Monday, February 06, 2006

Those Cartoons…

Who ever would have thought that a few cartoons would lead to embassies being ransacked? (Technically, apparently, this is an act of war). Personally, I’ve got to admit that I find the whole furore depressing. Little that has occurred says much positive about the respective “sides” in this debate.

What follows are – approximately – my thoughts on the matter:

The Cartoons Themselves

They are gratuitous and offensive; what’s worse, the worst of the cartoons (Mohammad, with a bomb super-imposed over his turban) reinforces a too-commonly held (and profoundly untrue) prejudice in much of the Western World: that all Muslims are terrorists. My whole feelings on the episode might have been quite different if the cartoons were simply depictions of Mohammad (which, according to the Wikipedia at least, isn’t directly prohibited in the Koran, and which is tolerated by most Shi’a and many Sunni Muslims).

The Republications of the Cartoons in Two New Zealand Newspapers

Two New Zealand Newspapers re-published some of the cartoons (the Dom Post and the Christchurch Press). I’ll focus my attentions here on the Dom as it’s Wellington’s local paper.

It doesn’t really surprise me – given the joy that some of the Dom’s editorial team (and senior journalists) appear to get from kicking vulnerable sections of society – that they were one of those “brave” newspapers who felt it necessary to “defend free speech” by republishing the cartoons*. Such was their right. But were they displaying any responsibility in exercising it? Not in my mind. After all, in this case, freedom of speech could have simply been defended by an editorial criticising the actions of the protestors and supporting other paper’s right to publish the cartoons. Publishing the cartoons themselves, on the other hand, without explicitly criticising them (and neither the Dom’s editorial nor its other comment on the matter does this) is very hard to read as anything but tacit endorsement of the subject matter. Particularly, given that their two alternate explanations for publication are unconvincing: letting readers see what all the fuss was about; and defending free speech.

The first of these explanations is disingenuous to say the least: Um, guys, ever heard of the internet? Ever thought that simple descriptions might suffice? On top of this I can think of all sorts of other areas where the Dom hasn’t bothered to show its readers what ‘all the fuss was about’ in the past (White Phosphorous burnt bodies in Iraq etc…)

And the second reason is just silly: freedom of speech in New Zealand isn’t under threat or, at least, it isn’t from the country’s Muslim population, who – thus far – have protested only peacefully. On the other hand free speech – which doesn’t actually exist here anyhow – is under threat from other directions. Like the chief censor banning an issue of the Canterbury University magazine 'Critic'. Right in our own back yard! Yet the Dom has hardly been at the forefront of protesting this. Which begs the question: why did it leap into the free speech fray on the particular issue of cartoons and Muslim sensibilities, and not on other such issues? You can draw your own conclusions on this one.

The Actions of the Protestors and Certain Governments

Yet while I don’t think the Dom should have published the photos; I’m certainly no apologist for the actions of some of the protestors. Not all of the protestors by any means: all protests thus far in New Zealand have been dignified and peaceful, and many of the protestors in Europe have been similarly law abiding (and, as such, have been exercising another important right – the right to protest). But some of the protestors in Europe, and a lot of the protests that have taken place in the Middle East, have been violent and threatening. And this is completely reprehensible. And very worrying (as I will discuss below).

Much of the protest (at least that which is taking place in some Middle Eastern Countries) is also completely hypocritical given that these countries are regularly home to anti-Semitic cartoons, movies and TV shows (warning: the ADL link contains offensive cartoons). Memo to the Middle East press: if you want to criticise racism (and you should), you’ll do so much more effectively if you move beyond racism yourselves.

And What Does All This Mean

Of course all these points are trivial when compared to a much bigger question. How can we move forward in our relations with the Muslim world? Or, indeed, can we move forward at all, or are we inescapably heading towards a clash of civilisations? Personally, I don’t think that any such clash is inevitable. And – even if one did occur – I doubt it would pose an existential threat to the West in the same way that Fascism did. But any 'clash' which does occur (and even the clashlets that currently sprinkle the globe at present) will lead to suffering, and this is something we ought to strive to avoid. The question is how though? To an extent I think that certain military responses can be justified in combating Islamic extremism; and I certainly think that some Police responses are. But, at the same time, when fighting against something as nebulous as an idea, the ultimate battle (unless you want to turn into a police sate, or engage in endless war) is a fight for hearts and minds. And, in this particular case, it ought not to be such a hard battle to win. Really and truly I think that given the choice (behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance say) between a tolerant, prosperous and pluralistic society, and a totalitarian pre-modern theocracy, the vast majority of people will choose the former. The trouble is that, at present, we aren’t offering the former as an alternative to the latter. We are half offering it at best. Our actions in the Middle East are (largely) self-serving and hypocritical. And, in our own countries, we tend to subject Muslim immigrants (and their descendants) to racial prejudice as well as stuffing them down the bottom of the socio-economic heap. None of which is to excuse the actions of Osama Bin Laden or to say that we should never actively fight against him and his ilk. What I’m simply saying is we’d do a lot better at this if we were a bit more just ourselves.

Human Rights (and wrongs)

Along with causing me to worry about Huntingtonian clashes of civilisations, the matter of the cartoons also, in my mind, explains why rights – human rights – aren’t always as easy to protect as you would hope.

Now let me be clear here. I strongly support the ideal of human rights. You only have to look at situations like Rwanda to see why placing the protection of human rights ought to be at the forefront of national and international actions. Moreover, I reject post-modernist critiques that argue along the lines of “human rights are a Western construction”. Nonsense! Human rights are exactly what they claim to be – a reflection of elements of the human condition that are universal (aversion to torture, aversion to seeing your children gassed to death etc.) Sure plenty of cultures have ignored them, but when you scratch under the surface of this, elites in these cultures (the people calling the shots) were usually pretty active in trying to protect their own human rights (or at least approximations of them). The only premise you need is that all human beings are equal. From there human rights follow.

What really makes makes human rights difficult, however, is the fact that rights are – too an extent – rivalrous That is: my use of a particular human right can diminish your ability to enjoy another such right. Or, for example, if I use my right to freedom of speech to persecute a minority, I will be diminishing their right to live free of persecution. Or, to get back to the original point, if I publish a cartoon that perpetuates a negative stereotype of an already somewhat threatened minority in my country, I am engaging in a pretty bloody irresponsible use of my own right. Dom Post, take a bow here.

None of this means that we should abandon the concept of human rights just because things get tricky at times (sound effect: the wailing of the baby as it goes out with the bath water). But it does mean that a certain level of maturity and consideration (as opposed to chest beating) is required when considering how we put our rights to use.


Amongst all the mess there has been some good news as well though. For example, like I already mentioned, thus far, all protest on the matter in New Zealand has been peaceful.

And much protest in other places has been the same.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, showed why he is clearly one of the best reasons for hope in the wreck of post invasion Iraq by condemning the images but also extreme protests.

The NZ Herald didn’t run the cartoons. And published a great editorial explaining why.

Worth Reading

Personally, I’ve found the following articles/posts useful reading in framing my thoughts on the matter (which is not to say that I agree with everything said in the following links).

This Observer article on the affair is great.

The Wikipedia is informative (and, surprise surprise, locked down).

The excellent Tze Ming Mok has a great Public Address column.

And – also from Public Address – Russell Brown has a good, link rich, column on the topic. In particular he points out that the Arab press isn’t the only home to free speech hypocrisy, the right wing New Zealand blogosphere does that just fine too, thank you very much.

The Guardian provides a summary of the views of the English press on the controvery (no English papers have published the cartoons).

Simon Jenkins also has an interesting take on rights and how they are used (one which I don’t completely agree with but have some sympathy for).

The Guardian has an excellent debate on decisions to publish or not; one in which Gary Younge (as always) says things clearer and more eloquently than I ever could.

While Brownie at Harry’s Place talks some sense on the English press not publishing (warning offensive cartoons in the link).

And finally, Norightturn feels differently from me, but makes a good argument.

[Update: Johann Hari feels differently too; while Timothy Garton Ash contributes intelligently]

[Update 2: I've just been through and tidied up grammer and writing - all the points have remained though].

* Just by happy co-incidence the Danish paper that originally published the cartoons was pro-fascist before WW2; at the same time the Dominion (one of the predecessors to the Dom Post) was host to an openly anti-Semitic columnist, (or at least it was according to a Jewish lecturer from Victoria University, who I have no reason to doubt on the matter). Of course, neither paper is openly pro-Fascist or anti-Semitic nowadays. But neither of them have proud pedigrees in these areas.


Neal said...


Up to a point I agree with you. Which is to say that it is not appropriate to offend people intentionally.

On the other hand, I do not sign onto the theory that the cartoons were perceived as being quite as offensive as is now claimed and I note that even more offensive cartoons about the Muslim prophet have been published on numerous occasions in Europe - and not in the distant past - without raising a stir.

Further, the same cartoons were published in Egypt shortly after they were published in Denmark. No one said booh about that. There were no death threats and no demands for an apology.

Moreover, the rise in the temperature occurred months after the cartoons were first published. Such, as you know, occurred after some imams visited the Middle East from Denmark. Such imams carried with them additional cartoons that were far, far more offensive. They made the rounds in that region in order to stir up a fuss. Presumably, they did so for political purposes.

I note this commentary from a Pakistani newspaper:

What we have seen therefore is clear evidence of a globalised Muslim world on the march. Islamist NGOs, parties, movements, civil society groups, media outlets and politicians have mobilised Muslims and got them on the streets to demonstrate the will of the Muslim masses and — more importantly — the power of the Muslim dollar. The boycott of Danish goods has shown that the Muslim dollar has clout — Muslims are rich, by the way — and that the Muslim dollar can make or break Western economies.

So the issue here is not really, I think, quite as simple as it seems. We have, in a sense, a power play pushed by imams where they show they can arouse the masses - something which is evidently not difficult to do and, it would appear, they created even more offensive cartoons just in case the masses were not aroused by what was actually published -. Now, their purpose is something else. My contention is that they mean to have substantial influence over European society and policy.

Again, that is not a reason to insult people's religious myths intentionally. And, of course, our values call on us to stand with those from our civilization where freedom of speech is a higher value than an occasionally offensive cartoon.

Neal said...


Some more about the reasons for reaction in Muslim countries where little can occur without government tolerance of it:

Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at the American University in Beirut, said that for Arab governments resentful of the Western push for democracy, the protests presented an opportunity to undercut the appeal of the West to Arab citizens. The freedom pushed by the West, they seemed to say, brought with it disrespect for Islam.

He said the demonstrations "started as a visceral reaction — of course they were offended — and then you had regimes taking advantage saying, 'Look, this is the democracy they're talking about.' "

The protests also allowed governments to outflank a growing challenge from Islamic opposition movements by defending Islam.

Terence said...

hi Neal,

just breifly:

yes it has been interesting to discover just how much of the 'dissent' over the cartoons was manufactured.

In my mind this is actually something of a releif: had the anger been spontaneous then this would be indicative of a situation where the "clash of civilisations" was more likely. However, given that the Mullahs had to whip up dissent and that, in Europe it was actually pretty small even then and passed relatively quickly, this would suggest that maybe things aren't that bad afterall.

your other points above are all interesting - I will try and comment more soon.

Neal said...


Regarding your "clash of civilizations" comment, I managed to read Huntington's book. I note that he does not posit quite what the average reader takes from the noted term. Which is to say, he is not really predicting a clash of civilizations. Rather, his point is that the conflicts likely to occur - and conflicts are part of the stuff, after all, of history - are likely, with the fall of the bipolar US-USSR political system, to pit people and nations against each other with the dividing line - not necessarily the cause - being, more often than not, between nations or people from different civilizations and with such conflicts finding fuel (e.g. so that they cannot be easily settled) due, in part, to civilizational differences.

I am not quite sure about the basis for your relief. The Muslim regions are filled - and note the statistics on the Arab regions in particular - with an extraordinary number of illiterate people - and the percentage of illiterate is truly astounding -. Such people are ripe for manipulation. And, any close study of the Jihadists shows them to be, by and large, led by the educated elite and religious scholars and preachers. Now, the educated elite and religious scholars and preachers themselves do - and such is noted by a wide variety of scholars - seek a conflict with the West. And such people manipulate the ignorant masses.

The assumption you make about a "clash of civilizations" is that it involves the masses rising up. My understanding of what is more accurately termed a Jihad - and I avoid the Huntington phrase as, to me, it tends to obscure rather than to explain at least my point - is that it is a top down matter, with the elite leading and the masses following. Such is the norm, historically speaking, for wars: which is to say, the elite have a goal and they convince the poor and undereducated to die for that cause. Of course, there have been quite a number of educated Muslims who have died fighting their Medieval Jihad (e.g. Mohammed Atta - civil engineer). To me, knowing that there is an ideology which demands war - and the Jihadists have one - and knowing that the Jihadists are capable of manipulating the masses tells me that the dispute is likely, over time, to become worse and worse, with, eventually, large numbers of people dying. So, to me, I find the manipulation far more significant than some spontaneous people screaming their lungs out about some offensive cartoon.