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Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff from Die Zeit penned an op ed in the WAPO about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammed. His account of how this began doesn’t, actually, make much sense:

“It's worth remembering that the controversy started out as a well-meaning attempt to write a children's book about the life of the prophet Muhammad. The book was designed to promote religious tolerance. But the author encountered the consequences of religious hatred when he looked for an illustrator. He could not find one. Denmark's artists seemed to fear for their lives. In turning down the job they mentioned the fate of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist for harshly criticizing fundamentalism.

When this episode percolated to the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the paper's cultural editor commissioned the caricatures. He wanted to see whether cartoonists would self-censor their work for fear of violence from Muslim radicals.”

How, pray tell, do you write a book to promote religious tolerance while at the same time breaking one of the taboos of the religion? It is like writing a children’s book about a tribe that has a taboo against photographs, and sending a photographer down to photograph them. A little honesty would be nice here about the real motives involved.

From the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung we learn that the children’s book author is Kare Bluitgen, who is described as living in an immigrant’s quarter and having immigrant friends. Three artists refused to draw Muhammed not simply because of Theo van Gogh, but, according to the FAZ, because they didn’t want to break the Islamic rule that forbids the prophet’s image. Since that taboo is fundamental to the whole issue, it is weird that Kleine-Brockhoff skirts around it.

The FAZ reports:

“It is really not an accident that it was the Jyllands-Posten that decided to take this step. For one thing, in its pronounced opinions in its columns and in its reader’s letter column it does not restrain itself. The left liberal Danish paper “Information” doesn’t hestitate to classify the Jyllands-Posten as the “faschist Jyllands-Pest” in which you find islamophobit witchhunts, while other papers in the western world are announcing their solidarity with the press in the name of freedom of opinion.”

And the Guardian reports

“Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.
The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.”

Now that a Danish paper dislikes Islam and deliberates ways of insulting the religion is well within the right of any paper. It is misleading, however, to speak airily of the freedom of opinion and leave the content of the opinion void.
As it happens, Denmark is, on the one hand, one of the Coalition of the Willing which has sent soldiers into Iraq, and on the other hand, going through a period of rejection with regard to immigrants. Now, when a major paper deliberately insults the religion of the country one’s soldier’s are occupying, it would seem prudent for the Prime Minister of that country to offer the kind of soothing pap that comes automatically out of the mouth’s of Bush and Blair’s representatives. And should – when government officials proclaim their horror of offending religious sensibilities, they are applying a convention – they aren’t legally restricting the domain of opinion. But Denmark’s p.m., whose party ran on an anti-immigrant platform, refused to do the conventional repair work. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen declined to meet Muslim foreign ministers in Copenhagen over the issue.

Max Weber draws the contrast between Recht (law) and Convention as a matter of boycotting. The violation of a convention engenders the chance that a boycott of some kind will take place. You lose a friend, or you lose a customer. You do repair work. Etc. Certainly convention concerning Christianity, in most Western countries, requires that ministers pretend to take, say, the Pope seriously. That the force of convention was not even powerful enough to lure Rasmussen, who has put Danish soldiers at risk, to do conventional repair work reveals a certain contempt for Muslims, or at least a weakness. And that contempt is pretty close to the surface in this dispute over freedom of opinion.

Of course, this isn’t all there is to the issue. I am obviously bending over backwards, here, to see things as they are seen by a Muslim. But I am not a Muslim. I’m not a Christian either, but I was, at one point, and I’ve spent my entire life in a community dominated by Christianity. I’ve had plenty of atheist, Jewish, and Buddhist friends and acquaintances, but of the people I’ve known who come from dominant Muslim communities, almost all of them have rejected Islam. In fact, the dirtiest joke I ever heard about Muhammed came from a Turk.
Which gets us to the ritual zigzag of these things. For surely there is something admirable in the papers of Europe publishing the cartoons in solidarity with the besieged Danish paper?

Well, there is. I think that the reaction in Europe is a lot more courageous than the reaction to the Satanic Verses back in the 80s, or the reaction to Death of a Princess, the documentary that the Saudi’s pretended was an insult to Islam. But there is something odd about simply reprinting the cartoons, since the majority of the readers of these papers are going to feel the sacrilege involved at second hand, as it were. As an intellectual apprehension. Why did the papers not intersperse the Muhammed series with some cartoons about Jesus, and about Moses – with the same kind of visceral dislike? Since convention, as Weber shrewdly remarks, rests on a sort of Pavlovian visceral response, the newspapers should try to translate that visceral response into terms that really do try the limits of freedom of opinion.

This, I think, is at the root of my tendency to see this issue with much more sympathy for the rioting crowds in Damascus or wherever. There is something hollow about an iconoclasm directed towards a religion one doesn’t believe in, or have any feeling for beyond dislike. And, on another level, towards a people who believe this religion who are, almost invariably, the poor working class in Denmark, Germany, France, etc. Insulting the god of the woman who cleans your toilet doesn’t strike me as one of the great blows for freedom. That you should legally be able to do it, and be guarded from any violent consequences for doing it by the state, I take to be self-evident. But spare me the story of faux martyrdom and the braving of conventions.

P.S. Since the Philadelphia Inquirer has had the courage to publish the Muhammed cartoons, may I humbly suggest testing the freedom of speech limits with another cartoon. In this one, Jesus is shown holding a baby. Jehovah is next to him with a match. A big grill is in front of them. The Jesus character goes, you light the grill, I’ll throw on the unbaptized infants. To make it funnier, Jesus can be grasping one of those big barbecue forks.


Amir said...

In the first line the name of the foreign paper refered to should read "Die Zeit"; "Der Zeit" would only occur in the dative case: i.e. "to or for the time" rather than the nominative "The Time."

I think your argument would gain strength from a bit more on how it is not in good humor or nice or something to go burning embassies and stoning people and kicking out whomever you don't like and such; and then waiting for some leftie goody goody to defend you on philosophical grounds. Perhaps a little from Kierkegaard on Humor and the religious sphere of existence as opposed to irony and the boundary between the ethical and the aesthetic... since you seem to be into philosphical stuffs ... and afterall we are talking about something rotten in the state of Denmark aren't we?

Best, Amir

roger said...

Amir, thanks for the correction. Of course, Zeit is feminine.

As for a philosophical defense, well, actually I think the viscereal response of the Danish paper to publishing cartoons of Jesus -- that it would unnecessarily offend readers -- seems to indicate that the Danish paper is not run by mental defectives. So they knew what they were doing. And the story of a multicultureal book about Mohammed with his picture in it is, you will agree, pretty ludicrous. A multi-cultural book about Jesus that began, "The birth of Jesus was, of course, not to a virgin, which could only be believed by children uninformed about the ins and outs of human sexuality" wouldn't exactly be considered, hmm, Christian friendly.
As for burning embassies, rioting, and the like, well these are bad and condemnable. On the other hand, I find anchoring hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers in the Middle East the type of thing that raises collective temperatures. The arrogance of the Danish p.m. in not doing the soothing thing -- which simply would have happened if Christian or Jewish or, hell, Tibetan sensibilities had been offended -- strikes me as typical of the way this sacrilege was "felt" and manipulated.

That said, you are right that this is an issue that is being used by Moslem fundies to stir the waters. In my opinion, there is no right side here. They all stink.

roger said...

oops. Make that "visceral." It is funny, when I'm corrected about a word, my control over the spelling of words -- never exactly my strong suit -- seems to crack.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

Roger--Publishing your sorts of barbecued Christians wouldn't have offended the left at all. There just would have been no point on deep or superficial levels to do it. It certainly wouldn't have offended me, except that it would probably seem superfluous, and anyway I'm sure a lot of anti-redneck-Christian-American jokes and cartoons have been done all over Europe for years. I don't care about that, and I don't care about the Muslim cartoons. I'm glad the Danes won't give in. Europe is finally waking up to the primitive and violent nature of this religion, however little or much of the whole it is. Westerners who support the Islamic side may have some self-hatred. The huge reaction of violence in this case demonstrates the stupidity of this religion, and comparisons of fundie Christianity fail, because the hick Christians all want material wealth and conveniences when they become available. They know Jesus doesn't have all that much future. Islam seems to think it is a viable alternative.

roger said...

Patrick, I guess you and I disagree about the salient points here. I think that it is a mistake to take the more extraverted Christianity in the states as the standard to measure belief, so that you get post-Christian Europe and Great Revival America facing monolithic Islam. Myself, I only know one person very well who lives in Denmark, so I'm no expert on the deep beliefs of the Danish. However, I do trust that the editor of the Jyllands-Posten knows his readers, and what outrages they will accept and what they will reject.

I can go on and on and repeat my post, which would be boring. More interesting, to me, is the idea that there is always a symmetry in the web of conventions which is behind much of the stuff I've read about the controversy. For instance, Annie Applebaum (admittedly, not WAPO's brightest columnist) compared the drawings to the piss Christ. But of course -- this is to misread the whole nature of representation in Christian art. Ms. Applebaum would probably find pictures of the virgin stroking the little baby Jesus' penis, or of Jesus' erection in general, to be sacreligious, but as Leo Steinberg showed, long ago in The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and modern Oblivion, these formed a standard subset of the iconography of Christ in the 15th century. What we are dealing with is asymettrical taboos. Sacrilege became iconographic in Christianity only after Christianity lost its visual "monopoly" in art. I would contend (okay, I admit, sentences beginning I would contend are hilariously bogus, but...) that sacrilege in the Christian west is performative, not iconographic.

All of which makes me wonder -- have you read Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red? I reviewed it for in these times when it came out, and so, by that accident, I know something about the dialectic of representation in Turkic-Persian culture. Which I think I'll write a post about. Soon.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

Roger--yes, we don't. This has nothing to do with complexity and expertise as far as I am concerned. When you use this for something like 'the obvious questions Democrats won't ask Bush', it needs this elaborate analysis; and I thought that was masterful. You think the cartoons and the Muslims need this, too. I don't. So what? So you'd like to see more US papers publish the cartoons? You want to see more nationalities' embassies burned? therefore, surely the embassies of the more deserving even than Denmark or Norway, namely that domicile of Bushiedom, the U.S.? After all, they aren't that fond of the countries that reprinted the cartoons. It makes them mad, and in their boring indolence (yes, indolence) they figure out something to do with themselves.

One bright spot in the leftist discourse is that Susan Sontag has been deprived of her 'freedom of speech' rights to pull center-stage numbers, to re-propagate her ass, at totally inappropriate times. She was spectacularly good at that, but there are things we learn to live without. Of course, there ought to be some new Zizek and Badiou forums. I wonder if Z. can come up with something as arty as 'The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape.’ As is now thoroughly documented, the KKK burned crosses because of cartoons, even if they were of their own making.

Because ‘black people’ do not commit crimes. They have never done so and they never will. The Compton Bloods and Crips are as mythological as the Holocaust, now being proven by competition in Tehran, that bastion of truth. Anything they have done was coerced by white people (no quotes necessary for that particular ‘race.’)