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Return of the Cartoon Intifada

In Denmark last week, Muslim fanatics were caught conspiring to assassinate a cartoonist. In protest of the conspirators' arrest, and in protest of freedom of expression in general, other Muslim fanatics are committing arson and inciting riots. That can only … Read More

By / February 18, 2008

In Denmark last week, Muslim fanatics were caught conspiring to assassinate a cartoonist. In protest of the conspirators' arrest, and in protest of freedom of expression in general, other Muslim fanatics are committing arson and inciting riots. That can only mean one thing: it's February again.

February 2006, as some readers may recall, marked the launch of the First Cartoon Intifada. The previous fall, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran a brief story about Kare Bluitgen, a children's book author who was trying to write a book about Islam, and found that no illustrator was willing to take on the project, for fear of being slaughtered like Theo van Gogh.

Picking up on the story, Jyllands Posten, another Danish newspaper, printed a series of 12 cartoons, some (but not all!) of which depicted the prophet Muhammad, as a way of satirizing the circumstances under which Danish artists were too fearful for their lives to accept payment for kiddie book drawings.

In the following months, Muslim states began pressuring the Danish government to punish the newspaper. To his lasting credit, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to submit to blackmail or compromise his country's fundamental freedoms. At that point, there was no way for humble sheep in the flock of God to let the world know just how much their righteous feelings had been hurt, except by torching the embassies of sovereign states, trampling bystanders to death and forcing artists into hiding.

The open rioting may have died down since then, but God's commandment to murder artists remains quite active, hence the recently uncovered plot to kill septuagenarian cartoonist Kurt Westergaard should hardly come as a surprise. What is surprising, and pleasantly so, is that Western media have not adopted a cowardly defensive crouch. Instead, newspapers across Denmark reprinted the Muhammad cartoons in solidarity with Westergaard.

Last time around, both media and political leaders pre-emptively covered themselves in disgrace. Newspapers all over the world refused to run the cartoons even though they were the focal point of the biggest news story in the world. Bill Clinton saw the occasion as an opportunity to denounce the cartoonists rather than their would-be butchers, decrying "this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark…these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam." Franco Fattini, then the E.U. Justice and Security Commissioner, made sure to "give the Muslim world the message: We are aware of the consequences of free expression." Cardinal Ratzinger's church declared that "the right to freedom of expression does not imply the right to offend religious beliefs."

Just in case there ever is a genuine uprising in the Muslim world against proscribed art, as opposed to a premeditated incitement to violence on the part of theocratic bullies, Ratzinger and his confessional brethren might want to rethink their illiberalism on purely pragmatic grounds. Under the same interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits depictions of Muhammad, graphic representations of Jesus and all other Jewish and Christian prophets who are accepted into the Islamic tradition are utterly forbidden as well. The upshot is that all Catholic churches in the world — with their stained glass portrayals of the Holy Family, the saints, and scenes from the Bible — are just as much an offense to Islam as the Danish cartoons. In other words, burning down Danish consular buildings is no more or less justified than burning down the Vatican.

Mutatis mutandis, anyone who does not live under the strictures of Sharia law undoubtedly transgresses it, daily, in countlessly many ways. The question of whether to subject oneself to an ancient inflexible religious code is not a question of showing appropriate respect for the beliefs of others. It's a question of maintaining respect for oneself.

Related: More Jewcy coverage of free speech, censorship, and the Intoonfada from Michael Weiss, Ali Eteraz, and Mr Eugenides.

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