Them's Fightin' Draw'ns!
I was going to express this blog post in cartoon form, seeing that it’s apparently the most effective instrument of widespread offence at the moment, but thought better of it.
And at the risk of duplicating some entirely reasonable and obvious commentary — eloquently summarised as “get over it” by Henry Thornton — a comparison to the publication of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses seems appropriate.
So last time we had a fatwa, which was never completed. This time not only do we have a fatwa, but we also have an overt outpouring of violence against the countrymen of the perpetrators, economic sanctions and severing of diplomatic ties. In general, lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I recently read the excellent How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World by Francis Wheen, and intended to review it for you all in great depth. Instead I will just recommend it outright and use it intermittently to bolster my arguments when needed. So let’s remind ourselves of the west’s reaction to the Rushdie fatwa:
The issue ought to have been, in American parlance, a no-brainer. Yet Pat Buchanan sprang to the barricades on the Ayatollah’s side without hesitation, damning The Satanic Verses as ‘a blasphemous assault on the faith of hundreds of millions’. President George H. W. Bush’s only comment on the fatwa was that Iran would be held responsible ‘should any action be taken against American interests’, implying that America no longer had any general interest in defending freedom of expression.
Even in England, where ostentatious religious zeal is generally regarded as bad form, the international solidarity of spiritual chieftains proved stronger than loyalty to a compatriot under threat of murder. ‘The book contained an outrageous slur on the Prophet [Mohammed] and so was damaging to the reputation of the faith,’ said George Carey, an evangelical dimwit who had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Margaret Thatcher because she deduced from the title of his book The Church in the Market Place that he must be economically sound. ‘I will understand the devout Muslims’ reaction, wounded by [an attack on] what they hold most dear and would themselves die for.’ Carey offered no word of protest against the fatwa, nor any recognition that the essential point was not the preparedness of Muslims to die for their beliefs but the preparedness to kill.
And where are the handwringing Christians leaping to the Muslim defence this time? Well there’s the Vatican of course. But who else? From what I can see, the response from the west has been mostly reasonable, if a little understated. Carefully worded statements of apology at the same time as asserting the right of freedom of speech. For the most part the western media has restrained itself, except for some kiwis and other show-ponies.
Could it be that western leaders might be afraid of the mixed message that might be sent to the Muslim world if we send megabucks and troops in to liberate Iraq, and at the same time allow our unchecked blasphemy to denigrate their religion? In effect saying “we’ll liberate you but insult you at the same time”. Not a good look really.
Having no such agenda to worry about, Bill Clinton isn’t afraid to put his foot in it:
“In Europe, most of the struggles we’ve had in the past 50 years have been to fight prejudices against Jews, to fight against anti-Semitism,” he said.
“None of us are totally free of stereotypes about people of different races, different ethnic groups, and different religions … there was this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark … these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam,” he said.
If I were Jewish I would be pretty outraged at this. The idea that the extent of anti-Semitism over the last 50 years is in some way comparable to a handful of mildly satirical cartoons is, well, pretty offensive. Presumably he didn’t mean to offend Jews, but then again neither did cartoonists for the Jyllands-Posten mean to offend Muslims. Being offensive is funny like that; some people have to work at it, to the rest of us it comes naturally…
Oh, and I’m not trying to say that anti-Muslim stereotyping isn’t a problem, just that Clinton needs to give a better example to compare with some of the more obvious anti-Semitic intolerance.
So there you have it, compared to the Satanic Verses incident, the Jyllands-Posten cartoons have a worse response from the Muslim world, and a (mostly) better one from the west. I’m sure this says something about the comparative worth of these two forms of expression as measured by the two different cultures, but I can’t think what.
Now if you’ll all please take your seats for my hilariously satirical interpretive dance entitled “Prophet Mohammmed Has Entirely Too Much Facial Hair”…