Cartoon furor exposes double standards

Cartoon furor exposes double standards

By Haroon Siddiqui

Toronto Star, 23 February 2006

Gary Younge, the New York-based black British columnist, has written this about the Danish cartoon controversy in The Nation magazine:

“Muslims have, in effect, been vilified twice: once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them. Such logic recalls the words of the late South African black nationalist Steve Biko: `Not only are whites kicking us, they are telling us how to react to being kicked.'”

Confusion continues to mark the Western response to the issue. Some of this is because we are in uncharted waters. But something else is at work — double standards and insidious attempts at delegitimizing the Muslim protests.

Notorious British historian David Irving has just been sentenced in Vienna to three years for denying the Holocaust. Radical British Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al Masri has been jailed, among other things, for inciting hatred. About time.

Yet there’s silence from freedom of speech advocates who were on their pulpits just days ago.

Denying the Holocaust is not the same as poking fun at a prophet, some might say. Muslims might respond that the cartoons contravened the historical fact that Muhammad was not a terrorist with a bomb in his turban.

Masri’s case offers a better parallel. Besides terrorism-related charges, he was convicted of fomenting hate against Britons. Muslims said the Danish cartoons did exactly that to them. How does a democracy decide which hate is worse?

In France, the Catholic Church last year won a lawsuit against a fashion designer depicting The Last Supper with semi-nude women instead of the apostles. Where were the noisy advocates of freedom of speech then? Or, do they pop up only to claim the right to bash Muslims?

The cartoon episode has little or nothing to do with blasphemy. Some Muslims invoke it but that’s a tangent democracies need no longer take.

The real issue is that freedom of speech has limits, by law and by social dictates (self-censorship).

Newspapers do not publish cartoons that may be hurtful, hateful, xenophobic or racist.

Do thinking people want to make the case for resurrecting the old caricatures of fat-lipped blacks, hook-nosed Jews or cross-eyed Chinese?

“I don’t find the cartoons offensive,” some people say. That’s not the point. Nor is it that some Muslims think so. That’s like invoking a lapsed Catholic to tell most Catholics what to think.

It’s best in a democracy “to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo is not too onerous,” writes Robert Wright in a thoughtful opinion page article in The New York Times. He is the author of The Moral Animal.

“Look, here’s an old depiction of Muhammad,” some others say, to discredit the assertion that Islam forbids depiction of the Prophet.

There’s no denying such depictions exist. Miniatures featured Muhammad in various scenes but only a few showed his face, while others blanked out the space. Some centuries ago, Muslims came to a consensus against such depictions.

We risk breaking the democratic balance when we poke people in the eye about their beliefs. Doing so to Muslims in these tense times is especially reprehensible.

The worldwide protests are being portrayed as the work of radicals or of such governments as Iran and Syria. Some no doubt are. But manipulating the public is not the exclusive preserve of Muslim radicals or Muslim governments.

Suggesting that only the fanatics are upset is to minimize the offence caused by what the United Church has called an “incitement to racial and religious hatred.”

Those defending the Danish newspaper keep saying it did not mean to offend Muslims. Really?

Here’s Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the drawings, talking about Danish Muslims: “This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with modern secular society — how much does an immigrant have to give up and how much does the receiving culture have to compromise.” And: “People are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that’s 5,000 miles away.”

Sympathy is also shown poor little liberal Denmark that can’t quite believe its portrayal abroad.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is in a coalition with the People’s party, which has called Danish Muslims “cancer cells” and “seeds of weeds.” It is pondering a total ban on Muslim immigration. Just think: Keeping people out because of their religion, in western Europe, in 2006.