Friday, February 03, 2006

A plague on all houses concerned

From the BBC:

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has condemned the decision by some European newspapers to reproduce cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as "disrespectful".

But he praised the UK media for its "considerable responsibility and sensitivity" for not publishing them.

He said freedom of speech did not mean an "open season" on religious taboos.
British Muslims are preparing to protest outside the Danish embassy in London, after the cartoons first appeared in a Danish newspaper.

What a strange world we live in. Strange enough for British papers to be called "responsible" and "sensitive", but things are stranger than that...

If Tony Blair had hung around to cast what would have been a deciding vote on the Religious Hatred Bill, it would now be illegal to print these cartoons in Britain.

Thankfully he didn’t, and the latest piece of ignorant New Labour nannying has been avoided. It is and should be perfectly legal in Britain to take the piss out of any religion, whether it is vicars on stage or cartoons in newspapers. Taking the piss is what being British is all about. No religious person has the right to demand that everyone else take his beliefs as seriously as he does.

But Straw is also right. That fact doesn’t mean that you are morally blameless if you publish any old tat that’s guaranteed to offend large numbers of people.

The cartoons in question can be found here.

A simple perusal will show you that as supposed satire they are unfunny, unsubtle and unfair. They crudely and ignorantly suggest that all Muslims are bombers.

In fact, it is only the halfwit fundamentalist element that bomb, and true to form, the halfwits are on the streets bellowing fury at all cartoonists Dutch, issuing fatwahs and generally engaging in all the other nonsense that gives religion a bad name.

That this would happen was entirely predictable. The French newspaper editors that re-published them en masse must have known it would happen. They did it not because of some pointless gesture about free speech – they already have free speech – but because they are provocative idiots.

The cartoons should have been ditched on grounds of quality alone. They’re embarrassing, and wise Muslims will ignore them.

But of course, the cartoons themselves couldn’t cause a fuss unless there were people on both sides looking for something to make a fuss about.

What causes the spark is usually neither here nor there, if the civilisations are desperate enough to clash.


martpol said...

A very level-headed analysis, Andrew. It must be exasperating for Muslim leaders trying to hold up the "most of us are perfectly normal people trying to get on with their lives" angle, to see extremists on the streets raving about a few cartoons.

Whether something is offensive is irrelevant; this is entirely subjective, and people should be prepared to be offended by all sorts of things. The real issue is whether something stirs up organised hatred and violence. In its original form, the ridiculous Parliamentary bill you refer to would have destroyed that distinction.

The cartoonists doubtless didn't want to go as far as stirring up hatred and violence; so it's an interesting irony that the target of their satire, the Islamic extremists, have.

Brit said...

I expect the original cartoonists and the Dutch paper didn't intend to stir up hatred and violence, but I find it hard to believe that the French papers didn't know what would happen.

To time this pointless 'freedom of speech' protest so soon after the Paris riots defies belief.

Duck said...

I'd have to say that the two civilizations in question have been in a fuss for awhile. Maybe only a few Muslims are actively bombing, but there is a large percentage of Muslims, perhaps a majority, that support the goals of the bombers, which is a world ruled by Sharia law. The cartoon is just a crude, flippant way of making the argument that Western Civ should be making in the face of this challenge, which is "Sharia over my dead body!". We can't pretend that there is a graceful, inoffensive way to make this argument.

Brit said...


I haven't got any stats to prove it, but my feeling is that the majority of Muslims just want to get on with earning a living, doing the shopping, watching TV etc.

Maybe the majority want the rule of Sharia law in the world in a vague, hypothetical way, in the same way that westerners 'want' democracy in the world, I don't know.

What 'argument' are these cartoons making? The one about heaven running out of virgins is a decent gag, but Mohammed with a bomb for a turban? Hardly insightful.

Don't get me wrong, I defend the right of the newspapers to print these hilarious japes, whatever the reaction. But I also defend my own right to call the French press idiots for doing it in the way they did.

If France Soir is 'advancing a debate', I'm a Dutch cartoonist's uncle.

(Incidentally, note that France Soir sacked their editor after this).

Peter Burnet said...

Well said, Brit, although I'm a little uneasy about your neat division of Muslims into wide-eyed fanatics ready to bomb us at the slightest offence and ordinary blokes trying to pay the mortgage who don't really give a you-know-what. I think there are many gradations in between, including many, many very devout and faithful Muslims who nonetheless choose us over them and who must be feeling horribly betrayed and frightened by all this.

This is about us, not them. 'Ya dance with the one that brung 'ya, and when freedom of speech turns into the right to taunt and offend our neighbours just because we fear and can't fathom their beliefs, we're on an ugly, dangerous road.

Hey Skipper said...


They crudely and ignorantly suggest that all Muslims are bombers.

Umm. No. Quality of art aside, they suggest that the Quran is used as justification for all manner of mayhem.

It is simply impossible to give the Quran any sort of close inspection without concluding it very much advocates precisely what Islamic terrorists are up to.

I haven't got any stats to prove it, but my feeling is that the majority of Muslims just want to get on with earning a living, doing the shopping, watching TV etc.

Here are some stats.

According to a Pew study of 12 majority Muslim countries, the percentage of respondents agreeing with the statement that suicide bombing is justifiable in the defense of Islam range from 73% in Lebanon to 13% in Turkey.

BTW -- the survey did not include Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, or Sudan.

We no longer need to append "Islamic" to "terrorist" because of the blatant redundancy. It hardly seems uncalled for to note that fact satirically.

What is astonishing is the seeming inability of far too many Muslims to understand the distinction between caricaturing religious justifications for wanton violence, and insulting their deities.

The cartoons very clearly did the former, not the latter.

If US newspapers cared a darn about freedom of speech, everyone of them would put the cartoons on the front page.

Instead, we are engaging in the sort of limp-wristed defense that characterized the British governments response during Salmon Rushdies tribulations.

Duck said...

I agree with you that the one depicting Mohammed would be offensive to a Muslim that just wanted to get along with his infidel neighbors, but such a Muslim should a) figure out that the real target of the cartoon was his brother in the un-get-along sect of Islam, and b) he should have figured out that getting along means shrugging off such random insults. If Akhmed Lunch-bucket can be driven into the jihad camp merely by a cartoon, then he wasn't much of a moderate to begin with.

Brit said...

I'm all for the War on Terror. I'm also clear that it is not a War on Islam.

These aren't the inhabitants of Islamastan somewhere overseas, these are Brits and Frenchmen who are also Muslim.

The Rushdie case was that of a man of genuine artistic merit being hounded for a genuine work of art. This ain't.

Now, newspapers should be allowed to publish offensive tat, I don't dispute that, but let's not start applauding them for it, or pretending that their freedom of speech is under threat.

Offending easily-offended people is like shooting fish in a barrel, and just as worthwhile. You could easily offend rightwing Christians with images celebrating abortion, or darwinists by comparing them endlessly to Nazis if you wished. So what? It's just a case of finding the right buttons to push.

This isn't a battle for the moral highground, it's a bunch of rats scrapping over the sewer.

Here's something we know will make you angry. Ha, You got angry! See! You shouldn't have got angry!

Hey Skipper said...


I'm also clear that it is not a War on Islam.

I'm clear that for an all too large portion of the Muslim world, it is a war of Islam against the rest of the world.

These aren't the inhabitants of Islamastan somewhere overseas, these are Brits and Frenchmen who are also Muslim.

If that was true, we wouldn't see pictures of protestors advocating all manner of physical mayhem against the cartoonists in particular, and British in general.

The Rushdie case was that of a man of genuine artistic merit being hounded for a genuine work of art.

Have you read Satanic Verses? While I happen to think it an extremely well written book, at heart it asserts the Quran was essentially made up on the fly. Hard to get more blasphemous than that, no matter how artistically put.

When it comes to blowing people up by scores, hundreds, and thousands, I happen to be easily offended. As such, I don't find anything the least out of the realm of political cartoonery to point out that the vast majority of those perpetrating such acts use the Quran as their justification.

If some Muslims get offended by that, then perhaps they should clean their theological fingers before pointing out someone else's spots.

Brit said...


Let me state once again, I condemn these fatheads who are calling death on all cartoonists as much as you do. Their actions and attitide are inexcusable.

But I also refuse to condone, much less praise, the publication of the cartoons, and the attitude that it represents.

You have to look at these things in their context. Muslims aren't just those extremisit hooligans hogging the camera lens on the evening news and waving burning flags. Those people are a small minority.

Even in Beirut they have to bus them in.

Muslims are also our doctors, dentists, restauranteurs, cabbies, olympic boxers, cricketers, work colleagues. They're also the police controlling these protesters. There are two in my offices here - they're perfectly nice and (dare one say it) 'secular' British people.

Now of course it is true that all Islamic terrorists are Islamic.

But we have to be very careful not to confuse the War on Terror with a War on Islam, and we (westerners and Muslims alike) have to be very careful not to begin the inexorable process of turning the Muslim into the Other, the Volksfeind.

In my opinion, these cartoons say nothing insightful or new about Islam and Terror. So atrocities have been carried out in the name of the Koran. Well, no sh*t, Sherlock. That fact is on our TV screens and in our papers 24/7.

These cartoons aren't wittily pointing out some hidden truth we've all overlooked. They're a crude expression of a growing European Fear and Loathing of Islam.

We have to be very careful not to let 'freedom of expression' become an excuse for Fear and Loathing propaganda - it's a slippery path. There are fine lines here, obviously.

Having said all that, I will acknowledge that the moderate Muslims should do more to condemn the kind of hysterical behaviour we see from the protestors. Either that or the mainstream media needs to do more to broadcast moderate views. I do hear them, but it seems like it's only ever on BBC Radio 4, and never on BBC television news.

Peter Burnet said...


Is your your notion of tolerance this guy's?

Brit, this whole issue of the silence of the moderate Muslim is really troubling. I can easily get myself into paroxyms of rage at their silence and general tolerance of the revolting anti-Semitism that pervades Muslimland. We will need to keep our powder dry for a long time. OTOH, I have also found from searching in reponse to BrosJudd debates that, whenever a bombing or terrorist attack occurs, there are plenty of moderate Muslims, clerics and spokesmen speaking out very quickly and unequivocally (and, let's admit it, with great courage that none of us can be sure we would emulate), but, as you hint, our press isn't nearly as interested in them as in the marching, screaming loonies. We are more thrilled by extremism and, sadly, more respectful of it.

I fear that what is happening in the West is that we have been assuming all along that, rather than a civil war that has spilled over to us, this is one big modernization process that we bestow on them--and they had better appreciate it. Over and over again, with dog-earred copies of Bernard Lewis and "The Koran for Dummies" in hand, we repeat that they are failed societies producing nothing of value and that, as sure as God made the little green apples, the scales will fall from their eyes one day and they will see how backward they are and embrace our ways. When they don't, we get contemptuous and fall into "Then, death to you and your gods" mode pretty quickly and we become really quite frightened---does not compute, etc. You can see this on womens' issues. We convince ourselves that honour killings are everyday events and that women from Tangiers to Jakarta are horribly oppressed and waiting for liberation, only to confront the fact that hardly any Muslim women will attack Islam itself no matter how activist, and that includes the sophisticated and educated ones. We simply can't digest that the overwhelming majority say: "No thanks, we want change and we do need you for some of that, but we mainly prefer our ways and there are many things about yours we really don't like at all." And because we can no longer draw a line between freedom and Howard Stern, we get migraines.

In other words, we're back in 19th century missionary mode with nukes and an eschatological impulse. We can't seem to get it through our thick skulls that they aren't going to go away and they aren't going to stop being Muslims and they aren't going to look to us for inspiration on religious reform. We have the ordnance, thank goodness, but they appear to know who they are better than we, who seem to need an atrocity or two to recover any clarity and consensus about what we stand for and why.

In the meantime, let's buy Mr. Jenkins a drink.

Brit said...


Thanks for the Jenkins link. He was rotten on Iraq (I think his shift left led to his defection to the Guardian) but that's a great article from the former Times editor.

When I see TV images of protesters screaming and burning flags, before I draw any lessons from it I now remind myself of the period just before the Iraq invasion, when the anti-war movement was at its peak.

Our local news showed images of an anti-war demonstration in the centre of Bristol. To look at it, with the low hand-held camera amidst the shouting mob, you'd think the world was coming to an end and the whole populace of Bristol was, in every sense, revolting.

Soon after, I had to drive through the area, and past the demonstration.

And suddenly I was given a huge dose of perspective. It amounted to a relatively small band of noisy hippies - a few hundred sure, but less people than were in the nearest pub - surrounded by a big empty space, with a few bemused shoppers looking on, and the press and photographers up close amongst them.

That told me a lot about TV news.

Hey Skipper said...


From what I read, the attitude those cartoons represented, the whole reason for their existence, was to highlight self-censorship in the face of Muslim threats.

While I understand your objection, I think it contradicts itself. Most of those cartoons I saw, to the extent they had a point (some I couldn't figure out as saying anything, one way or the other) were caricaturing the inclination on the part of some Muslims to use the Quran as justification for their actions.

To that extent, then, the cartoons simply weren't aimed at those Muslims who are our neighbors, friends, etc. Those cartoons aren't directed at Islam, but Islamists; they don't ridicule Mohammed, they ridicule what some do in Mohammed's name. The rioting, burning of buildings, and threats of violence we have already seen, and the bombings to come, serve to underscore the cartoons' point. Any political cartoon is a caricature; some contain a grain of truth. Regardless of one's aesthetic judgments, these cartoons do indeed carry much more than a grain of truth.

Speaking of internal contradictions, there is the oft repeated mantra that the cartoons are blasphemous simply because they depict Mohammed. We must discard that notion right out of hand. The cartoonists are not Muslims; Quranic strictures simply do not apply to them. It is no more blasphemous that the cartoonists depicted Mohammed than it would be if they ate pork, or associate in public with women who are not wives, mothers, or daughters. No religion gets to impose its particular strictures on those with other beliefs. Essentially all other religions on the planet have taken that on board. It is time all Islam, in its entirety, do the same. Given the explicit contents of the Quran, though, I suspect that is far easier said than done.

You suggest that they are an expression of a growing European fear and loathing of Islam. To the extent such a thing is true, and I suspect it is, then that seems to make the subject ripe for political cartooning, as well as any other manner of speech.

I would be a lot more sympathetic to Muslim annoyance if it wasn't so grotesquely hypocritical. The same governments, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for two examples, who fomented this whole thing in the first place, are precisely those who encourage the most vicious forms of religious slander.


Criminy. You get up even earlier than I do.

My notion of tolerance is tied up in "sticks and stones can break my bones ..."

You bring up some good points about leaping to assumptions that Islam will simply see the light, and fully embrace our ways. While I think they, not we, are the ones who fall into the "death to you and your Gods" mode, you are basically correct.

Unfortunately, the societies producing the Islamists are, in fact, failed societies working on models that would propel the world a long way back towards the stone age if adopted globally. There seems precious little understanding among many Muslims that the material fruits of technological progress go hand-in-hand with the freedom, without fear of physical retribution or government intervention, to criticize anything. The two are conjoined twins, impossible to separate.

Unfortunately, given the rather explicit contents of the Quran, I find little reason for optimism. Muslims require far more selective amnesia about their revealed text than Christians ever required in order to come to terms with modernity.

One may argue as to whether modernity is something anyone should have to come to terms with. But it seems no one, outside the odd, and instructive, Talibanesque grotesquery, chooses to reject modernity.

Brit said...


I think we interpret the cartoons very differently.

The Prophet with the bomb for a turban seems to be the one found most offensive, so let's take that.

I see it as quite crudely stating "Islam = Bombing".

If they were saying the more subtle "Look how these few extemist idiots abuse Islam to justify bombing", I would expect to see a more subtle cartoon.

I can invent better jokes than those cartoons off the top of my head. Perhaps a group of suicide bombers listening to an elder in a Mosque saying "And do not be afraid of death. Now farewell and go in peace, and don't forget to leave today by the west door", and filtering out most of his words until they were left with "".

Or maybe a Bible-codes skit where a bomber uses some absurdly tortuous method of reading the Koran until he can 'discover' that it is telling him to blow up a tube train on the Bakerloo line.

If the cartoons were at that sort of level, I would not have the objections. As it is, they are childish jibes, which I interpret as "We don't understand this religion, but it scares us."

Hey Skipper said...


Clearly we interpret the meaning of that specific cartoon differently. (Note: when I use the term "Muslims" in what follows, it is shorthand for those who are exercised over this issue to the point of threatening violence. This does not apply to those Muslims who understand that it is part and parcel of free speech to be offended upon occasion. If all Muslims possessed that attitude, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now.)

There is no way to guarantee, a priori, to what extent someone will be offended by something we say or do. Obviously, based upon societal norms, we can make some pretty darn good educated guesses. Within the norm of Danish society, or essentially any other in the West, such a cartoon could well be guessed, assumed even, to cause offense.

So what. Frequently, the point of political cartoons is to cause offense. The question at hand here is what anyone, including Muslims, is entitled to do with that offense, within the realm of Danish society.

They are entitled to protest, and boycott, and any other of a number of means to express displeasure that fall short of the threat or actuality of physical violence.

Oh yeah, they are also entitled to not view the offending material.

Or if none of that works, they are also entitled to use their return tickets.

Muslims, within the context of Danish society, are not entitled to expect that their beliefs, or the material manifestations thereof, are somehow off limits to examination or criticism. Not only is such a thing inconsistent with Danish society, the place where this particular instance of free political speech took place, it is beyond hubris to claim for themselves what they do not afford to others.

It is also beyond hubris, even further, if that is possible, for Muslims to claim any sort of offense whatsoever at others' failing to adhere to their religious strictures, even when that applies to their own religious icons.

Are Muslims (any of them, this time) entitled be offended? Yes, except that a greater or lesser proportion of them may do so only while wallowing in hypocrisy.

But if they are going to get along in Western society, Muslims are going to have to take on board that no matter that the Quran says to do kill unbelievers, they aren't entitled to do so. The alternative is a bloody trail of Theo van Goghs every time someone has the temerity to suggest that Islam is, in fact, not the religion of peace, unless that peace is bought by submitting to the most hypersensitive Islamist to be found.

Yes, you can think of better jokes, or more effective & less offensive ways of making the point, whether it is yours or mine.

But that isn't what this is all about, and which is why I can't bring myself to wish a metaphorical pox upon the Danish cartoonists or newspaper (until they went spineless, anyway).

Brit said...

I don't deny the right of anyone to publish something that's guaranteed to cause offensive to certain over-sensitive people.

But I would reserve the right to tell that publisher that he's an arrogant, rude fool for doing so, and to tell him not to complain about any consequences when they are so blatantly forseeable.

It's also a question of basic courtesy and respect.

I don't deny your freedom to, for example, march up to an obese person and inform them that they are fat and ugly. But I wouldn't be patting you on the back for doing it.

Hey Skipper said...


(Note: Venting follows. I wish I could turn on the venting thing at will, because it causes all writing blocks to immediately crumble.)

So cartoons poking fun at obese, lazy, fast-food loving, serial TV remote abusing, Americans should be avoided in future?

Of course not, because the caricatures make a valid point about the consequences of such actions.

Just as these cartoons do. Fundamentalist belief in the explicit words of the Quran leads to blowing people up.

(This Detroit Free Press cartoon makes essentially the same point. Does it become acceptable because there is no image of Mohammed, or is it unacceptable because of the underlying message?)

Now we in the US are left with the extremely odd situation where the press is reporting widespread riots over these cartoons, while eliding the casus belli.

Which is precisely the self-censorship that this whole kerfuffle was about in the first place. Our newspapers refuse to publish any of these cartoons, thereby depriving their readers the ability to make up their own minds as to the merits of the rioters' case.

As for courtesy and respect, I am utterly unmoved. Religion is a well spring of malevolence and disrespect; claims of immunity from criticism or mockery should be immediately run up the flagpole for the thoroughgoing nonsense that they are.

When Dennis Prager writes a column that says you are incapable of acting morally because of your religious beliefs, how is that any different from these cartoons?

Finally, I must note that the irony meter is back in the red again. Per your observation sometime ago about attempts at censorship being completely self-defeating: Had Muslims not said a word about these cartoons, they would have slipped quickly into historical anonymity.

Instead, they are getting splattered all over the world.

I think that is what you would call scoring an "own goal."

Brit said...

The Detroit cartoon you link to cleverly and clearly takes a swipe at fundamentalism.

The Danish cartoons are meant to represent 'what the Prophet means to the cartoonists'.

***The debate continues at the Daily Duck... ***

Harry Eagar said...

I just don't get the argument that the cartoons were not great art. It's OK to insult people with style but not crudely?

I've seen that argument over and over again, too.

I also do not recall that the (entirely hypothetical) moderate Muslims raised any outcry when the Afghans were blowing up the statues of Buddha.

Selective outrage doesn't cut ANY ice with me.

Professor Glenn Reynolds summed it up in very few words: If you want your religion not to be mocked, it helps to have a reputation for senseless violence.

Finally, the argument of the cartoons was the fact of their publication. No more.

And no more was necessary.

A lot of infidels have been telling themselves and each other that Muslims are just like us. They aren't just like us. They have one response to everything.

Brit said...


The difficulty we have here is that my world view is nowhere near as strongly anti-religious as yours.

In your world, moderate Muslims are 'entirely hypothetical'.

If you came to my world, I could introduce you to plenty of living, breathing examples.

Ever been on a package holiday to Turkey?

Duck said...

Someday soon I'll make it to England, and I'd love to share a pint with you and some of your Muslim friends - as long as they have no problems associating with a French American. ;-)

Brit said...


Skipper has been making vague intimations in that direction, too. If you make it over here, give us a shout definitely. I'll take you out for a curry...

( Maybe in Finsbury Park...:) )

Duck said...

What would be the ideal time to visit? I'd love to see a cricket match, what is the season for cricket? I promised an old friend from the Marines I'd visit him this summer (in California), but fall might be a good time.

Brit said...


The cricket season runs from mid-April to mid-September, ie. the English 'summer' - and I use that word with all due caution.

As an attention span-deficient Yank you'd probably enjoy the Twenty20 form of the game most - it's a shorterned version of the game, all over in a couple of hours, with the batsmen smashing the ball all over the place, plus coloured kits (uniforms), BBQs on the boundary and lots of razamatazz.

Or you could brave a day of the purist's version: all the players in white, a few old codgers in the stands, and 4 days of playing that usually end in a draw, or Rain Stopped Play.

For real fun and a flavour of the game though, you'd want to see an international game. England are hosting Pakistan and India this summer, but tickets are very difficult to get hold of.

However, as a patron of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club I could explain the finer points of the game to you in the comfort of the members' bar.

Duck said...

Are spectators allowed to drink during the match?

Brit said...

It's practically required at cricket matches.

The only sport where you can't drink in the ground during the game is football (soccer).