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.

See our last posts on Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and the crisis of contemporary Islam.

  1. “Cartoons reflect Europe’s Islamophobia”
    ‘Cartoons reflect Europe’s Islamophobia’
    by Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank
    Sunday 05 February 2006 6:53 AM GMT

    After Hamas’s electoral triumph, Palestinians are in the news again, with thousands of them demonstrating against Denmark and European countries for publishing cartoons that they say depicts the Prophet Muhammad in an unfavourable light.

    Last week armed Palestinian groups briefly surrounded a European Union office in Ram Allah.

    Aziz Duwaik, professor of urban planning at the Najah University of Nablus, won a parliamentary seat in the recent Palestinian legislative elections.

    His Change and Reform (Hamas) list won all nine contested seats in the southern West Bank town of Hebron at the district level, defeating the dominant Fatah party. spoke with Duwaik at his Hebron home. The following are excerpts from the interview. Why have Palestinians been so strongly protesting against the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad?

    Duwaik: These cartoons have been insulting to our religion and injurious to our feelings. They were meant to insult, provoke and offend Muslims. And they have succeeded. I call on the government of Denmark and the people of Denmark and the rest of Europe to stop insulting other people in the guise of press freedom.

    We respect press freedom, but ridiculing and besmirching our religious symbols is not press freedom. There is a conspicuous malicious intent here, and people’s right not to be insulted and offended overrides a Danish newspaper’s right to insult the prophet of Islam. Besides, we are living in a global village now, and we should respect each other.

    People in Europe value their liberties …

    And we value our religion and our prophet (peace be upon him). Press freedom is a great ideal. However, could one argue that Hitler and the Nazis were practising their freedom prior to the Holocaust? We know the Holocaust started with cartoons like this against Jews, and with books like Mein Kampf, and then came Kristallnacht … and then we know what happened.

    These cartoons are a reflection of rampant Islamophobia in Europe, which is very similar and nearly as virulent as the anti-Semitism that existed in Europe, especially in Germany, prior to World War II. This anti-Semitism eventually led to the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of human beings.

    You see, when you send out thousands of hate messages against a certain ethnic or religious community every day, you make people hate these people, and when mass hatred reaches a certain point, nobody would object to the physical extermination of the hated community when it happens.

    Do you fear a Holocaust against Muslims similar to what happened to the Jews?

    Why not? The Holocaust was committed by human beings, not by citizens of another planet, and Germany, where Nazism thrived, was probably the most culturally advanced European country in the 1930s and 1940s.

    But Europe is now democratic, unlike Nazi Germany?

    Yes, but who told you those democracies don’t commit genocide? America is a democracy, but we saw recently how this democracy invaded and destroyed two small and weak countries based on lies, while most Americans were duped into believing that Bush was doing the right thing.

    Let’s talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you still want to destroy Israel?

    You are asking the victims of Israeli oppression, occupation and racism if they are interested in destroying their oppressors and tormentors? This is a tendentious question that should be asked to Israel, which is occupying our country and oppressing our people and carrying out ethnic cleansing against us.

    In fact, all that we want is to be free. Is freedom for the Palestinian people tantamount to destruction of Israel?

    Are you not are evading the question?

    I am not evading anything; it is you who is evading and ignoring reality here. Just take a look and see for yourself who is destroying whom, who is stealing whose land, who is savaging and persecuting and brutalising whose people, and who is practising ethnic cleansing and slow-motion genocide against the other.

    But the question remains, how can Israel possibly talk with Hamas as long as Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist?

    Why on earth should we recognise Israel while Israel refuses to recognise Palestine? Indeed, we can’t understand why the international community, strangely enough including some Arab leaders, is demanding that we recognise Israel but making no similar demands on Israel that it ought to recognise Palestine.

    But Israel is a reality while Palestine is not.

    Palestine is also a reality. There are nearly five million Palestinians living in Palestine and these people have an inherent right to self-determination. Do you think that we are children of a lesser God or something?

    Israel has recognised the PLO and said it will accept President Bush’s vision which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state that would live in peace alongside Israel?

    The important thing is not what Israel says but what Israel does. Israel has built hundreds of Jewish-only colonies in the West Bank and transferred hundreds of thousands of its citizen to the occupied territories. This alone shows the mendacity of its claims regarding Palestinian statehood.

    Are you implying that the creation of a Palestinian state is no longer possible or realistic?

    Precisely. Israel has effectively killed all prospects of a genuine and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank. In a nutshell, there is no room left for a true and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank. The implanting of so many Jewish colonies has made the creation of such a state utterly impossible.

    Will you be willing to negotiate with Israel?

    Negotiation in itself is not the issue. The issue is our rights as human beings and as a nation. If Israel is willing and ready to come to terms with our human, civil and political rights, then we can negotiate, otherwise we will not allow ourselves to repeat the same failed process of the past 10 years all over again. We maybe weak politically, but we certainly are not stupid.

    The Oslo process was not a peace process. It was a process of deception and cheating and lies which enabled Israel to truncate our homeland with settlements and separation walls and roadblocks and closed military zones. We will not deceive our people as the Palestinian Authority did for 10 years.

    Will you form a government of national unity, a government of technocrats, or a Hamas government?

    We certainly prefer a government of national unity which we think would best serve the interests of our people. I believe that eventually Fatah will join the government.

    But Fatah leaders have ruled out joining a Hamas-led government?

    These statements by some Fatah leaders are mostly post-election reflexes; we understand how our brothers in Fatah feel after their electoral defeat. But I am sure that eventually some Fatah leaders will join the government.

    What would you say to Palestinian Christians, some of whom might be worried about the aftermath of Hamas’ election victory?

    I think if these fears are real, and I don’t think they are, they must be phobic in nature. The Christians of Palestine are our brothers, compatriots and countrymen. We are languishing under the same occupation and experiencing the same pain and suffering, hence it would be preposterous to even contemplate harming or even hurting these people.

    1. Danish paper rejected Jesus cartoons,3858,5392866-119665,00.html

      Danish paper rejected Jesus cartoons
      Gwladys Fouché
      Monday February 6, 2006

      Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.
      The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

      In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten.

      Zieler received an email back from the paper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”

      The illustrator said: “I see the cartoons as an innocent joke, of the type that my Christian grandfather would enjoy.”

      “I showed them to a few pastors and they thought they were funny.”

      But the Jyllands-Posten editor in question, Mr Kaiser, said that the case was “ridiculous to bring forward now. It has nothing to do with the Muhammad cartoons.

      “In the Muhammad drawings case, we asked the illustrators to do it. I did not ask for these cartoons. That’s the difference,” he said.

      “The illustrator thought his cartoons were funny. I did not think so. It would offend some readers, not much but some.”

      The decision smacks of “double-standards”, said Ahmed Akkari, spokesman for the Danish-based European Committee for Prophet Honouring, the umbrella group that represents 27 Muslim organisations that are campaigning for a full apology from Jyllands-Posten.

      “How can Jyllands-Posten distinguish the two cases? Surely they must understand,” Mr Akkari added.

      Meanwhile, the editor of a Malaysian newspaper resigned over the weekend after printing one of the Muhammad cartoons that have unleashed a storm of protest across the Islamic world.

      Malaysia’s Sunday Tribune, based in the remote state of Sarawak, on Borneo island, ran one of the Danish cartoons on Saturday. It is unclear which one of the 12 drawings was reprinted.

      Printed on page 12 of the paper, the cartoon illustrated an article about the lack of impact of the controversy in Malaysia, a country with a majority Muslim population.

      The newspaper apologised and expressed “profound regret over the unauthorised publication”, in a front page statement on Sunday.

      “Our internal inquiry revealed that the editor on duty, who was responsible for the same publication, had done it all alone by himself without authority in compliance with the prescribed procedures as required for such news,” the statement said.

      The editor, who has not been named, regretted his mistake, apologised and tendered his resignation, according to the statement.


    2. Lip service

      We respect press freedom, but ridiculing and besmirching our religious symbols is not press freedom. There is a conspicuous malicious intent here, and people’s right not to be insulted and offended overrides a Danish newspaper’s right to insult the prophet of Islam. Besides, we are living in a global village now, and we should respect each other.

      In other words, you respect press freedom except when your religious symbols are ridiculed and besmirched. Like Bush respects freedom of expression unless someone is burning the American flag. This is what is known as “lip service.”

      And has Prof. Duwaik ever protested the Nazi-like anti-Semitic cartoons that routinely appear in the Arab press?

      Just asking.

  2. And if there’s any doubt…
    …that there is propagandistic manipulation of the cartoons at work here, here’s something to keep in mind. From a Feb. 7 timeline on the controversy in The Guardian:

    A group of ultra-conservative imams went to Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a dossier of the cartoons. According to Jyllands-Posten, they also took three unrelated images which showed Muhammad with the face of a pig, a dog sodomising a praying Muslim and Muhammad as a paedophile – it is not clear who drew these or where they came from.

  3. A strange new wrinkle…
    …in this theater of the absurd. The New York Press, Manhattan’s reactionary and relentlessly ironic “alternative” (read: yuppie) weekly, suddenly develops a conscience, we are supposed to believe. I think the better word might be “cowardice.” Note that this Feb. 9 AP account appears in, of all places, India’s Hindustan Times:

    New York Press editorial team resigns after cartoons held

    The editorial team at the New York Press resigned after the alternative weekly newspaper decided not to run the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have set off a worldwide furore.

    Editor in chief Harry Siegel, managing editor Tim Marchman, arts editor Jonathan Leaf and City Hall bureau staffer Azi Paybarah resigned Tuesday. The four were among the small number of Press employees who put out the paper with free-lance contributors.

    Paybarah said that the package of stories about the cartoons was put together on Monday and was read by management. On Tuesday, toward the end of the day, the editorial team was told that the cartoons would not run.

    Since the package would have included criticism of other newspapers for not running the cartoons, for the Press to do the same would have made the writers appear to be hypocrites, Paybarah said. There also was concern about editorial control, he said.

    “Whenever there’s interference with the ability to tell a story of this magnitude, it puts in jeopardy all future stories,” he said.

    In a statement, New York Press General Manager Peter Polimino said the newspaper had come to the same conclusion as many other “responsible newspapers and media outlets” that have chosen to not run the cartoons.