Friday, February 10, 2006


The Danish Cartoon Row

I’m still in the UK, where it’s been a very exciting time for cartoons. I don’t know how much play this story has gotten in the US, but it’s been in the headlines here for over a week. Muslims all over the world have been protesting a series of cartoons about Mohammed published by a Danish newspaper. It’s all very complicated, and if you want the whole story, the Guardian has a comprehensive special report The gist is that the cartoons were commissioned as part of a debate about freedom of speech in a climate where the press has felt a certain amount of fear and self-censorship around critiquing Islam. In 2004, a Dutch filmmaker who’d just made a film about violence against women in Islamic culture was murdered by a fanatic, and it’s had a predictably chilling effect on discourse. The cartoons were actually published last September, but it took a while for the protests to build up steam. First the newspaper refused to apologize, then the government stepped in and apologized after Muslims called for boycotts of Danish products. It escalated last week with increasingly violent protests from Europe to Iraq to Indonesia. Danish embassies have been set on fire, and yesterday four demonstrators were killed in Afghanistan. But there’s some question about whether the cartoons were deliberately provocative, or an earnest effort at opening a dialogue. No one was reprinting them, for obvious reasons, so it took me a while to see what the fuss was all about. Then the Guardian posted this link to them on Wikipedia. Some are tame, some are offensive, most are mediocre. but part of the problem is that in Islam, you’re not supposed to show ANY visual images of the prophet. So negative images are exponentially offensive. Ted Rall has a good column about the ensuing diplomatic crisis on the Common Dreams site. He quotes a Kuwaiti oil executive who says, “America kills thousands of Muslims, and you lose your head and withdraw ambassadors over a bunch of cartoons printed in a second-rate paper in a Nordic country with a population of five million? That’s the true outrage.”
FYI, The Stranger, a Seattle weekly edited by Dan Savage, has published the cartoons.

The Washington Post reports that the three images that upset Muslims the most weren't among the 12 cartoons that were actually published, but were inserted into a booklet that some Danish Imams took with them to distribute in the middle east. These images are *very* offensive, but don't look even vaguely like the other cartoons. If you aren't easily offended, see here for both the true and the false pictures:

Not to take away from the point about the number of civilian deaths in Iraq.
Juan Cole has had some useful things to say about this issue ( He also has a piece in
Salon which I have not read. From what I can gather (admittedly I have not sought out right wing views), practically everyone involved in this sorry affair has behaved like an ass. The only exception would be those Muslim leaders who have sincerely called for calm. Everybody knows there's a difference between having the right to say something, and making a productive contribution to knowledge and discussion. Everybody over the age of four, anyhow.

Actually, this came up not too long ago in DTWOF, when Stu and Mo discussed it in the context of anti-Semitism and gay-bashing.

As for the Kuwaiti's point, sure. As Eco has somebody say in _The Name of the Rose_, when your real enemies are too strong, you have to find other enemies who are weaker. Scapegoating 101. That doesn't remove the paper's responsibility for deliberately provoking an angry response.
The BBC posted descriptions of the cartoons. That link also mentions an image the Danes were not responsible for: made from a news photo of a French pig-squealing contestant in a plastic pig snout. That image reportedly was circulated by Danish muslims to inflame passions.

(This anonymous fan is wondering what is really behind all this rage. I just read, in Jared Diamond's "Collapse," that the planet could not sustain everyone alive right now if everyone was living at a first world level. Diamond wrote that one first world person averages the same consumption of 32 third-world people. I wonder if that hopelessness is behind the rage. Look at where the bulk of the protests are. Poor countries.)
The Diamond point is well taken.

The pig thing is just one of three images that were inserted (but drawing the prophet as a pig is one of the greatest insults you can do apparently.) The other two (for those who don't want to look) are an anonymous Muslim praying with a dog coming at him from behind, and the third really does portray the prophet in a bad cartoon as a raging, demonic padeophile. The link above shows in contrast that the book that started the whole cartoon competition has a drawing of the prophet in a loving relationship with his child bride.
The story is more complicated. Alison writes: "A central part of the gist is that the cartoons were commissioned as part of a debate about freedom of speech in a climate where the press has felt a certain amount of fear and self-censorship around critiquing Islam." Yes, that is what the newspaper keep telling us BUT another central part of the gidt is that the cartoons were published by a newspaper which, like the majority of other news media in Denmark, has presented Muslims stereotypically and negatively for years (From a media scholar from Denmark).
Tom Tole's cartoon about the cartoon riots was, to me, perfect in showing how overblown this reaction is.

Also worth mentioning is his cartoon about the way the mideast elections are going.
The Feb 27 New Yorker magazine has a couple good cartoons about this, pages 30 and 51.

page 30 has a blank cartoon with the title explaining that this is designed to offend no one and that you should enjoy it responsibly.

Page 51 has "A History of Graphic Violence," depicting the 1908 Little Nemo revolt, the 1964 Anti-Lucy Riots ("Let Charlie Brown Kick the Goddam Football!"), the 1985 Cathy swimwear uprising, and the deadly 1997 "Dilbertica." Cartoon bank has it but it's too small to see.

Art Spiegelman (known for Maus) also has three submissions to Iran's anti-semetic cartoon contest on page 53.
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