (I remember a particularly offensive spectacle in New York City led by the leading poseur, Christopher Hitchens,) took turns in publishing and publicly reading extracts of the Satanic Verses. Just to offend Muslim sensibilities further. These same people would never publicly read, in the name of free speech, racist or anti-Semitic discourse. I would not either. I am not willing in the name of free speech to read aloud extracts of racist or anti-Jewish or anti-anything writings of hate. But that is exactly what those ostensible defenders of freedom of speech do but only in the case of speech that offends Muslims and Islam. Only in that case. Those people would not dare read Moby Dick in public, I gaurantee you. And in the history AND present of Western (ideology of) hostility to Islam and Muslims, the cartoons are not, and should not, be judged in a vacuum, even if one supports the right of the cartoonists, as I do. And just as anti-Semitic works have been used to justify and instigate violence against Jews historically, Western anti-Muslim “literature”—including medieval Christian polemics against Islam—were not separate from wars against Islam. People in the Middle East do know how to connect the dots. This explains why some of the demonstrations against the cartoons turned in some cases to demonstrations against Israel and US. And Denmark sent troops to Iraq. And people in the Middle East, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, do read, and do follow closely international developments. They know what we know: that you have to also analyze the cartoons in the context of Danish politics, and the rise of racist, xenophobic movements in Europe, and especially in Denmark which has one of the largest percentage of foreign-born populations in the world. Having said that, there is also much about the Arab/Muslim reactions that are either outrageous or hypocritical, or both, or worse. I mean, to hear Hamid Karzai, a man who was installed in power by foreign occupiers, and whose very name is now used as an insult, or even an obscenity—literally—speak ostensibly in the name of Muslims is laughable. I assume that he was put at the podium by US soldiers who protect him. I mean, his credentials regarding Islam are as flimsy as those of the fanatical Taliban. And AlArabiyya TV, yet again as Hassan Az-Zayn wrote in As-Safir, does not miss an opportunity to please the US. They kept airing the statements of Karzai—as if they will influence anybody--, and aired a long interview with the Danish prime minister. Who do they think they are fooling, outside of the “public diplomacy” people in Washington, DC that is? And how can Arab publications speak with any credibility when many of them, especially those funded by Saudi Arabia or even Iran and the rest, have published racist and hateful cartoons and articles. They have as much credibility on the subject of religious sensitivity as Bush has on the issue of international peace and harmony. And I have said before: Arab governments have instigated protests: I particularly noticed the unusual friendliness of (the usually brutal) Jordanian mukhabarat leading on the demonstrators in Amman after the Friday prayers yesterday. Those governments, aware of the public anger of their populations regarding US foreign policy and its alignment with their oppressive government, do not dare permit anger at the US or Israel, so they find it tempting, easy, and costless to champion anger against Denmark or Norway. But what about mocking religion? Should mocking religion be considered part of free speech? For me, the answer is a categorical yes. But to mock religions is free thinking, but to selectively mock one religion (while showing complete respect for others) is often prejudice. I mean, if I mock Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc, I can’t be accused of religious bigotry. But if I only mock one religion, especially in a context of prejudice against that religion, then I am certainly guilty of religious bigotry. I mean, if somebody in Israel mocks Judaism—especially if that person is Jewish, that is not necessarily anti-Jewish (as prejudice). But if somebody mocks Judaism in, say, Saudi Arabi where religious bigotry against religions other than Islam is common, then that person is adding to the body of religious bigotry in the kingdom. Mocking religion could become non-controversial when religious bigotry disappears from the world. You see: would Voltaire be considered free of religious bigotry because he is known as a free thinker with a free spirit? I say, no. His play Mahomet, for example, was dedicated to the Pope, and contained (in the introduction) a bigoted comparison between Islam and Christianity. This reminds me of those who are selectively secular: especially in the West. I am referring to the professional career anti-Islam polemicists. If you attack Islam from a secular point of view, but refrain from attacking Judaism and Christianity from that very perspective, then your secularism is not credible at all, and your discourse can be seen as an element in the anti-Islam literature. What is worse is that some in the West want to support anti-Islam hate in the name of “freedom of speech” while depriving Muslims from the right to protest also in the name of “freedom of speech”. And it just happened this week that the joint chiefs of the US armed forces vehemently protested a cartoon in the Washington Post, and Fox News which at least did not understand Muslim reactions to the cartoons, totally identified with the outrage at Toles’ cartoon. I know that many Muslims are quite outraged over this. I have mentioned before my conversations with my mother about it. She always brings it up now when we talk. Personally, given the many injustices, oppressions, wars, occupations, and destructions I have enough outrages on my plate. And I have enough boycotts to adhere to be able to add a new one, especially over a cartoon, as offensive as it is for Muslims. I still believe that foreign occupations and wars should anger Muslims/Arabs more, much more. And yet, the debate about the issue misses so much of the aspects of the controversy, and some (the well-meaning and the nasty) resort to Orientalist generalizations to presumably explain. Look at Robert Fisk (yes, Robert Fisk): “The fact is that Muslims live their religion. We do not. They have kept their faith through innumerable historical vicissitudes. We have lost our faith.” What on earth is that? He sounds like Bernard Lewis here. And you certainly can’t declare the end of religion, especially in the US, but also in Europe (the old and the new Europe). And now we have seen the US government taking a stand on the matter. A spokesperson for the US Department of State criticized the cartoons, I kid you not. The government of Bush is now expressing sensitivity to Muslims and Islam, I kid you not. But does the US government think that Danish cartoons are more offensive to Muslims and Islam than Bush’s wars and twisted US foreign policy? Really.

PS Several developments. Today, in Syria, demonstrators set fire to the Danish and Swedish embassies. Now, we know that demonstrations in Syria are never spontaneous, and if they are, they often are met with brute force. In this case, the regime was hoping to let people let off steam, and just like the case in Amman yesterday, Syrian mukhabarat men were atypically restrained and even polite. Who are they kidding. And the demagogic and consistently insincere Abraham Foxman intruded on the affair today. And with Foxman, you can always expect him to throw petrol on a fire, to make things worse, always worse. Sure enough, Foxman decided to focus exclusively on anti-Semitic (of course, in his definition, any criticisms of Israel are anti-Semitic) images in Arab media. But while that may be true (and I don’t adhere to Foxman’s definitions—I am reviewing Norman Finkelstein’s devastatingly effective new book on that--), and it is true, this is the fault of the governments of the region which control the media, or the Saudi royal family which controls the “free media” of the Arab world, which exist outside of the Arab world, or in Lebanon. In other words, we can’t deny a Saudi or an Egyptian Muslim the right to protest simply because Saudi or Egyptian media have in the past published bigoted images or cartoons. She/he has no control over the official media. Also, Nir tells me this: “its 1 PM eastern time. i dont know why i had CNN on, but i did, on the show "in the money"jack kafferty brought up the muhamad cartoon crisis, and twice he said they were cartoons depicting "the prophet elijah muhamad."" Good night.