Scandinavian Cartoon Controversy: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Not all publicity is good (see larger)

Once again, publicity-hungry fanatics are trying to “save Islam” from the mortal threat of publicity-hungry Scandinavian cartoonists. If saving the image of Islam required murdering every feeble-minded attempt to demean Islam, with friends like these violent terrorists, Islam would need no enemies. To paraphrase the U.S. general justifying imperialist genocide in Vietnam in the 1960’s, the fanatics seem to be saying that “It became necessary to destroy the image of Islam in order to save it.” Murder and mayhem in the name of a religion of peace?

According to the fanatics, Islam – a religion which historically came to liberate and free the minds as witnessed by the extraordinary enlightenment it brought with it to medieval Spain, helping trigger the European Renaissance – is now too weak to withstand even the most pathetic of slurs against it. Notwithstanding the fact that the murderous psychopaths of Al Qaeda in Iraq represent no one but themselves and despite the fact that Islam expressly and absolutely forbids the killing of civilians under any circumstances, the same European cartoonists who, in the past, demonized an entire faith (Judaism) when it was safe to do so, now feel empowered to dehumanize another Semitic religion (Islam) instead, portraying it as a somehow inherently – and uniquely – bloodthirsty and warlike.

If Islam is too often distorted by violent, self-appointed defenders, how does the concept of free speech in the West fare in the current context? Ironically, absolutism in the name of free speech closely mirrors absolutism in the name of religious intolerance: xenophobic hate speech and self-righteous religious intolerance are twins which only a mother could tell apart, and if these gratuitous cartoons didn’t exist surely the intolerant fanatics would have to invent them to justify their demented take on Islam.

Too often, right behind the banner of freedom of speech lurks a much darker agenda propagated by a terminally consolidated corporate, rightwing Western mass media subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – cheerleading the western re-conquest of the Middle East, as seen in the current U.S. military depredations in Iraq. In a world where NBC now belongs to arms dealer General Electric, half the French media to the likes of Dassault (another armament giant) and where Al Jazeera International (in English) has been pointedly kept out American television, is it any wonder that Islam would regularly come under attack as a convenient scapegoat for militarization and the further hijacking of public resources for the benefit of private interests?

There is of course, a genuine concern among those of us attached to the notion that democracy is crucially dependent on untrammelled freedom of expression, but to my fellow free-speechers throughout the world, I would humbly submit that the much greater threat comes from a lack of diversity of ideas resulting from decades of rapid concentration of the international mass media in the (not-so invisible) hands of powerful pro-war interests mascarading as a “free market place of ideas.”

Stuck between the deranged threats of a perverted brand of Islam on the one hand and the vile taunts of nostalgic, neo-colonialist Western interests re-branding intolerance as freedom of speech on the other hand, what are sincere advocates of democracy and universal human rights to do?

Perhaps putting the horse back in front of the cart might be a good first step. Instead of fixating – as our Western media would have us do – on the red herring of an external evil (no longer the Red menace of international communism but now the Green threat of fundamentalist Islam), how about focusing our energies on the more immediate threat of another form an intolerant, absolutist belief system: the globalizing neo-liberal “free market” fundamentalism that threatens to eradicate all that is precious to freedom lovers everywhere?

Khalil Bendib is a political cartoonist based in Berkeley, California, whose latest book of cartoons, “Mission Accomplished” was released by Interlink Publishing in August 2007. He can be reached at

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