Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Mohammed Cartoon Controversy

No-one paying any attention whatsoever to the news over the last couple of days can have failed to notice the controversy caused in the Muslim world by a number of cartoons published by a Danish newspaper, depicting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The extent of the protests, however, does remain surprising. Reports today suggest that these include, on top of ordinary protests: a number of boycotts of Danish products; a bomb hoax at the Danish embassy in Syria; and gunmen from the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade occupying the EU office in Gaza, demanding an apology from the Danish Government. Moreover, there has been a startling diplomatic response: Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its Ambassador in Copenhagen, Syria has recalled its chief diplomat, and Libya has closed its embassy there. The Danish Government, whilst refusing to apologise itself, has welcomed the qualified apology - for offence inadvertently caused by "misinterpretations" of the cartoons - issued by the Danish newspaper.

In the name of freedom of the press, a number of newspapers in other European countries - including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Norway - have since republished the images, no doubt fanning the flames of the controversy somewhat. French paper
France Soir boldly proclaimed "Yes, we have the right to caricature God!". Spoken perhaps a little too soon, however: the next day, the newspaper apologised and sacked the editor responsible for the headline. For those interested, the cartoons are available on the website of the German daily Die Welt.

The debate has, in general, run along fairly predictable lines, with each side proclaiming its own defence to be unconditional and inviolable. Thus, the newspapers have insisted on their unlimited freedom of expression within the confines set by law, whilst Muslim critics have focused on the doctrinal interdiction on portraying images of the prophet at all. As always with debates polarised in such a fashion, there is little or no prospect of any progress on the issue; and, as always, a mature reflection on the issues involved mujst lead to the conclusion that there are powerful and persuasive arguments on both sides. The only way to make sense of issues such as these is to leave the plain of general abstraction ("freedom of press" v. "no depictions of prophet"), and have a closer look at the content and context of what has been done.

We can, therefore, accept that, while freedom of the press is important, perhaps particularly so in a secular country, it is not and should not be unlimited. This is accepted by all newspapers, who are even now couching their defence of the caricatures in terms of freedom within the limits imposed by law. This, however, strikes me as a little disingeneous, as nobody is suggesting that the Danish cartoons violated Danish law (although they might soon violate UK law, if Blair gets his way; that's another issue); the claim is rather that their publication was unethical or immoral. This claim cannot, as various newspapers have sought to do, be answered by a simple reference to the legality of the issue. The claim that freedom of the press should be unfettered within legal limits, as an ethical or moral claim, amounts to little more than a fetishisation of law; the idea that legal limits correspond necessarily and absolutely with moral or ethical ones. This claim is clearly unacceptable.

Equally unacceptable, however, to the secular mind at least, is the idea that
any subject can be absolutely taboo, placed once and for all beyond the critical wit of society. To do so in one case would quickly lead to the castration of the press if any sort of policy or legal coherence was to be achieved. Many secular societies have decided, rightly in my view, that general "conversation stoppers" of this sort have no place in their political and social life; we can, as such, broadly agree with the sentiments expressed by Roger Köppel, editor-in-chief of the German paper Die Welt (one of those that has published the caricatures), that:

It's at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire. If we stop using our journalistic right of freedom of expression within legal boundaries then we start to have a kind of appeasement mentality. This is a remarkable issue. It's very important we did it. Without this there would be no Life of Brian.

These two apparently contradictory considerations should, in my view, form the basis for reflection on this issue; a basis from which an examination of the particular case can proceed. The question of whether the caricatures should have been published thus, of necessity, comes down to a consideration of the quality, content and context of the cartoons themselves. And here, I think, there are some very legitimate concerns: nearly all of the cartoons portray the prophet in a violent light: there is, of course, the infamous Mohammed-with-bomb-for-turban; but there is also another of him, flanked by two women, bearing a huge knife (and a slightly demented expression). In the latter image, the women are completely covered, dressed in black, with only their eyes showing; the prophet is represented in white, with his eyes blacked out (by the piece of material that was cut out of the women's costumes to allow them to see, it seems). In both of these images, we can clearly see the linking of some of the most readily identifiable aspects of Muslim garb - often themselves used in petty racial stereotyping - with fanaticism, violence and terrorism. Most of the other cartoons continue this theme, although not in so striking a manner. Add this to a context of growing fear and suspicion of Muslims, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Western soil, and it is not difficult to imagine that the caricatures may indeed incite racial hatred in some.

And nor is it sufficient for the newspaper to cite "misunderstandings" in the interpretation of the images. We are all responsible not merely for what we say, but also, to some degree at least, for the foreseeable effects thereof within the audience that it is meant to reach. The ethics of what we say and do lies in the type of community that we create with our audiences; which means that we must be wary not only of our own intention, but the ways in which our words can be interpreted also.

A brief example may serve to clarify what I mean here. Think of the racist joke: told by certain people to certain audiences, it is clearly meant in an ironic fashion, and is widely interpreted as such. Told by a different person, however, or to a different audience, it can have an altogether different, deeply bigotted meaning. As we have already had one reference to Monty Python, let's make another: take their song "Never Be Rude To An Arab" - the second verse of which begins with the line "Never poke fun at a nigger". This song, sung by a comedy group known for their liberalism and their irony, and where their audience would be broadly similar in outlook, is quite clearly ironic; it is extremely unlikely that any racist beliefs were created, hardened or deepened as a result. Change the performer, however (to Bernard Manning, for example) or change the audience (to, say, a BNP party meeting), and a quite different meaning is drawn from the song. And just as Manning would be criticised by the Python audience for his performance (as his history of racist jokes would lead them to interpret it in a different way), so we could criticise the Python team if they had performed it before the BNP or Front National, for the foreseeable manner in which it would be interpreted.

All of this to say that the linking of some of the most sacred and recognisable imagery of Islam (clothing, turbans, and, indeed, the prophet himself) in such an explicit, and, it should be said, none-too-subtle manner with fanaticism and suicide bombings, is not particularly responsible given the wide audiences that newspapers may be expected to reach; particularly when the issue becomes a journalistic cause celebre. Perhaps ironically, had it been left alone as a peculiarly Danish issue, it would have been less dangerous - as the conciliatory reaction of Muslim bodies in Denmark to the qualified apology issued by the newspaper involved would suggest. In this sense, the conclusion of Die Welt, that the images represented nothing but a "harmless joke" to Western eyes is perhaps not as straightforward as it might seem.

However, as the current debate in the UK over the proposed charge of the "glorification of terrorism" amply illustrates, the issue of where to draw the line in such circumstances is hellishly difficult to resolve. In the inevitably messy balancing act that must always be performed in the resolution of any ethical question, I am far from convinced that the potential for harm caused by these images outweighs the harm that could be caused by stopping their publication, particularly by legal means. Even for those who would like to have seen such images banned, it must be impossible to conceive of the law that could do this without being far too general in scope (unless, that is, we accept quite particularised prohibitions, such as "no depictions of the prophet", something that few in the West would like to see).

My main concern, then, is not with the fact that many in the Muslim world have been offended by the images, but rather with the quality and politics of the satire itself. Mohammed-with-bomb-for-turban does not strike me as either particularly witty, thoughtful or insightful; and it lends itself to a particular understanding of the current problems with global terrorism that I find both distasteful and incorrect. Whether this was done by the intention or the recklessness of the cartoonist is of little import, given the global audience that the work has now reached; for this, however, the caricatures deserve to be censured, not censored.

That being said, if I saw it on South Park, I'
d certainly laugh...


Srdjan Cvijic said...

I generally agree with your rationale Euan, although I must say that I would tend to leave it to the market to censure such caricatures. I agree with you, the caricature is not at all funny to me and I do not see what did the author want to accomplish with it. Nevertheless, to delve into the debate whether the intention was ironic or not seems quite meaningless to me, rather I would suggest that those who violently or otherwise criticize this caricature accept that currently (and much to my personal liking) laws in most of the European states favour freedom of expression. Some day this might change under the pressure of the public opinion and democratic vote, however, today laws are such...those who feel ofended should avoid reading these newspapers and engage in political (democratic) debate to reshape the public domain...

Some European governments (read the current Italian government) justified their censorship of political adversary comedians by arguing that political satire should be clearly distinguished from news reporting, this is an absolute nonsense...trying to figure out whether the intention of the author is ironic or good quality should be left aside.

Jacques René Zammit said...

I guess that you are saying that humour is not universal - that it is extremely dependent on context. I am not so sure. I think it is more of a case of humour being subjective. At home I have a stand-up comedy show of French comedian D'Aleveque and one of his sketches (openly declared as très noir) pokes fun at the 9/11 tragedy. Although America has a strong comedic tradition itself I am not so sure how much such sketches would be accepted even in the most liberal of societies.

My point is that comedy itself is a bit like a sword being brandished, it is always more comfortable to be either behind the handle or watching the action rather than being at the pointed edge. The best humour tiptoes a fine line without being too apologetic for doing so.

At the end of the day I find it difficult to speak of limits to freedom of expression where humour is concerned. The very nature of humour (caricature and satire) is offensive and it is only a good sport and not a good censor that will solve the problem.

Srdjan Cvijic said...

thank you very much for your comment Jacques. I agree with you the very nature of satiric humour is offensive and this is the beauty of it, we laugh because of this. I fear of future where such satirical humor will be banned. We cannot compensate for our racist policies towards the muslims in Europe and towards the muslim world by being politically correct towards the cartoons...this is an easy and dangerous way out, a Prime Minister of a democratic country cannot and should not appologize for the satirical drawings, despite the bad taste, essential lack of humour etc.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Euan MacDonald said...

I'd like to thank Srdj and Jacques for their thoughtful comments, and distance myself from the anonymous contribution...

Regarding the first two, there are some points I agree with, and others that I disagree with. The most important thing to stress here is that I was primarily concerned with the ethics of publication of such images - not the legality. Nor should it be assumed that a finding that it was unethical should lead to support for making it illegal.

Srdj, I would be very concerned about leaving censure to the market, as to me it is the central ethical issue. In a similar fashion, I would not like to leave censure to a democratic majority - to do so seems to substitute the legal fetishism of some for the majority fetishism of others; hardly an advance, in my view. Laws, again, are a different matter; and this is why I spoke of censure, not censorship.

This is why I think an examination of the satire and the politics behind the cartoons essential. If we can agree that the cartoons were potentially dangerous from an incitement standpoint, it is another balancing consideration that can lead us to the conclusion that they should have been published. Freedom of speech is one such consideration, but is never unlimited. The quality of the satire and political comment behind the caricatures forms, in my view, another, central consideration; which is why I would have been far more vociferous in my defence of the cartoons had I seen in them particularly witty or insightful comment. Again, though, this is in terms of censure, not censorship.

Jacques, you are of course correct to state that humour is subjective - different people find different things funny - but it also, I think, contextual - in that the same people may find the same thing either funny or unfunny depending on context. Much, if not all, of this has to do with the audience, intended or foreseeable, that the joke will reach.

This, however, was not my main point; rather, it was that humour, like everything else, must be open to ethical interrogation; and in this regard, I must say that i find it difficult to talk of anything as being in principle limitless. I agree wholeheartedly that some of the very best satire and caricature offends, and should not apologise for this. But it is not its offensiveness that creates the humour; it is the sharpness of the wit and the import of the comment. As I'm sure you'll agree, we must not get to the stage of defending something as satire purely because it was, in fact, offensive.

That even humour must be ethically interrogated also, to my mind, imparts an inescapably contextual element to the process of judgement. Whiel we can both agree in principle that there was nothing unethical about the comments made by the French stand-up comedian, we would, I suspect, feel differently had they been made before a 9/11 victim's families group. (I do not want to take this analogy too far - my point is not to suggest that the publication of the cartoons was tantamount to this, but rather the general point that context is essential in the ethical interrogation of humour).

I, then, am quite happy with the view that publication of such images must be legal, but that ethical censure as to their quality and their message, in the context in which they were published, is appropriate. Having said that, perhaps I have been too harsh on some of the cartoons; this one, for example, seems quite to the point given the armed occupation of the EU offices in Gaza yesterday:

Scott M. Sullivan said...

I have deleted the comment left by "Anonymous". It lacked the substantive material necessary to justify offensiveness.

mohammedcartoon said...

Anonymous said...

This momentousdecree wow gold came as a great beacon gold in wow light of hope buy wow gold to millions of negroslaves wow gold kaufen who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.maplestory mesos it came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night ofcaptivity.but one hundred years later,maplestory money we must face the tragic fact thatthe negro is still not free.maple money one hundred years later,sell wow gold the lifeof the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles ofsegregation and the chains of discrimination. one hundred yearslater,maple story money the negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in themidst of a vast ocean of material powerleveling one hundred yearslater,maple story power leveling the negro is still languishing in the corners of americansociety and finds himself an exile in his own land. so we havecome here today to dramatize wow powerleveln an appalling a ms mesos sense we have come to our nation''s capital to cash a check.when the architects of our republic wow powerleveln wrote the magnificent wordsof the constitution and the declaration of independence, theywere signing a promissory note maplestory power leveling to which every american was tofall heir. this note was a promise that all men would beguarranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and thepursuit of is obvious today that america has defaulted on thispromissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.instead of honoring this sacred obligation, america has giventhe negro people a bad check which has come back markedinsufficient funds.justice is bankrupt. we refuse to believe that there areinsufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of thisnation. so we have come to cash this check -- a check that willgive us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security ofjustice. we have also come to this hallowed spot to remindamerica of the fierce urgency of now