Muhammad Cartoons

On self-fulfilling prophecies

The whole fuss about Geert Wilders’ propaganda movie illustrates critically the century-old but eternally relevant question about the extent to which the media create their own stories rather than merely describing events as they happen.

The movie itself is nothing but a mishmash of ‘deadly’ quotes from the Qur’an, explicit post-terror footage, juicy newspaper headlines, and the sort of ‘statistics’ that appeals so broadly, yet describes nothing. Any teenager with a laptop could pull together a ‘movie’ like this, post it on YouTube, and no-one would ever raise an eyebrow.

But thanks to the media, always hungry for a good scandal, this pathetic piece of ‘documentary’ is all of a sudden standing smack in the middle of a ‘clash between civilizations,’ ramifying into the upper echelons of political life and probably hitting a street near you pretty soon. The prophecy is slowly fulfilling itself.

Some things are best ignored.

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JP and the cartoon affair

My friend and distinguished scholar, Wilfrid Knapp, has kindly allowed me to publish his comments on the cartoon affair. With a long career in the field of politics and in-depth knowledge of Danish culture, I believe his answer to my question holds great credibility:

What do I think about the spat over the Danish cartoons? As a political analyst (never a political scientist) I perhaps have little to add to all that has been published in the print media. However: I well remember that in my last days working with Oxford Analytica I was preoccupied, as was our editor, with anger in the Arab world. At that time (say ten years ago) we spoke and wrote about the anger of Arab people, and to some extent governments, directed against ‘the West’ and, more than that, just anger, more explosive because it had no direction or target. The anger came from a deeply held feeling that the world is against Arabs and against Islam. At that time our audiences were fairly deaf to what we were trying to tell them – audiences that wanted to hear from specialists but then would readily dismiss what they heard as being exaggerated. Since then the anger has increased as a result of political events and frustration. Political events – ‘the West’ intervenes in the Balkans to protect Christians, was very slow to to anything to help Muslims in Bosnia, keeps quiet about Russian action in Chechnyia, which is Muslim, supports Israel in all its oppression of Palestinians. Frustration – as Arabs we have a great past, we have oil wealth, but we have no economic growth and no power. So we lash out – we burn flags and buildings and we boycott Danish goods. We have solidarity together and we have support across the Muslim world. Fortunately our neighbours the Iranians do have the possibility of power – they can build a nuclear weapon, although of course the West will try to stop them; the West will talk about sanctions but they depend on us for our oil and anyway sanctions will not work.

On the other side I assume that the cartoonists and the Jylands Posten had little idea of the significance of what they were doing. No doubt they are too young to remember when there were laws against blasphemy – at least there was such a law in Britain – and, being irreligious, they have little empathy with those who react as the Arabs are doing. In their defence some of our media have drawn attention to the satire in our society of Christian religion. This does not help: the Koran gives Muslims a reverence for Jesus, though not as the son of God, and they see the disrespect of religion in our society as another example of its decadence. And then there are the media. First of all that a Danish newspaper can be seen everywhere in the world and then that the semi-violence of the protesters is picked up by the media, who have no interest in showing quiet devout Muslims attending their mosques (though they may listen to inflammatory sermons) So the rioters see themselves and feel better and go on doing more. I have said many times that if a little bit of liberalism and democracy is spreading in the Middle East it is not because of Bush but because of the technology – satellite broadcasting, the internet and e-mail – but the same technology works well for extremists and rioters. And Muslims have noticed that there is in our society a fairly strong taboo against anti-Semitism while the denigration of Islam is fair game.

If then you ask me for my opinion (as an analyst, unlike the Economist, I do not have opinions) I naturally deplore the unrestrained exercise of free opinion – naturally because I have my feet in an earlier period) Especially I deplore the aggressive assertion of free expression. Firstly I hold a pragmatic view that the right of free expression, like rights in general, implies a duty – a duty to exercise the right responsibly. Such a view of course provokes long discussion, which I have not time for now. Secondly the unrestrained commitment to free expression is rarely disinterested and more often is manipulative. And thirdly, since we all have some desire for privacy, it is often accompanied by hypocrisy (though hypocrisy is not the worst vice in our society).

In short I think the cartoons have done a great deal of harm for no gain. Free expression is under no threat in Denmark and does not need an agressive assertion to demonstrate that it exists. The cartoonists and their editors are obviously deeply ignorant of Arab and Muslim society and have no sympathy with those of their fellow-citizens who deplore insults to the deity and to Christian religion. Which most of the time does not matter, but in this instance it does.

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What a sad day…

From Arab News:

The Danish imam [Faith Alev] said that Muslims there have expressed their dissatisfaction by participating in the Danish media and holding public debates.

Muslims who make up three percent of the Danish population of 5.2 million, are now better heard and known than before, he said.

“Now, every one knows for sure that there is no unlimited freedom of expression,” he said.

Abdul Wahid Pedersen, vice chairman of the Islamic Christian Study Center, said that Muslims did not face any discrimination from the Danish government or its people during this controversy.

“Denmark appreciates the freedom of religion,�? he said, adding that in rare cases from time to time they encounter some criticism by individuals and hear some rude talks about Islam.

There were no boycott reactions by Muslims in Denmark, because most of the market’s product is made locally.

“Though we could not have an actual reaction, we appreciate the steps taken by our brother Muslims all over the world,�? he said.”

From a linguistic-political perspective this is a series of immensely interesting utterances. From my perspective it is just about the most hypocritical statement I have ever laid my eyes upon.

Please explain to me how, on the one hand, one is pleased about having accomplished limitations on freedom of speech and, on the other, one claims to be against discrimination?

I wonder what “steps” and “an actual reaction” refer to here. What is my fellow Dane talking about: would it be the death threats, the bombscares, the protest marches, the flag-burnings, the diplomatic rows, the condemnations and demands for apologies from the world’s Islamic and Arab bodies, the calls for a U.N. resolution carrying a sanctions threat, the fatwa issued against Danish troops in Iraq, the widening Mideast boycott of Danish goods, or would it be the UK-based Jihadists now declaring holy war against Denmark

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Much ado about nothing?

Update 02 February 2006 @ 10:34: Militant Islamists surround EU office in Gaza.
Update 01 February 2006 @ 17:54: Leilouta commented briefly on this post. A much fiercer debate is currently played out on her own website.
Update 01 February 2006 @ 16:45: Der Spiegel captures some of my worries brilliantly, Threaten One, Intimidate a Million.
Update: Jyllands Posten’s main offices are currently evacuated due to a bomb threat.

Following the heated controversy spawned by eight satirical depictions of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten), I am appalled, angry, and disappointed, all at the same time.

Acknowledging the complexity of the situation, I shall not attempt to formulate a one-answer-fits-all argument, rather a series of related yet distinct observations will have to suffice:

I do not believe in any such thing as Truth or Essence whether it may go under the label of religion or science, that is to say, nothing holds universal privilege, and the word ‘blasphemy’ does not hold any credit in my vocabulary. I do, however, respect that different people hold different values, and that these may be rooted at various levels and based on assumptions that may appear strange (e.g. see my postings below).

Taking this into account, freedom of speech should be applied reflexively and with respect. This in a way that cannot be systematised nor legitimised according to abstract principles, although philosophers and a heterogeneous pool of polemists have tried to do so for thousands of years.

Personally I cannot think of any symbols which, when treated with ‘disrespect’, as in the case with Jyllands-Posten, would cause outrage to the extent witnessed in the current matter, but I do believe that one should not deliberately cause havoc, for whatever ‘legitimate’ reason, by disregarding (for lack of better word) what other people hold dear. This principle works both ways and is intrinsically paradoxical; I would literally fight for my rights and convictions, which are sort of compatible with ‘Danish’ values (most sociologists would kill me for assuming such a thing), if they were ever to be threatened by other totalitarian knowledge systems.

That said, I can only laugh when a country such as Saudi Arabia, notorious for its brutality and systematic suppression of minorities, dares to criticise Denmark for not paying respect to Islamic values (who’s values?). And Libya, and Iran, and…

I can only laugh, admittedly worried laughter, when so-called Islamist hackers shut down newspaper sites and blogs of people with whom they disagree in order to forcefully impose their own ‘information’.

I can only get worried when a militant group encourages Muslims (I wonder what sort of Muslims they have in mind) to strike against everything Danish and Norwegian, attributing the ‘wrongdoings’ of a newspaper to a whole nation and its people.

I wonder why the head a prominent imam of the Muslim Society in Denmark, Abu Laban, has not bothered to learn the language, and thus have to be interviewed in English every time he makes a media appearance.

I recognise that what may appear as crowds of Palestinian fundamentalists burning Danish flags and images of the Danish PM may in fact be the reaction of people who have not had the privilege to experience a separation between the government and the press. Faced with such tension, we should avoid the propensity to read deeper motives into spontaneous acts.

Yet I am worried because, more and more often, I find myself drifting to the right side of the political spectrum when thinking about issues as the one above. I tend to agree with people with whom I used to have nothing in common. I no longer know which foot to stand one when neither apologetic nor right wing responses seem to lay the foundation for a fruitful path.

Check how the story unfolds at Google News.

Does anyone have anything to contribute?

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