10 February 2006

No Laughing Matter

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:00 am

This article first appeared in the Review section of the Australian Financial Review on 10 February 2006.

In September last year, Danish children’s author Kare Bluitgen complained of difficulties in finding an illustrator for his new book, The Qu’ran and the Life of the Prophet Muhammad. Three artists had turned him down, fearing reprisals similar to the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose short film Submission criticised the treatment of women in Islam, or the attack on a lecturer who had read the Koran to non-Muslims at the University of Copenhagen.

This reluctance troubled the cultural editor of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper, Flemming Rose, who considered it a form of’ “self-censorship” and undertook an “initiative” to see how far it extended. He asked 40 artists to draw Muhammad, and on September 30 published the 12 contributions he received. Two are straightforward pictures of a man in a beard and sandals; another shows a quaking cartoonist looking over his shoulder as he completes the forbidden picture. Probably the most provocative is an angry Prophet with a cartoon bomb in his turban.

The initiative more or less dared Muslims to react, and they have obliged. In October, the Islamic Society in Denmark, led by Imam Ahmad Abu Laban, demanded an apology from the newspaper and organised a demonstration outside its offices. In November, Abu Laban formed a delegation to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to “internationalise the issue”, apparently code for riling up a lot of Muslims. That effort won exponential success, though at some cost to accuracy: rumour soon had it that the Danish government had commissioned its own Koran, and several new and more offensive cartoons were circulated and falsely attributed to the newspaper. By the beginning of February Syria and Saudi Arabia had recalled their ambassadors to Denmark; Libya had closed its embassy in Copenhagen; gunmen had stormed the European Union’s offices in Gaza; Egypt and Saudi Arabia had called for boycotts on Danish products; embassies had been attacked in Jakarta, Damascus, Beirut and Tehran; and angry demonstrations were under way just about everywhere.

This is, of course, a preposterous overreaction. Some of the cartoons—particularly those that depict the Prophet as a psychopath—are almost certainly blasphemous. But to protest these representations by calling in bomb threats, burning embassies and promising Europe a new holocaust demonstrates only an adolescent kind of logic and reinforces stereotypes that most Muslims are trying hard to avoid.

From the outset the cartoon initiative was presented as a matter of principle, of resisting censorship and preserving freedom of expression. On that basis the Danish prime minister refused to get involved, the Jyllands-Posten refused to apologise—both have shifted from their initial intransigence—and other papers reprinted the cartoons as an expression of solidarity. The haughtiest of these sympathisers was France Soir, which reserved the right to caricature God and declared that “no religious dogma can impose its view on a democratic and secular society”. Other newspapers across Europe and the world have claimed similar justifications.

Yet this, too, seems misdirected. Of course freedom of speech is critical to any non-dystopic society, and its interaction with religious sensibilities must be debated. But these issues need the right cause, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are hardly up to it. There is much to be said about Islam’s relationship with violence, with women, and with other faiths, and much of that might be blasphemous but worth defending; these cartoons attempt none of it. They are empty provocation; they express nothing beyond their own mischief. And, fatally, they’re not funny. Freedom of expression covers worthless as well as weighty expressions, of course; but to defend such a gratuitous exercise with so much righteous bluster seems itself gratuitous. It appears to be driven by the same moral panic—the fear that Islam threatens our most cherished institutions—that prompted the Jyllands-Posten’s ill-fated initiative.

It is true that many protesters are now demanding government intervention of a kind that would seriously deform the boundaries of our freedom of expression. They are free to ask it; we are free to refuse. As a corollary to religious freedom, most Western democracies have abolished their laws against blasphemy or allowed them to atrophy. Some Muslims have asked how Denmark’s Lutheran majority would feel if Jesus were given the Muhammad treatment; doubtless many would be outraged, but it is unlikely that legal sanctions would result. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the public reading of James Kirkup’s poem suggesting Christ was gay attracted plenty of protest but no prosecutions, exactly as it should be.

At the same time, many democracies have strengthened their laws against racial and religious vilification and incitement to hatred. Some critics argue that it is hypocrisy to prosecute extremist Muslims and neo-Nazi propagandists while allowing cartoonists to draw Muhammad however they like; but these arguments ignore critical differences. Blasphemy is not vilification: it is not committed against people but against God, who hardly needs our protection. We have to understand that many Muslims are deeply pained by portrayals of or disrespectful references to Muhammad; we need to use our freedom sensibly and not gratuitously. But until mockery becomes incitement to hatred—until it turns from God and threatens people—it is a matter of personal responsibility and cannot be the subject of legal proscription. That is where we have placed our line, and it is a reasonable boundary.

As ever, the storm in Europe cannot be explained by the cartoons themselves or even by Abu Laban’s diligent agitation; it has emerged from the background paranoia into a dangerous cycle of defiance and outrage. Swiss-born Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan told the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information: “On both sides there are people with a vested interest in escalation of the dispute. They goad the other side with overreactions and provocations, and pull a lot of people in their wake. On the Muslim side the dictatorial regimes are using the conflict to demonstrate that they are the best defenders of Muslims and Islam. On the European side there’s a right-wing bloc which has made it their business to spread an image of Muslims as undermining freedom of expression and wanting to change Western society. It will take clever and sensible people on both sides to put an end to the insults and overreactions.”

The publication of the cartoons in New Zealand has drawn criticism from Islamic groups and prompted an 800-strong protest in Auckland. Senior cleric Sheik Fehmi El-Imam has called on Australia’s newspapers not to reprint the cartoons and to maintain the nation’s “atmosphere of peace”. Only Brisbane’s Courier-Mail has published any of the cartoons so far, though they have been seen briefly in television news reports. Given the present fragility of our atmosphere of peace, it would be wise to listen to the sheik—not because we cannot talk about Islam, but because we should make sure we have something to say when we do.

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