Propaganda and the cartoon controversy
A round-up on the Feb. 7 BBC shows how the crisis over the anti-Islam cartoons published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten (and since reprinted in Norway and other European countries) is spinning out of control. The protests sweeping the Muslim world have now claimed at least six lives: five were killed in Afghanistan when protesters turned on the US airbase at Bagram, while a teenage boy was killed when protesters clashed with police in Somalia. In Tehran, hundreds hurled stones and fire-bombs and were forced back by police with tear gas, as Iran announced it is cutting all trade with Denmark. Protesters also attacked the Danish and Austrian embassies in Tehran, breaking windows and starting fires. Denmark is holding Iran's government responisible
Norway is demanding compensation from Syria after its embassy in Damascus was set on fire Feb. 4, a day before the Danish embassy in Beirut was sacked. Shops and businesses across Indian-administered Kashmir are closed by a general strike.
An overlooked insight into the political origins of the outburst is provided by blogger "Soj" on the Daily Kos Feb. 5:
The issue has been framed by the traditional media as "Free Expression/Speech" in contrast with "Sensitivity to Religion". Do newspapers in democratic societies have the right to publish offensive images? Well that's something definitely worth debating, but it's overlooking an important step... [T]hese cartoons were published on September 30, 2005. What the traditional media has failed to explain is why the protests are occuring now... What CNN and the other traditional media failed to tell you is that the thousand gallons of fuel added to the fire of outrage came from none other than our old pals Saudi Arabia.
While it was a minor side story in the western press, the most important of Muslim religious festivals recently took place in Saudi Arabia - called the Hajj. Every able-bodied Muslim is obligated to make a pilgrimage once in their lifetime to Mecca, which is in modern-day Saudi Arabia... [M]ost pilgrims arrive during the Muslim month known as Dhu al-Hijjah... The most recent Hajj occurred during the first half of January 2006, precisely when the "outrage" over the Danish cartoons began in earnest. There were a number of stampedes, called "tragedies" in the press, during the Hajj which killed several hundred pilgrims. I say "tragedies" in quotation marks because there have been similar "tragedies" during the Hajj and each time, the Saudi government promises to improve security and facilitation of movement to avoid these. Over 251 pilgrims were killed during the 2004 Hajj alone in the same area as the one that killed 350 pilgrims in 2006. These were not unavoidable accidents, they were the results of poor planning by the Saudi government.
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.
Many European papers, including the right-wing German Springer media group, fanned the flames by reprinting the cartoons. And now you have the situation we are in today, with lots of video footage of angry crowds and the storming of embassies and calls for boycotts of Danish and European products.
"Soj" says he picked up this angle from The Religious Policeman, sarcastically-named blog of an extremely alienated Saudi ex-pat in England. "Policeman" has a color-coded alert system on his homepage poking fun at that of the Homeland Security Department. His monitors the "MOL Condition"—for "Muslim Offense Level." We are, of course, currently at MOL Condition Orange: "Highly Offended."
The endless media positing of the "free speech"/"sensitivity to religion" dichotomy is all the more tiresome because it is often presented as an either/or. It reminds us of the incessant blather during the OJ Simpson affair as to whether the episode was "about" gender or race—as if God had specially designed the debacle to teach America one, and only one, lesson.
Yes, the cartoon controversy is "about" sensitivity to religion. Yes, the cartoons are racist. An image portraying Muhammed with a bomb for a turban clearly sends the message that Islam is a religion of violence (puting aside the question of Islam's prohibition on any graphic representation of the Prophet). This is particularly sinister propaganda in the age of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the destruction of Fallujah.
And yes, the controversy is also "about" free speech. Yes, readers have the right to view racist images—even if only to see what the furor is all about. For precisely this purpose, Wikipedia has posted a facsimilie of the 12 cartoons (and, of course, suffered cyber-vandalism attempts on the page). Ironically, the whole affair has taken on a snowballing tendency: the more protests are held, the more global audiences will want (and have a right) to view the images—which will, in turn, fuel further protests. This is not to say that Muslims shouldn't protest. However, torching embassies and sending death threats to newspaper editors are rather poor ways of demonstrating that Islam is not a religion of violence.
Meanwhile, if you want to be regaled by endless examples of ugly Jew-hating cartoons that seem to appear regularly in the Arab press, just go the page of the Anti-Defamation League (they have a wide sampling from both 2002 and 2003). No, we don't like the ADL's politics either—that's not the point. And no, this doesn't let Jyllands-Posten off the hook. That's not the point either. The point is that if the protesters want to have real legitimacy they might consider examining the offensive images in the Muslim media as well.
Finally, we note that the whole sordid affair might be viewed with a sadly bemused irony by the Syrian film producer Moustapha Akkad, famous for his classic Al Risalah ("The Message") about the life of the Prophet Muhammed. Because the film was said to show images of an actor portraying the Prophet (it didn't), it won him death threats from Muslim fundamentalists. And because the film was released just as the 1980 Iran hostage crisis broke out, it also won him death threats from Zionists and anti-Islamic bigots. (See bios at The American Muslim and Visit Syria)
Unfortunately, Akkad cannot now warn us of the dangers of this kind of unthinking extremism. He was killed, along with his daughter, in last November's suicide attack on a wedding party at Jordan's Radisson Hotel.