What's All This Then?

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Friday, February 10, 2006

A number of columnists and other newspaper people - here and in other countries - including people who I respect, have been defending the publication of the riot causing cartoons depicting the "Prophet Mohammed" - pretty much on the basis of the need to maintain the absolute freedom of the press and for Muslims to accept being offended by caricatures of their prophet without losing their heads - and instead of wanting and threatening to decapitate the heads of the alleged offenders, to respond to them in kind. Words with words. Pictures with pictures. Caricature with caricature. Angry letters to the editor.

To which I respond in the words of the imaginary pre-teen who I quoted the other day - "Dah."

Of course that is how it should be. Of course newspapers should have the absolute right to publish cartoons that ridicule or condemn individuals or groups of individuals for whatever reason - political beliefs, religious practices, hair styles, wine preferences. - you name it. It’s the job of the cartoonist to do just that. If you look up "cartoon" in a dictionary, you’ll find descriptive words such as "satirical, caricature, oversimplified and comic." And of course, as I pointed out the other day, newspapers in Muslim countries have no qualms about publishing such cartoons, including cartoons that don’t stop at being oversimplified or satirical but that are deliberately designed to incite and to offend. Rabbis killing and eating Muslim babies. Uncle Sam as the Great Satan.

But with them it’s a one way street. They can do it. You can’t. That’s their religion. That’s their law. That’s their right - which you don’t have. This brouhaha has little to do with freedom of the press or the need for Muslims who have emigrated to non-Muslim countries to become part of their adopted societies rather than being enclaves in but not of those societies. This is about a major societal division among the populations of this earth that has the potential to erupt into mortal combat if it continues along its present path.

On Wednesday, our President condemned the violence and called for it to stop - which of course resulted in millions of Muslims around the world toasting his words of wisdom with their raised glasses of Arrack. But he also added a word or two about the responsibility of the press to use their freedom of expression wisely - with which I wholly agree. A red letter day. Me agreeing with the President.

I’ve said it again and again here - and others who are widely read and listened to have said it just as often. Whatever you may want to call it, there is a simmering discord between the cultures of the Muslim and the western worlds that is approaching a low boiling point. It’s something that can’t be ignored or appeased or overcome with military force. But it needs to be dealt with and certainly one way to deal with it is through the power of communication - through the spoken and written word - and through pictures.

Cartoons are powerful vehicles. They can convey powerful messages. They can sometimes make people think of issues in ways that they hadn’t considered before. They can sometimes teach through humor. And of course they can anger and arouse deeply passionate responses.

I think the people behind the idea of the twelve cartoons goofed. I don’t know if what they said they were trying to accomplish with them was a good or a bad idea - but in any event - it backfired. Badly. On the other hand, if part of the idea was to reach out to Muslims in their midst to test their reaction to press freedoms that likely never existed in their countries of origin - and in so doing perhaps establish a dialogue on that very topic , I think they might have been on the right track. A well thought out cartoon may indeed be worth more than the traditionally assigned thousand words. If the cartoonist and the editors who give the thumbs up or down to its publication can find a way to convey the right words. These cartoons obviously missed that mark by an immeasurable distance.

They surely knew the religious laws and traditions regarding the publication of an image of the Prophet Mohammed - so no matter in what context his caricature appeared in the cartoons it was bound to offend - and having knowledge of the passionate way many Muslims express love of and loyalty to their religion , a knowledge one would assume any sophisticated newspaper editor possessed - they might have guessed that some of the reaction could be violent.

So I am far from ready to defend any editor’s decision to publish these cartoons on the basis of the freedom of the press being inviolate. They should have rejected every last one of them out of hand and told the cartoonists to go back to the drawing board and come up with better ideas.

The brilliant cartoonists of the past and present have the extraordinary skill to portray messages with their visual images that - in some cases - no number of words could convey. If the editors who dreamed up the idea insisted on taking the bold step of using a caricature of the most revered figure in the world of Islam , why not at least try to offset the offense that you know his image will convey with some way to convey the idea that the western world and people who follow other religions - also view him with great respect? Even if they don’t.

I’ve looked at the cartoons. They can be found on line - here and elsewhere. They don’t look very sophisticated to me and none are particularly funny. Frankly, I don’t think any of them could win a top prize in an amateur cartoon contest. But if, as the Jyllands-Posten newspaper said, they printed the cartoons as a test of whether Muslim fundamentalists had begun to affect the freedom of expression in Denmark, why not try to do it with some ideas that reach out to the Muslim community rather than deliberately insult it?

I don’t have the skills of a political cartoonist, but I can see one simple way that a couple of the cartoons could have been changed that might have tested precisely what the newspaper wanted to test while perhaps evoking a very different reaction. There’s a cartoon of Mohammed wearing a bomb as a turban and another - supposedly funny - of him turning away recently deceased suicide bombers because "paradise" had run out of virgins. How about the same suicide bombers arriving in "paradise" looking perplexed - and no caption but a big blow up of Mohammed with tears streaming down his face? Or better yet, how about a scene of utter and obvious post-suicide bomber devastation, perhaps with body parts identifiable - and again, a weeping Prophet Mohammed!! A Prophet dedicated to peace and firmly against violence.

Just defending the right of the free press to print anything they want and admonishing the Muslim world to "get with it" and to learn how to accept the occasional perceived insult that they might run across in a western newspaper is a poor way to think about or deal with the mess that has ensued. The two cultures have to communicate in non-violent ways if they don’t want to finish up trying to destroy each other. The western news media are one vehicle that can be used to at least attempt to reach out and establish some level of understanding between them.

Our papers aren’t controlled by government nor do they have any obligation to publish or not publish what our government think is in its best interest. But we do have an obligation to think carefully about what it is we put in our newspapers when the main target audience is the Muslim world. You know damned well that Jyllands-Posten wasn’t worried about upsetting the average Danish man-in-the-street. They wanted the reaction of their domestic Muslim population. Now they’ve got it - and that of Muslims around the globe. In spades!!

Maybe it would have been the same no matter what cartoon they published with the image of Mohammed as the central figure - and I think they had every right and owe no apologies for using caricatures of Mohammed. But in my view, the editors of Jyllands-Posten showed about as much editorial judgment using this particular group of amateurishly insulting cartoons as one might expect from a ten year old editor of a grade school house organ. Maybe less. And that goes for the other western newspapers that re-published the same junk.

Just one man’s opinion who looked at this entire brouhaha and asked himself - what’s (expletive deleted) all this then???