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February 12, 2006

Provocation all the way down

The Danish cartoon scandal is a shameful manufactured controversy. A petty racist publicity stunt was hijacked by successively larger and more influential opportunists until it became an international incident.

It all started on September 30, 2005 when Denmark's second-largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The paper didn't just happen to publish some cartoons of Mohammed because they were good or topical. The cartoons were a self-conscious attempt to provoke controversy.

"[W]e wanted to show how deeply entrenched self-censorship has already become," a J-P spokesman told Der Spigel.

In other words, The J-P decided to conduct a little experiment. Can we get a rise out of the Islamic fundamentalists? A drastically disproportionate reaction, perhaps? Suppose we tip the scales by lacing the blasphemy with racism and inflammatory politics? If the excruciatingly predictable happens, we'll have "Proof Islam Hates Our Freedom." If the cartoons go unnoticed, we'll drop the whole thing--the headline certainly won't be "Islam is Cool After All."

Of course the J-P wasn't the only faction with an agenda. The cartoons were published in September, but the massive outcry didn't ensue until a group of Danish Muslim fundamentalists went to plead their case to the governments of various Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia. The delegation upped the outrage factor by presenting fraudulent cartoons alongside the original J-P twelve.

The fundamentalist envoy came at an opportune moment for the Saudi government. According to SoJ's widely-cited diary at Kos, the Saudi state was looking for an opportunity to divert world attention from yet another mass fatality during the Hajj:

And while the deaths of these pilgrims was a mere blip on the traditional western media's radar, it was a huge story in the Muslim world. Most of the pilgrims who were killed came from poorer countries such as Pakistan, where the Hajj is a very big story. Even the most objective news stories were suddenly casting Saudi Arabia in a very bad light and they decided to do something about it.

Their plan was to go on a major offensive against the Danish cartoons. The 350 pilgrims were killed on January 12 and soon after, Saudi newspapers (which are all controlled by the state) began running up to 4 articles per day condemning the Danish cartoons. The Saudi government asked for a formal apology from Denmark. When that was not forthcoming, they began calling for world-wide protests. After two weeks of this, the Libyans decided to close their embassy in Denmark. Then there was an attack on the Danish embassy in Indonesia. And that was followed by attacks on the embassies in Syria and then Lebanon. [Emphasis added.]

Predictably, the Bush administration is now blaming Iran and Syria for inflaming the situation (which they are) but remaining notably silent on the Saudis' role in all this. True to form, Iran blames an Israeli conspiracy.

All over the world, self-righteous pundits and politicians are seizing on the chaos to echo the same xenophobic generalizations that the J-P was trying to hammer home: These people aren't like us. They are violent and crazy. They abhor free speech. We can't coexist with them.

Some commentators say that cartoon riots prove that Westerners can't even understand Islam. Abbas of 3Quarks debunks the fake mysterianism. The reaction, while reprehensible, is not completely incomprehensible.

Far from revealing an unbreachable divide between Islam and the West, the cartoon controversy shows exactly how much we have in common. Both sides have way too many xenophobic opportunists.


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I rarely find anything to agree with on your blog, but my goodness I like this post. Two attempts to make hype only stir up hatred and awfulness and self-righteous posturing.

What should be made of the state of free speech generally when it can be used purely to agitate, without regards to the consequences?

Does free speech imply responsibility for what is said, how it is said, and why it is said?

if there's anything to quibble with here, it's the description of "xenophobic" opportunists. That assumes a degree of sincerity that I'm not entirely sure is plausible. This strikes me as a very cynical game on all sides, so I don't see any reason to believe anybody sincerely hates outsiders. "Charlatans" strikes me as more indisputably right. To (I think) quote the great Walter Sobchak, "Nihilists? [wow!] Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it's an ethos!"

I think Beyerstein and Abbas are pretty much right on the money here. The whole thing is saddening on a variety of levels.

Abbas’ comparison of Muslim/West with American black/white miscommunication is useful. Think of the use of the word “nigger” in the United States. As a free speech fundamentalist I’d say that notions such as banning Huckleberry Finn from libraries or school curricula are insane. I’d even say that the use of the phrase “N-word” is annoying for the same reason euphemisms are generally annoying. On the other hand, as every American knows “nigger” is the most loaded word in American English. Its use can be justified or grossly irresponsible depending on context as only Americans can truly understand. Think of the times you have heard an immigrant use this word inappropriately. Then remember how at that moment you are really at a loss at how to explain the nuances of the word to someone not intimately familiar with its long sorrowful context of racial strife stretching from the first slaves landed at Charleston Bay to the recent barbs expressed (necessarily IMO) at Ms King’s funeral.

Perhaps the editors at the Danish paper can be forgiven on the basis of ignorance, perhaps not. Everyone else at this point is, or should be, obliged to think twice and try to understand all sides before venturing opinions on the matter, especially if you’re a cartoon editor or politician.

I haven't had time to read for perspective on this mess. It smelled like manufactured outrage and now I see it was manufactured by several parties. Thats a shame.

Perhaps the editors at the Danish paper can be forgiven on the basis of ignorance,

Posted by: cfrost | February 12, 2006 at 06:43 PM

I don't think so. We are not talking about highschool newspaper here. but second biggest newspaper in that country. If he doesn't know the iconography of Islam (ie. what is deeply insulting to Islam) then they are either really bad newspaper or they really are trying to pull some incredibally stupid trick.

Remember this is not in some tranquil time, where people can afford experimenting with inflamatory prints.

Second, even basic european history is full of similar condition. (ie. this type of thing is not something new) protestant vs. catholic, Christian vs. Islam...etc etc. It's an old items.

They know exactly what they are doing.

I haven't had time to read for perspective on this mess. It smelled like manufactured outrage and now I see it was manufactured by several parties. Thats a shame.

Posted by: greensmile | February 12, 2006 at 06:50 PM

Fox news was already busy fanning "this is western civilization" vs. "Islam" talking point.

I was sitting there and thinking. wtf? does these people really want clash of civilization? seriously?

The danish paper, which kept up a firm front of fuck you furrin trash right until the boycott hurt the business community and then apologized with hat in hand (just like the prime minister), commissioned the cartoons specifically because images of the prophet were such a flashpoint that illustrators were unwillling to produce respectful illustrations, much less pictures of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban.

They meant to do what they did. They meant to bully a powerless minority. That part didn't work out for them.

On the other side, well, the muslim world has taken the Lee Atwater playbook terribly seriously, have they not?

A petty racist publicity stunt

Islam is not a race.

Buy Danish!

I don't completely agree with Raza's contention that the question is more one of degree than kind. For reasons I don't fully comprehend, mobs in many developing countries quite often ransack and burn public property as casually as one orders pizza.

This is purely anecdotal, but it illustrates the point: when I was back home in Mumbai a couple years ago, there was some manufactured outrage over some British historian's book that had questioned some of the accepted history about a local Maratha king who's revered to the point of deism. The book, as far as I can recall, was quite old, and the issue was by no means even topical, but the outrage was enough to incite a mob to loot and burn an entire library that had the book, destroying many other priceless manuscripts in the process.

I do feel that respect for the rule of law is markedly lower (than in the West) even in a country like India which has very strong democratic institutions. My best guess at the underlying reason is a widespread feeling that "the system" is corrupt and is incapable of redressing the wrongs inflicted upon "us". Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the Rodney King rioters wait till after the acquittal?

Islam is not a race.

This is technically true, but adherence to Islam has, and more importantly, is perceived to have, a significant correlation with a high level of dermal melanin. I don't know if you've seen the cartoons, but the one I saw did give me the feeling that it was raking up some racist steroetypes.

--All over the world, self-righteous pundits and politicians are seizing on the chaos to echo the same xenophobic generalizations that the J-P was trying to hammer home: These people aren't like us. They are violent and crazy. They abhor free speech. We can't coexist with them--

The reaction in Beirut and Damascus and elsewhere is not violent and crazy?

--They know exactly what they are doing.--
My ass. Humor and parody are part of free speech and are definitely part of Danish culture.

The printing of these cartoons went completly unnoticed until they were publicized in a fraudulent way by Danish imams in the Middle East ( see LB's post )

They were published on the front page of a Cairo newspaper without incident. The recent " outrage " is a manufactured thing that has very little to do with what was published in a newspaper in a small Scandinavian country.

Denmark is among the most liberal of the European democracies. I would advise any true liberal not to betray this special, brave country. When the Danish Jews had their hour of need, the Danes did not sell them out. I am afraid that dhimmi-Europe will sell out Denmark, thinking it will buy them peace. Which it will not.

Support Denmark. It's now or never.

How about: Most Danes are wonderful but there are a few knuckleheads? Most muslims are wonderful but there are a few knuckleheads. Most Americans, Europeans, Indians, Saudis etc..The question is Are The Knuckleheads Winning Despite Being Outnumbered?

The funny thing? According to norwegian news sources:

The original cartoons where apparently published over half a year ago. In Egypt. A danish Imam by the name Abu Laban started the whole bloody riot over of those cartoons and apparently a group including the previously mentioned mr. laban took not only those pretty harmless cartoons, but about 70 amateur, often a bit racist cartoons that had been emailed to the muslims in denmark by unknowns with in him when he brought "his case" to those in the middle-east.

Pretty funny, isn't it?

Thomas Nast must be spinning in his grave. The very purpose of a political cartoon is to outrage and show the bad qualities of its subject, in the hopes that seeing its idiocy can provoke change- be it Tammany Hal of psychotic Islamic Fundies.

The fact that Moslems are acting like wild beasts and condemning cartoons, even as they grin while hostages are beheaded says far more about the depravity of the intended satire subjects than some cartoons ever could. And, from what I've seen, the cartoons were rather tame- a turban as bomb. How many world leaders have been shown as animals of various sorts? How many ethnic groups.

That other papers refused to run the cartoons which provoked this idiocy shows how gutless most people are in that industry. While I think all religiion sucks, in this nation shock art, such as the infamous Piss Christ, is hailed as bravery. But, how brave of it would it be if your home and studio were firebombed? Were is the Piss Mohammed? I doubt it's coming anytime soon, because when push comes to shove, most people won't stand behind the ideals of freedom they mouth- one of those freedoms is the freedom to be provocative against things seen as bad or evil.

I'd've thought you'd have known better.

Posted by: Dan Schneider | February 13, 2006 at 08:29 AM

because we are talking about religious iconography, NOT WORLD leader.

Think 'Jesus' in pink tutu, (not provoctive enough, how about giving a camel BJ?) Hey that's funny to me. But I bet yer start thinking violent things right now instead of "free speech" or whatever.

stop the hypocrisy.

The amazing things, all the wingnut evangelical start talking about "free speech", but during the Alabama judge 'i want a statue of ten commandmends in court' they all start acting all weird.

Hey. I for one is itching to add funny grafitti on that stones.

Shall we move on to 'Flag' now? (yeah so much for free speech and iconography, ya wingnut. what's the motter. That's just painted cloth in funny loud colors. what's the big deal?)

Dan, nobody is disputing the right of the Danish newspaper to publish those cartoons. Nor should anyone hold the paper wholly responsible for the magnitude of what happened. Sure, they were trying to be provocative, but they had no way of knowing that Danish cleric operatives would secretly compile the cartoons, mix them with even more inflammatory fake stuff, and shop the portfolio to Middle Eastern heads of state.

Since when do we have to approve of everything the media do in order to be proponents of free speech? If FOX News runs offensive content, we complain. When I thought that the local New York papers were being racist and inflammatory in their coverage of the transit strike, I criticized them for their content (e.g. the NYDN's racist caricature of TWU leader Roger Toussaint). That's what freedom of speech is all about.

One need not approve of any form of free speech. But, it's plain silly to complain of provoking those who commit evil acts.

The terrorists commit acts explicitly in the name of Mohammed, and the cartoons clearly displayed that they were sullying his legacy, not that they were sullying Mohammad, although even if they had sullied the so-called Prophet, big deal?

Taking offense is always a choice, and a puerile one. That terrorists are offended, that's good. Maybe we need to push them to their extremes so that the Moslem on the street gets sick and tired enough and rise up against them.

In a sense, they have a much easier task, because terror enlivens the senses. Here in the West we've been narcotized by DVDs, IPods, and the like, as our standards of living deteriorate while Corporate scum gets richer and richer.

We need more carteeons and editorials that provoke. Look at how complacently the masses vote D or R, even though both parties have led this nation into debt and stagnation. Perhaps a few more cartoons like those in Denmark would be for the better.


"The fact that Moslems are acting like wild beasts and condemning cartoons, even as they grin while hostages are beheaded says far more about the depravity of the intended satire subjects than some cartoons ever could."

You seem quite eager to stereotype Muslims on the basis of the actions of a few of them. Do you think that bigotry might have something to do with your eagerness to provoke them?

Do you think that Westerners should be judged on the basis of the few who desecrate Muslim graves? We all agree that Fred Phelps has the right to picket the funerals of dead soldiers, but do we really need more of this sort of provocation and incitement?

No, and the fact that you have to resort to tossing out baseless charges of bigotry sums up the intellectual content of your post.

'Few' is hardly accurate when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, worldwide, are protesting. The quote of mine you use contains no bigotry, only a dispaasive view of their actions.

Let's see, am I anti-rich white American male when I say, 'Here in the West we've been narcotized by DVDs, IPods, and the like, as our standards of living deteriorate while Corporate scum gets richer and richer.' Selective quotation is distortion, and again reveals the distorter's intellectual bankruptcy.

That I can dispassively view two opposing vile forces- soulless minions of McWorld-Mart and rabid Neolithic religiots- and call them the spades they are is a thing to be valued in the blogosphere especially.

Your final question is a typical tack- dodge a point, and then point to something else. It reminds me of Leftists who used to condemn Hitler or our stooges in South Vietnam, but mumble when Stalin's or Ho Ch Minh's crimes came up.

As for provocation, yes. All boils need to be brought to a head, sooner than later. I just watched Frank Capra's Why We Fight agitprop films from WW2, and had we not dragged our feet against Fascism we may have avoided millions of needless deaths. All bad ideas, in every field, need to be frely and openly debunked and mocked. Religion, which is blind faith, is especially in need of being lampooned, ridiculed, mocked. We do it to people who claim to be kidnapped and raped by gray aliens, even though, as remote as that possibility is, the possibility of an all-pervasive an powerful deity is infinitely more remote.

Why do you hesitate to stand up against stupidity or violence, even if only condemning it? It seems that it's far easier to condemn those who do than the noxious people behind it. Do you think even a thousand cartoons like those published are even a fraction as offensive as one beheaded victim's final moments being taped? If so, that's a questionable set of ethics you possess.

Then again, it's easier to accuse others of bigotry, rather than stop and think, or look in mirror.

Yes, relative to Islam as a whole, only a few Muslims reacted inappropriately to the cartoon.

There are approximately>1.3 billion Muslims in the world, approximately 21% of human beings. Most of them weren't out smashing embassies last week.

The people who reacted ultra-inappropriately were a tiny handful of ultra-exremist Danish clerics and the Middle Eastern heads of state who incited people to riot based on trumped up charges.

None of this should be taken to reflect on Islam as a whole. It was a manufactured scandal.

These cartoons were solicited by the paper in response to a Danish
author's complaints that no illustrator would dare make drawings for his
kid's book about the life of muhammed---because they were afraid of
violence directed at them by muslims in Denmark-if they did so. This is on top of the killing of Theo Van Gogh by muslim fanatic because he dared to
make a film detailing the degradation of women by muslim culture.
These cartoons were a Danish newspaper's deliberate exercise of press freedom to emphasize the living practice of press freedom in the face of
cultures in which press is controlled by government, where theocracy and dictatorship are the rule, where women are second class citizens, where it is usually a punishable offense to depict mohammed even reverentially or indeed to cast aspersions on him in any way, where there is no understanding of the concept of the press freedom that is a culimination of 2000 years of development of western culture-- no understanding that a press which is not free to publish controversial material is not a free press. The press in Europe has published caricatures of christ---to the offense of many--- but most agree that a free press is vital to freedom and to democracy--- and give support.
I say it is right in the face of such muslim cultures and in the face of the events in Denmark, to sustain, to emphasize, to dare to draw the line between the cultures and say--- here is what we value-- here is a foundation of our society and culture--we will not give this up.
That these stupid cartoons set off such a paroxism of violence by the muslim world shows clearly the chasm between the cultures.
I contrast this with the west's reaction to the vicious anti-western and anti-
semitic textbooks of saudi arabia, along with their support for madrassas
across the world which foment anti-western hatred and violence, violence also supported by saudi wealth. I saw no burning of the Saudi embassy in the US-- despite most the 911 hi-jackers being saudi.
The Saudis pulled their ambassador from Copenhagen--- if we adopt the saudi standard we have plenty that would lead our western countries to do likewise to the saudis.

Vince, if this was a serious reaction to the children's book, why not make it a fair test of press freedom and serialize the story or comission illustrations for that? Why up the ante to crude, hostile editorial cartoons?

The paper was making a very deliberate statement. It could have been "We'll talk about Mohammed if we want to." but instead it was "Fuck Mohammed and fuck you." Nobody's arguing for censorship. However, it seemed like the paper was more interested in the "Fuck you" angle than in the "Open discourse" principle.

Yes, in a free society people should be allowed to tell each other to fuck off. But those who do so loudly and publicly invite scrutiny from bystanders.

Why up the ante to crude, hostile editorial cartoons?

Some of the 12 cartoons didn't look hostile at all to me. To the contrary. Maybe you should take a closer look. There's a reason the focus is so much on the one cartoon of Muhammad with the bomb on his head instead of some of the other cartoons. (BTW, I think drawing Muhammad with a bomb on his head is fine, since Islam does have a serious problem with terrorism...duh.)

I support Denmark and the liberal value of free expression 100% on this controversy. And I believe taboos are meant to be broken! I also embrace Hirsi Ali's take on the matter (she's an ex-Muslim of Somali origina living in Holland). Her speech in Berlin the other day is easy to find on Google News.

"Islam is not a race."

This is technically true, but adherence to Islam has, and more importantly, is perceived to have, a significant correlation with a high level of dermal melanin. I don't know if you've seen the cartoons, but the one I saw did give me the feeling that it was raking up some racist steroetypes.

The one you saw? So you only saw one out of the twelve? See, this is one of the problems with so many newspapers fearing publishing them (that is in adition to their being bullied into fear by fascism Islamists). The cartoons were drawn by artists of a range of political views. One even attacks the paper, not Islam. I did not see anything racist about the cartoons.

Again I insist that Islam is not a race. 1.4 billion Muslims come from all the races of the world. Islam is a belief system and everyone has a right to be critical of belief systems. There happens to be a civil war going on within Islam.

Muahmmad also is a historical figure, not just an Islamic "prophet."

The depiction of a religious figure, muhammed, is automatically offensive
to muslims. The whole culture is anti-iconoclastic. This in contrast to the
west wherein the entire history of the church and of western art in general
is filled with the depiction of religious figures. In this way the cultures are completely opposed and I believe irreconcilably so-- dialogue or no.
I think it is fine to apologize, as papers have done, for any offense and then to stick to the traditions of free press as we have developed it
in the west. The pointof publishing is not to offend, but rather to make thepoint that offensiveness is deserving of neither punishment nor censorship as it would be in the muslim culture. It is a drawing of the line and it
deserves to be drawn.
I have seen all twelve cartoons---one is the simple depiction of a middle
eastern man leading a donkey--the others are hardly what we would consider
offensive, in the west--- only the muhammed with the bomb is inflammatory.
If the paroxism in Islam is the result of these then the distance between us is great indeed.
It seems to me a question of which will prevail in the west---muslim values and censorship by intimidation, or western values. I think the west-- to preserve its traditions has no choice but to stand fast--to sustain those values-- not the least of which is modern secular culture.
Not surprisingly,the pope condemned the cartoons as violating the sacred--he is another fundamentalist-- an heir of the inquisition speaking in accord
with the aims of theocracy---- a stage of culture the west outgrew centuries ago.
The enemies are fundamentalism and intolerance. My sacred is western liberalism-- that vulnerable thing rare in human history. I respect your opinion Lindsay, and though I may disagree with it I will fight for your right to express it. Yes, this statement is a cliche but it is my sacred cliche and I stand with it and by it.

The one you saw? So you only saw one out of the twelve? ... One even attacks the paper, not Islam.

I certainly don't dispute that statement. The one cartoon I did see was the bomb-as-turban one, and I do agree that it attacks extremist and violent versions of Islam rather than Islam itself. At the same time, however, I did feel that it could reasonably be perceived as racist (in the way the facial features were rendered). It's a subjective question, though, so when you claim that you didn't find it objectionable in the least bit, I have nothing to say to that.

Again I insist that Islam is not a race. 1.4 billion Muslims come from all the races of the world.

The ethnicity and the public face of the Islamic umma is overwhelmingly non-Caucasian. (Eastern European Muslims are the only significant Caucasian group I can think of.) While the Muslim population is ethnically, and even racially diverse, the preceding fact is more relevant in this context.

An analogy: the archetype of conservative Christianity in the U.S. is white, even though there may be a significant proportion of that constituency that's black. A more dramatic example: the archetypal Middle Easterner is Arab, and the archetypal Arab is Muslim, even though a small (but not insignificant) fraction of Middle Easterners is non-Arab, and a smaller fraction of Arabs is non-Muslim.

Lindsay, you know as well as I do, that such movements have wide support. A hundred years ago only a small % of white Southerners were Klansmen, but they had sympathetic allies who allowed them to exist and terrorize. Please, let's stick to reality. This nonsense exists because there's a sickness to religion, in general, and Islam in particular.

Also, there is no thing as automatic offense. All offense is a learned behavior, as is fear. Children do not fear things that adults recognize as dangerous until they learn to fear it.

I'm still waiting for Gordo to answer a) whether or not I'm anti-rich white American male, due to another quote one could selectively cull, and b) why any relidion should be taken any more seriously than claims of alien abduction.

Idiocy is no less so when hidden under the cover of religion.

Until Leftists can distinguish that in a world full of grays (which the Right does not acknowledge) there are still some blacks and whites, all it will be is a sad and feeble countermeasure to the Right.

C'mon, Gordo, which is worse- the dozen cartoons or a single beheading, nay, even a single kidnapping.

Why has not a single leader said that the Muslim clerics were hypocrites in supporting terror while condemning free speech? Because they're cowards, who believe in freedoms only until challenged. Ben Franklin is weeping over what passes for American leadership!

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