Monday, January 30, 2006
  Freedom of Expression
A Danish newspaper today offered an apology to Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular for publishing twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This is after a furor in the Middle East -- the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia's consul, a lawsuit by the United Arab Emirates, and a boycott of Danish goods which made a drastic reduction in sales.

Now, the apology may have been justified as some of the cartoons weren't particularly nice -- like the one that shows Muhammad with a bomb for a turban, or the one that depicts him with devil horns. I mean, really, if someone painted Jesus or Buddha with horns, one would expect some objection. The issue at hand, clearly, is not merely the depiction of Muhammad as some would have it, but also the way in which he was depicted.

Many of the cartoons, however, reflected ironically on the newspaper that put out a call for the cartoons in the first place. One shows the editor of the paper wearing a turban with a bomb labeled pr tucked in amongst the folds, another shows Muhammad as a modern teacher writing on a blackboard "Jylland-Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provacatuers." Clearly, some of the artists were suspicious of the paper's motives in putting forth this call -- was it just to sell more papers, or was it really to test the limits of free speech?

Either way, the cartoons do raise some serious issues.

1) Where do the limits of free speech lie? Internationally, the standard seems to be that anything goes, so long as you aren't actively encouraging people to harm others. The question remains though as to what what may encourage someone to harm others. Does it have to be something direct, like saying, go find a Muslim and kick him in the balls for Jill Carroll's sake? Or can something that reinforces negative stereotypes, and hatred of an entire people be sufficient?
Certainly many of the cartoons did just that -- reinforcing the notion that Muslims are irrational, violent, big nosed, sword wielding turban wearers.

There is a reason so many groups have challenged stereotypical portrayals -- from the Jews, to the Italians and Irish and Poles, to African Americans and Latinos -- and that is because stereotyping does indeed lead to harm to real people. Whether it be discrimination on the job, in school, in the housing market, stereotyping makes it difficult for people to live their lives. Does anyone really think that encouraging the notion that all muslims are violent and irrational will help resolve current tensions between Europeans and Muslims? Of course not.

However, facing this reality, is the opposite reality that it is impossible to regulate speech without the world turning into a replica of a Barney video. Are you going to outlaw sarcasm? Irony? Articles or stories that deal with real problems facing us? How can you possibly draw the line?

To me, it's clear that freedom of expression must be upheld, even the freedom to say hateful, horrible things. Hand in hand with that, though, must be an equality of opportunity, of access to the mass media. The Danish paper thankfully didn't supress the cartoons that took it to task for scandal mongering; and while it would have been nice if they could have found one cartoonist that was able to capture something of Prophet Muhammad's humanity, his wisdom and gentleness, his adherence to honesty and justice, I suppose it's not very surprising that his good qualities are not much touted in non-Muslim circles.

Unfortunately, all too often, it is difficult to get ideas contrary to the prevailing ones heard. Me writing on my blog doesn't quite carry the reach of even the smallest of newspapers. (Not yet at least, maybe after my books get published and reach best seller status. *wink*)

2) What is the appropriate reaction to hateful speech? I find the boycott of Danish goods, the removal of ambassadors and lawsuits against the paper to be rather out of proportion. After all, a lot worse is going on in the world than a few people drawing some pictures. Withdraw your ambassador because the US is adventuring in Iraq, maybe. Or because they rubber stamp oil corporations who would very much like to suck all the profit of natural resources which should be used to build the infrastructure of the countries beneath whose soil the oil lies. Yeah.

But all this furor because someone depicted prophet Muhammad? Heck, Muslims themselves have depicted Prophet Muhammad, such as in this picture where he is shown being carried by Gabriel, or these where he is shown without a face, or this one where Gabriel is presenting him the city of Madinah.

To be honest, such depictions would no doubt be condemned by the people who condemned the Danish cartoons -- the consensus for the greater part of Muslim history has been that drawing the Prophet is a big no-no. Some refuse to draw any of the major historical figures; others believe it is forbidden to draw any animal life, including people. But the point still remains that a handful of silly drawings is nothing compared to the real injustices that are occurring in many parts of the Muslim world.

My idea of an appropriate response -- a calm explanation that drawing (or acting the role of) goes against our religious teachings, which we'd really like for you to honor, and if you're not going to, then please don't insult our Prophet by portaying him as something he wasn't. I'd probably stop buying the paper myself. If I was in a position to be placing ads, my marketing dollars would go to other outlets. But lawsuits, recalling ambassadors, and boycotting all Danish products... umm, no.
I've thought about this one a lot, and I've come to the conclusion that this has all played out very badly for the Muslims. I'm quite certain, knowing the reputation of Jyllands-Posten and sway of the Danish People's Party from friends with roots in Denmark that this was a strategem to alienate Muslims from Danish society and encouraging Denmark to make its highly restrictive immigration policies even more restrictive. It was obvious from some of the portrayals that they were intending to incite a backlash, not merely seeing if a backlash would occur. So I wouldn't believe their self-aggrandizing nonsense about standing for free speech--they wanted a scandal and got one. Unfortunately, some Muslims sent death threats, so we are told, and this only strengthens the position of the far-right xenophobes in Danish politics.

The same Islamophobia is ongoing in Western Europe as it is in the U.S. There are calls for the immigrant community to assimilate and reflect the country's native values, but such calls are framed in such a way as to require that they lose their religious identity first, rather than incorporating Islam as a facet of what being a Dane, German, French, Swede, etc. can be. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was sensitive to these trends and made a great film about it called Angst essen Seele auf (English title: Fear Eats the Soul) about an ill-fated interracial love affair between a young Moroccan man and an elderly white German woman.

I think the best comment about this was in the International Herald Tribune:

In Norrebro, an ethnically mixed neighborhood of Copenhagen where the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is buried and where kebab stands dot the tree-lined streets, Imam Ahmed Abu-Laban, a leader of Denmark's Muslim community, bristles at what he calls the "Islam-phobia" gripping the country.

Abu-Laban asserted that the cartoons had been calculated to incite Muslims since it was well-known that in Islam, depictions of the prophet are considered blasphemy.

"We are being mentally tortured," he said from his mosque, in an anonymous building that looks more like an apartment complex than a house of worship. "The cartoons are an insult against Islam, an attempt by right-wing forces in this country to get a rise out of the Muslim community and so portray us as against Danish values."


I think you're probably right that it was deliberate provocation. Just like the charity workers who insist on serving pork soup know full well that they are being provocative. Just like the Van Gogh/Hirsi Ayan films with Qur'an on the bodies of abused women. They do it to shock, and to get a reaction, so they can then talk about how un-European (read uncivilized) Muslims are.

It is Europe's job to come to grips with it's Muslim population, many of whom are there as a direct result of Europe's colonizing past.
And it's their job to confront the appalling xenophobia which once appeared as anti-semitism, and now is rearing it's head as anti-Islamism, and which laid the foundations for their earlier colonial adventures. Until Europeans can deal with that issue, this same problem is going to reappear over and over.

It the Muslims job, my job, to deal with the crap that happens in our house -- the things we do that make stereotyping easy. Fact of the matter is there are Muslim countries where women must go niqabed. There are many, many Muslim men who take advantage of what was meant to be an exceptional permission to promote polygamy as a way of life. We have men and women saying stupid things like women can't lead prayers because they have sexy butts. (Heck, I WISH my butt were that sexy!) We have writers being condemned to death for expressing their opinion. We have honor killings, we have fgm, we have rampant anti-semitism, all of which, every singe item of which flies in the face of the Qur'an. We want people to respect Islam and the Prophet, we've got to clean up our house.

Europe needs to clean up their act, and so do we.
I agree entirely, although I think in a way it may be easier for the reformist Muslims. At least there's a set of standards which explicitly say that there is no compulsion in religion, that killing innocent people is wrong, and so on. Sunni Sister said something especially eloquent when she said, albeit in a wholly different context, "The problems of shirk and bid’a take place in the heart and mind...". It is true, and unfortunately the extremists don't recognize that one's outer appearance and behavior isn't always a reflection of one's innermost thoughts, especially when compelled. If the extremists take over they would create a form of Islam but it would be hollow at its heart, because they confuse submission to the will of men with submission to Allah.

What irritates me as a non-Muslim who has read not only the Qur'an and Hadiths, but also on the history of Islam, is that I'm convinced that not only is it possible for reformist Islam to exist, but it's already there and just has to be recognized. When I hear non-Muslims talking about Islam, they almost invariably have no idea what it is, but are convinced that it's always inimical to reform. That kind of thing is never useful. If you treat people as if their religion itself is the problem, you strengthen the extremists' hand and weaken a collaboration of Westerners and reformist elements in Islam, because they'll be perceived as turncoats for making common cause with people who rightly or wrongly are perceived as doing nothing but attacking Islam.

I wish you luck, because I would like nothing more than to see a new Islam arise which is not dependent on obeisance to un-Islamic cultural notions falsely sanctified as true Islam. It seems so counterproductive to for the Islamic world to retreat into itself, gripping its cultural baggage firmly, when the religion itself calls its believers to spread their word to the world.
Post a Comment

<< Home

My Photo
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

Recent Posts

October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
July 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
February 2013
March 2013
April 2013
July 2013