16 February 2006

Weapons drawn

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:02 am

comp.jpgIran’s largest daily newspaper has announced a competition for cartoons depicting the Holocaust. The call is a response to the caricatures of Muhammad published by Denmark’s and newspapers around the world.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” says Hamshahri’s graphics editor, Farid Mortazavi.

On one view, this is a complete non sequitur. Although the Nazis and their offsiders targeted many groups during the Second World War, their attacks on Jews were particularly virulent, and most people recognise the special significance of the Holocaust and its memory to Jewish culture. It is not an obvious vehicle for retaliation against Denmark or the other European countries that published the cartoons.

Certainly very few Danish citizens died in the Holocaust. Even the country’s Jewish population was almost entirely saved; most were smuggled across the Øresund to Sweden, and the few sent to concentration camps received food and medicine from the Danish government. Only around fifty perished, and Danes must reflect on the Holocaust with at least a little pride. Denmark’s population of 5.4 million includes around 8,000 Jews; it is not clear that any of them were involved in the publication of the cartoons. In all of Europe there are fewer than two million Jews, and they approach 1% of the total population only in France.

The Holocaust competition seems to rest on the old conspiracy theory that Jewish interests control the Western media, if not the Western world; cartoons printed in Arabic newspapers suggest that this idea has some currency. Otherwise, it would be more pertinent to attack what is sacred to Europe’s largely Christian population – though that might be difficult, since Jesus is also venerated by Muslims.

Hamshahri’s point may be that the Holocaust is sacrosanct to all Europeans, Jew or Gentile. Europe is certainly sensitive about the subject, and public denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence in most of the countries that have published the Muhammad cartoons, though not in Denmark. For that crime Roger Garaudy was fined in France, Gaston-Armand Amaudruz imprisoned in Switzerland, and Siegfried Verbke convicted in Belgium; David Irving is in custody awaiting trial in Austria. Holocaust denial is generally directed against Jews, but it is so condemned by the wider community that it attracts legal prohibition.

Many Muslims also feel that anti-Semitism itself is singled out for reproval. Many countries prohibit incitement to racial hatred or vilification; fewer prohibit incitement to religious hatred. As a result, more protection may be available to Jews—an ethnic as well as a religious group—than to Muslims, who are united only by religion.

Is there a relevant difference between race and religion? Perhaps More Help. Religious beliefs are susceptible to choice—and debate—in a way that race is not. Most religions are at least partly incompatible with each other, so that practising one will often involve questioning or denouncing another. But religion now seems to divide people the way race once did; extremist elements within and without Islam are selling us a clash of civilisations defined not by ethnicity but by belief. It is hard to distinguish religious hatred from old-fashioned racial hatred by its intention, its content or its effect.

One answer is to criticise the beliefs but not the believers; that will sometimes be an illusory distinction—to portray Muhammad as a bomb-wielding psychopath is hardly to flatter his devotees—but it is still worth making. Perhaps the best solution is to apply racial and religious incitement laws consistently but very sparingly, against only the most loathsome and gratuitous expressions—and to subsume Holocaust denial into these laws; it would often though perhaps not always breach them.

Should the European newspapers who stood by the Jyllands-Posten also reprint the Holocaust cartoons? It depends. Prosecutors investigating the Muhammad cartoons found no likely breach of Denmark’s laws against blasphemy or religious insult. If the twelve winners of Hamshahri’s gold coins are significantly more offensive in their portrayals then there is no need to publish them, even if local laws would allow it; there is no hypocrisy in drawing a line. Flemming Rose, the mastermind of the Jyllands-Posten initiative, said that he would run the Holocaust cartoons; his editor-in-chief promptly overruled him. Both decisions seem hasty; we should wait and see.

In the meantime we have the cartoons of the Arab European League, which has made a promise similar to Hamshahri’s. “If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly do not want to stay behind,” says its website. Two of its cartoons involve familiar Holocaust denial; one has an undeserving Peter Jackson turn down Steven Spielberg’s new “Holocaust script” with the excuse, “I don’t think I have that much of imagination Steven, sorry”. The most shocking shows a post-coital Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank—killed by the Nazis when she was fifteen—and crowing, “Write this one in your diary, Anne!”

As soon as these cartoons appeared, the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel lodged a criminal complaint with the Dutch public prosecutor; it is easy to see why. They are as senseless as the Muhammad caricatures, and more insulting. They don’t just conflate a prophet with the excesses of his adherents; they accuse a race of fabricating for its own gain the most horrific events in its history, and do violence to the memory of a murdered girl whose relatives are still alive. It is a simple matter to distinguish them from the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, though other cartoons may be more difficult to separate.

The Holocaust was long considered an inappropriate subject for any but the most sombre depiction, an injunction almost as firm as Islam’s against images of Muhammad. In 1980, Art Spiegelman began to serialise his comic Maus, which told of his father’s experiences as a Jew in wartime Poland and in concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. Spiegelman softened his portrayal by drawing the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Americans as dogs and so on. Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 but was at first suppressed in Germany for its treatment of the Holocaust; it is now taught in schools there. Last year, Joe Kubert’s Yossel and Pascal Croci’s Auschwitz—comic books dealing with similar themes without Spiegelman’s anthropomorphism—were translated into German and received a cautious reception. “Can you really show the savagery of the Holocaust as a comic?” asked Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild; many Jewish leaders thought that you couldn’t.

During the early stages of the war, American cartoonists drew attention to the plight of Jews in Europe and urged governments to give them refuge in the United States or Palestine. But most cartoon depictions of Jews have been outrageously insulting. Propaganda in Die Brennessel and Der Stürmer from the 1920s onward portrayed them as hook-nosed, unshaven and avaricious, as spiders sucking the livelihood from Germans, worms in the German economy, pimps luring women into prostitution, murderers draining the blood from children; they showed strapping Aryans pushing them off cliffs and having at them with swords. Many Muslim newspapers now work in the same tradition: their cartoons depict Jews drinking the blood of babies, playing puppet-master to the world and particularly the United States; they draw them as snakes, pigs, octopuses, devils, and frequently Nazis.

These unflattering portrayals are not relevant to the way the Western media should treat Islam, or the laws that should apply to racial or religious vilification. The fact that some Muslims incite hatred does not mean that other Muslims should be vilified, and the fact that some Muslim countries make hypocritical demands for religious accommodation does not require our hypocrisy. On past form the Hamshahri cartoons are unlikely to challenge the European media’s commitment to freedom of expression, because they are likely to be of a different nature to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons; we will know soon enough. But cartoons, however offensive, are a much better response than threats and firebombs, and are certainly to be encouraged.

2 Responses to “Weapons drawn”

  1. Alastair Says:

    In fairness, Hamshahri doesn’t restrict the theme of the cartoons to just Holocaust denial. “What is the limit of western freedom of expression?” covers a lot of possibilities, and they offer some other than Holocaust denial.

    What it doesn’t say though is whether the cartoons have to be funny or not. Just that they “measure the sanctity of freedom of expression”.

    Which seems a bit redundant to me, as the limits are pretty well established. Just ask Janet Jackson’s costume designer.

  2. Matt Rubinstein Says:

    That’s true—the description of the competition did morph slightly between its announcement last week (when I wrote the article) and the release of the actual terms of entry. But in last sentence of the preamble still calls it “a competition on the Holocaust”, reflecting the original position.

    And in fact it isn’t “an unforgiven crime in the West to debate and critique many issues including the domineering system, looting and crimes perpetrated by the US and Israel”—these things are debated and critiqued all the time. It is, however, a crime in many European jurisdictions to deny the Holocaust—and to move beyond debate and critique to incitement to racial or (less frequently) religious hatred. It’s also seen as pretty naff, though not legally proscribed, to propagate certain stereotypes, whether of Jews, Black Americans or whatever. Whether the sanctity of freedom of expression allows more brutal stereotyping of Muslims than other groups is an interesting question but really goes beyond these cartoons or the response.

    Interestingly, some people now say that anyone who doesn’t reprint the cartoons is pandering to Muslim feelings in a way that they wouldn’t dream of in relation to Christian feelings—whether because of genuine respect, “political correctness” or fear of reprisals. But I don’t think that’s a valid criticism: since most of us live in a dominantly Christian society we should have a bit more leeway when it comes to Christian traditions, dogma etc. But it’s complicated, sure.

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