Clash of uncivilized cartoons

B0000A03KN 01 LZZZZZZZEarlier this week, the divine Ms. M weighed in on the escalating story of the cartoon caricatures of Muhammad and the raging reaction in the Islamic world. Frankly, I must confess that I am feeling overwhelmed with all the coverage of this out-of-control story.

However, we are seeing some interesting patterns in the emerging MSM coverage of the story, which, to me, suggests that debates are now raging in major newsrooms. Questions that, for many months, have only been asked and debated in conservative publications are now breaking out into the mainstream.

Start by reading Tim Rutten’s Regarding Media commentary in the Los Angeles Times. It is a good thing for the media to take seriously what happens when news and commentary material offend people of faith. But is this a new issue? Rutten notes:

All this would be slightly more edifying if it didn’t reflect the destructive and dangerous double standard that the Western nations routinely observe when it comes to the government-controlled media in Islamic states. There the media is routinely rife with the vilest sort of hate directed at Jews and, less often, Christians. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remain widely available in countries where nothing is published without government permission, and quotations from that infamous forgery are a staple of commentaries published across the Middle East. In recent years, government-owned television stations in Egypt and Syria have broadcast dramas that repeat the blood libel.

Where were the united and implacable Western demands for apologies?

Then there is the “Clash Over Cartoons Is a Caricature Of Civilization” essay by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. I read the lead of this story several times before I realized that he was not trying to be funny or ironic.

No serious American newspaper would commission images of Jesus that were solely designed to offend Christians. And if one did, the reaction would be swift and certain. Politicians would take to the floors of Congress and call down thunder on the malefactors. Some Christians would react with fury and boycotts and flaming e-mails that couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper; others would react with sadness, prayer and earnest letters to the editor. There would be mayhem, though it is unlikely that semiautomatic weapons would be brandished in the streets. Fortunately, it’s not likely to happen, because good newspapers are governed, in their use of images, by the basic principle of news value.

316 got rod stewartSay what?! Various forms of American mass media have featured many cartoons that traditional Christian believers have found offensive and mainstream editors have defended their publication — as they should — as freedom of the press. But wait, what do the words “solely designed” mean? Is Kennicott claiming that the Danish cartoonists who created the 12 images that are causing riots and bloodshed had no larger political or even religious point to make? They were not being offensive for a reason?

Meanwhile, Kennicott is sure about one thing — religious fundamentalists think this is a religious conflict and, thus, the religious fundamentalists on both sides may get what they want. Clearly, the Rev. Jerry Falwell will begin leading riots protesting South Park any day now.

… (When) forced to an impasse, the cartoon battle becomes exactly what ideologues in both worlds would like it to be: a proxy for the Clash of Civilizations. …

Religious fundamentalism forced the issue; political fundamentalism inflamed it. An apology for giving offense is now capitulation to religious tyranny; the basic instinct of moderation is equated with cowardice. A little ink on paper is inflated to proof of a basic cultural incompatibility. So political leaders here speak of “the long war,” a conflict with no sign of hope on the horizon between East and West. Now, rather absurdly, these cartoons may become part of the intellectual hardening of thought that will sustain the idea, on both sides of the cultural divide.

Meanwhile, speaking of war, the website has been carrying a wave of disturbing reports about the escalation of verbal violence on the other side of the Atlantic.

Let me stress that these reports include the obvious — that the hate speech linked to these cartoons is coming from Muslims who are often opposed by other Muslims. We are, yet again, seeing signs of fissures within the Islamic communities in these lands.

But it is also hard to ignore that the Islamists are actually saying. Who is talking about this being “a war”? Here is one update. There are too many more to mention. Late this past week:

… Mullah Krekar, the alleged leader of the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam who has been living in Norway as a refugee since 1991, said that the publication of the Muhammad cartoons was a declaration of war. “The war has begun,” he told Norwegian journalists. Mr Krekar said Muslims in Norway are preparing to fight. “It does not matter if the governments of Norway and Denmark apologize, the war is on.”

Islamist organizations all over the world are issuing threats towards Europeans. The Islamist terrorist group Hizbollah announced that it is preparing suicide attacks in Denmark and Norway. A senior imam in Kuwait, Nazem al-Masbah, said that those who have published cartoons of Muhammad should be murdered. He also threatened all citizens of the countries where the twelve Danish cartoons … have been published with death.

I think editors are having trouble pinning “hate speech” labels on their meddia counterparts in Europe. Yet that means that the Islamists must be wrong. What to do? Who to blame? You know that legions of editorial-page editors are praying that Pat Robertson will say something amazing and bail them out.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • gsk

    I am perplexed by why we always have to equate this to the offensive actions against Christians. I know there is a double standard — no argument there. (I think this is what the pro-Danish groundswell is actually saying when they reprint the cartoons across Blogdom.)

    I think the better argument is to say, “How can Muslims plead outrage and take offense when they are constantly guilty of attacking and denigrating the Jewish faith and people?”

    To use the first argument is to defend all sacrilegious freedom of speech. “Since you already offend Christians, you might as well offend Muslims.”

    To use the second argument shows the inherent double standard within Islam, which is more important than the tiresome double standard within the mainstream media.

  • Avram

    Has anyone else actually seen the cartoons? What amazed me is how very awful most of them were — unfunny, pointless, badly drawn. I have no trouble believing that they were drawn with no other purpose than to offend.

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  • Stephen A.

    I have to agree with Avram (!) These cartoons are rather pathetic, but I suppose that’s because they were drawn so quickly to make that united statement on freedom.

    Apparently, art must be sacrificed in the service of trashing religion on deadline. At first I was gratified that this secular lust for sacrelige isn’t limited to the West’s predominent religion, but gsk is right, we should be outraged regardless of faith.

    Of course, the outrage is a bit hollow when those criticising the West are the worst offenders of human sensibilities – promoting murder in the name of defending religion.

  • Avram

    Actually, of the twelve cartoons, the best (in my opinion) is the one that seems to have provoked the most outrage, the one with the bomb in Muhammed’s turban, by Kurt Westergaard. That’s a well-done bit of drawing.

    But enough art criticism. Here’s some more context: As I understand it, the cartoons were created to accompany an article about the difficulty writer KÃ¥re Bluitgen had finding an illustrator for a children’s book he’d written about Muhammed’s life and the Koran. Three artists had turned him down (one mentioning the murder of Theo van Gogh, another the beating of a lecturer at the University of Copenhagen for reading the Koran to non-Muslims) before he found one that was willing to work anonymously.

  • Stephen A.

    I suppose the author’s difficulty illustrates the point (pun intended) in that to the Muslim, illustrating Muhammed at all is akin to a Hollywood production portraying Christ as a gay giggilo drug addict.

    Sadly, Hollywood directors would probably not have a hard time casting that part, and that’s the problem. For some, hurling offense at religion is a hobby, for others, a duty.

  • John

    “So political leaders here speak of ‘the long war,’ a conflict with no sign of hope on the horizon between East and West.”

    East and West? A little Freudian slip there. Unless Russia, China, and Eastern Europe have all converted en-mass to Islam, then Philip Kennicott seems to be thinking in late Cold War terms (when moral equivalence was also all the rage among the intelligencia).

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  • Michael Rew

    Some time ago, a Muslim woman brought suit in Florida because she did not want to have her face displayed on her driver’s license without a veil. The case was straightforward, morally and legally defensible from a Judeo-Christian American point of view. She needed to abide by our laws if she wants to live here. If she does not want a police officer looking at her unveiled face, then she should do what she can not to break our traffic laws when she drives, too. The most I am willing to concede would be for a woman at the DMV to take a Muslim woman’s picture behind a curtain. (A curtain would be a great idea for all camera shy people.) But then the media went beyond just reporting the story. They published her unveiled face and plastered it all over the Internet. They SHAMED her. It was completely unnecessary. But people wanted to rub her unveiled face and the faces of all Muslims in our morals and our laws. Who knows what hell she faced at home and in her Muslim community because of that? She could have been ostracized, beaten, or worse because of what the media and people online did to her.

  • John

    Thanks for reminding us of the Florida driver’s license incident– yet another example of cultural double standards. After all, in a country following strict Koranic law, the woman would never have been permitted to drive a car in the first place. Therefore, she wanted to violate her religious standards in one area while insisting they be honored in another, while all the time simply wanting to test how far Americans might want to compromise their own security in the name of cultural sensitivity.

  • Rev. Thomas S. Painter (R)

    Those toons are tame compaired to the ones coming out of the Palastinian Authority. Click here for the anti-Jew cartoons

  • Avram

    Therefore, she wanted to violate her religious standards in one area while insisting they be honored in another

    John, has it occurred to you that Muslims, just like Christians and Jews and I’m guessing pretty much every other religion in the world, vary in the laws the follow?

    It’d be pretty awful to tell every Jew in America “Hey, you’ve got to follow the very strictest Ultra-Orthodox rulings on every matter of halacha, otherwise we won’t respect your religious beliefs at all.” Or to tell Christians that their religious beliefs don’t count unless they toe the Vatican’s line in every respect.

    I don’t see any good reason to grant to the sharia extremists the right to decide what’s religiously proper for Muslims all over the world, including more liberal Muslims living in Western countries. That strikes me as an excellent way of alienating potential allies and giving our enemies more power than they actually have.

  • John

    I don’t “grant” Sharia extremists anything. I wonder why a strict Moslem might insist on observing the letter of the Koranic law in one area while ignoring it in another area.

    There are two possible explanations for such inconsistencies. Either that person is a hypocrite, or he can reconcile the inconsistent behaviors based on a higher principle.

    Like, say, paving the way for Jihad by making it legally impossible to effectively create photo ID’s of Moslem women.

  • Avram

    John, how much do you know about Islamic religious law? I don’t really know much of anything about it, but I know something about Jewish religious law, and a little bit about Christian religious law, and one of the things I know is that different groups have different sets of laws. It’s not always a matter of one group “observing the letter” while another doesn’t. It’s possible that the group that woman belonged to doesn’t forbid female driving, while still forbidding depiction of a woman’s uncovered face. Or it’s even possible that the woman has personally examined the history behind the rulings (Mohammed couldn’t have written about either cars or photographs, so any rulings about them must be extrapolations) and decided that one is based on sound extrapolation from the Koran and the other isn’t. That doesn’t make her a hypocrite.

  • Molly

    How ironic that the code word I had to type is “burn”.

    Also, how ironic that the apocalypse will be ushered in by a cartoon. Bart Simpson would be proud!

    I actually signed in to say that the preceeding points on this post have reaffirmed for me the wisdom of the Founders to separate church and state.

  • Michael Rew

    Does anyone know whether the political cartoonists in question knew that mainstream Islam forbids depictions of Mohammed? I had never heard of this rule before this controversy.

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  • bread

    The Other Side of the Cartoon Argument

    Justifying one’s action by pointing out that someone else has done worse things is not logical.

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The intent of the cartoons is academic. A reasonable person would apologise if they have offended someone.

    If one truly believes in freedom of speech then they should respect others who have a rule that says we do not allow anyone to say “whatever it is” in our country. It is not as if they don’t allow anyone to say anything at all.

    Freedom of speech is not the same thing as having the freedom to offend people.


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