Civilization and stupidity (in the name of freedom of speech, with all due respect to culture and beliefs)

, by Alfred

Mysteries of religion: it seems that fanatical religious fundamentalists are morons. Mysteries of the West: some journalists will use any excuse to make a buck. Mysteries of the World: why should we care?

Bad seeds

Well we didn’t have to wait too long, they’ve done it again, the Saracens. Bloody demonstrations in Afghanistan, embassies burned in Lebanon and Syria, flags cremated everywhere across the “Muslim world [1], and all this because of what, this time? Cartoons.

For those of you who have been living in a cave (any reference to the life of the prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, are involuntary), here’s the story: last September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve portraits of the prophet Muhammad (peace be blablabla). Kåre Bluitgen was writing a new children’s book about the Quran and the life of Muhammad, and he had had some time earlier mentioned difficulties in finding an artist to illustrate this book. It seemed like artists generally feared for their lives, feared that the simple act of representing the prophet, which some fundamentalist Muslims consider a crime, might justify a Theo Van Gogh-type assassination.

Let it be said that representing Muhammad is only a crime for very specific Muslim communities. As Catholics and Protestants do not necessarily agree on the same theme, the different Muslim denominations have different points of view. There is a long tradition of representative art among Ottoman Sunnis, for example, while the ultra fundamentalist Salafists condemn any type of representation of the prophet.

The Posten then publishes 12 illustrations of Muhammad [2]. Those are not meant to be illustrations for Bluitgen’s book, but rather are commentaries on the atmosphere or self-censorship among artists. The drawings draw reactions from local Muslim organizations, that try to sue the newspaper and call for Denmark’s prime Minister’s actions. Prime Minister Rasmussen refuses to put pressure on the paper for freedom of expressions’s sake. The drawings are reprinted in October in an Egyptian newspaper, with next to no reaction. Danish Muslim activists make a file containing the Posten’s caricatures and more dubious information, in order to rally the ethereal “Muslim world.” And it works, little by little. Nothing like pretending that people represented Muhammad as a pig to get things going. When the new year comes, the Danish story has swollen into an international affair, so much so that newspapers in Belgium, France and Germany, smelling the opportunity, start republishing the said cartoons for quite obscure reasons. To defend freedom of expression, they say.

Philippe Val, head of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, heroically decided to publish not only those caricatures but a bunch of their own. Charlie Hebdo is the direct heir of Hara Kiri, a 1970s paper famously censored because of a satire deemed a little too aggressive by the Gaullist machine [3]. They’re used to this kind of stuff. They are the target of choice for lawsuits by AGRIF (Alliance Générale pour le Respect de l’Identité Française, General Alliance for the Respect of French Identity, that’s right, a fundamentalist Christian and right-wing organization). I can see why they’d be pissed. “Since Muslim fundamentalists ask that we respect Muslim taboos, we’re going to list all taboos of all religions, to show that if we had to take them all into account, we just wouldn’t be allowed to do anything. [4], he says. Everybody, stand up for freedom and liberty!

The Saracens shall not pass

This quote sums up the situation quite well: they are numerous, but the people demonstrating and rioting over the caricatures are fundamentalists—the only people crazy enough to sue Charlie when they caricature priests or mollahs—and people artificially riled up by four months of wise spin. Spin works in mysterious ways, you have to admit. European papers wanted to prove that fundamentalists and the people they manipulate are idiots. Great job. Mission accomplished, as George Bush, a man I hold in high regard, would say. A man who knows his way around spin too, by the way, thanks for asking.

But I digress. In the meantime, all that the “Muslim world" has of irate people come out on the streets, set fire to anything that flies a European flag, and boycott Danish cheese. The reaction, apparently justifies the action. What did we tell you! They’re all crazy, those Muslims.

We could talk for hours about the fact that the vast majority of the “Muslim world" couldn’t care less about the caricatures, and that reactions in the countries that actually published those cartoons generally remained within the limits of what is to be expected from religious groups. Certainly, France is used to hearing Catholic fundamentalists howl any time a Holy cross casts its shadow against the anticlerical moonlight. Surely we have not forgotten the bombs planted in movie theatres when The Last Temptation of Christ came out. But Muslim fundamentalism is worse, of course, for it is eternally other. It’s not from here, what can I say, they can’t adapt. Here, in the Western world, religious wars are a thing of the past. Because of our long and admirable history, we only ever fight for freedom. Those ragheads, they only fight for their prophet, nothing else, ever. We’re simply completely different. Keep that in mind, it’ll come in handy later.

The issue at hand is not the so-called anticlericalist side of the affair, the one so emphasized by Charlie. It is another French tradition Charlie has held for a while, left-wing, more left than the Canard Enchaine, just as biting, direct and critical, committed without being chaperoned by anybody, it seemed, conscious anarchists. For this part you also need to be strongly atheist and resolutely anticlerical, opposed to the very idea of the organized church. I’ll spare you French history, but separation of church and state has been won through battle, in France, literally. Well from that point of view, though, Denmark is no rational materialist paradise.

For one, Denmark actually has blasphemy laws. Second, religion is dumb, well duh. Tell me something I don’t know. Charlie knows they’re preaching to the converted that constitute their regular readership, so why beat the dead horse of the lameness of religion. Could it be because they expected a great surge of readers on this very popular subject? Maybe they were hoping to school their new readers at the same time they were attracting them with advertising techniques inspired by tabloids. There is some irony in seeing Charlie side by side with the sensationalistic France-Soir whom they often poke fun at, for liberty and freedom! It’s as beautiful as a church hymn, except without all the churchy stuff, you know.

Some will point out that all French religious authorities have agreed to condemn the caricatures. If all those bigots agree, surely it means the caricatures are doing something good! It means that most likely, if you are shocked, then you’re religious, and non religious people like us should support the papers because they’re really resisting fundamentalist agendas blablabla...I wish it all was true, and meant honestly. But as usual, there is a double standard. This suggests that for the average European, criticizing Christianity is like criticizing oneself, while criticizing Islam—and Judaism, for that matter—is always criticizing the Other, a foreigner. We’ve never heard so much about journalists being persecuted in recent times, which doesn’t mean it’s not happening. But until now it just wasn’t ominous enough for the news. I am sure that Denis Robert [5]would like just a few ounces of all this good will to help with his own little freedom of the press lawsuit, but you know. Luxembourg is not quite as glamorous as a camera shot panning on a burning Danish flag. And the Danish flag looks so much cooler anyway.

Muhammad, he’s an Arab; bushy beard, fuzzy eyebrows, turban and all. Representation is no problem in the Christian world, they say, because we’re used to caricatures, no biggie, we respect freedom here. We’re also used to seeing Jesus as a skinny and unmistakably Caucasian hippie, and same goes for his friends while you’re at it. Centuries of representation have made sure of that, thank you very much. When Chicago rapper Kanye West is seen on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns, it is not clear what shocks American fundamentalists the most, that he imitates Christ, or that he portrays a Black Christ. Whatever happens to Jesus in a caricature, his image remains pretty much the same, suffering in a loincloth and blood rolling down his alabaster skin (with all due respect to the Son of Man, of course). The savior is white-skinned. The Posten’s caricatures do not as much represent Muhammad as the ideas and fantasies of each artist on Islam. Muhammad is 13 centuries of blood-thirsty Saracen hordes, from the scimitar to the bomb, on one page. You can care less about the religious aspect and still question the cultural aspect.

Shock and awe: a campaign

As far as international reaction is concerned, no one could say it has not been carefully prepared. The opportunity of some is an opportunity for others: when France-Soir, Charlie Hebdo and others make money on the controversy, it is precisely because on the other side, fundamentalists are happy. They have a common interest: without a fundamentalist reaction, those caricatures would just be mediocre and for some racist, cartoons published with the usual excuse of freedom of expression. Considering the cartoons were originally published without any problem apart from its authors’ prophecy of persecution and the expected complaints from Muslim organizations. This is about artists censoring themselves, for legitimate reasons or not. The feeling is not gratuitous, of course, when the fundamentalist threat has proven deadly for provocative artists recently; but this also shows for a certain amount of vanity. It took more than 4 months for the Muslim world to finally feel outraged by these cartoons. Surely, some things have been more shocking. But good things come to those who wait.

Between September and February, a group of Muslim clerics worked on spreading the cartoons in Muslim communities around the world, and bolster outrage. They did this by adding three images that had not appeared in the Posten, but had quite clearly been chosen to fuel scandal [6]. On the other side, these 4 month-old cartoons find themselves duplicated all over the place in no time. Things always work themselves out.

The controversy was nicely orchestrated, as the chronology of the case shows well enough. But let’s go back to the origin of the controversy, the 12 cartoons. Six of them actually play rather subtly with their subject by following it to the letter. They are just portraying Mohammed, walking through the desert, or standing there, in different styles, with different suggestions. Others bypass the subject to go straight to its cultural and political implications. This is good P.R. for this paper, quip three cartoons. It has all the good ingredients, immigrants, terrorism, taboo, freedom, Islam, good, good, good.

The six remaining cartoons all refer Muhammad to islamist terrorism. The most aggressive is probably the cartoon showing a wild-bearded Muhammad holding a huge, scimitar-looking knife, his eyes blacked out like a crime suspect. He is standing in front of two young ladies wearing black niqabs that only reveal their eyes. The mix of references is rather disturbing. Muhammad does not quite need a face, because he just looks like any other raghead. A tall white man with a beard and long hair in a robe is Jesus. If not add a crown of thorns, or a halo. That’ll do it. Now a tall brown man with a beard and a turban, hm. Well how can you tell that kind of prophet from just another Arab?
The most reproduced cartoon portrays Muhammad’s stern face wearing a turban topped by a cartoon-like bomb. The turban also bears the Muslim creed, “Allah is the one true God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.” It is probably the most puzzling cartoon. Does Muhammad know that he has a bomb on his head? Is Islam the bomb, or what is made of Islam? Those drawings all show, consciously or not, the other side of the coin: Islam is always parallel to islamist terrorism. The costumes are “historic”, but the references are to contemporary terrorists, most of whom probably wear jeans, but that’s OK. Part of the references, really, is to our good old crusades, and to a threatening “Muslim world”, ahistorical figures, possibly the same as in the Middle-Ages. Saracens have knives between their teeth, they’ll slash your throat on the street. Europe meets again with an old bogeyman, the foreign invader. They shall not pass!

Freedom! Freedom!

There is some irony in the fact that those cartoons come from Denmark, a country who has recently distinguished itself in an abrupt right-wing turn. The irony grew stronger when recently yet the editor for the Posten was fired after announcing he was trying to contact Hamshari. The Iranian newspaper had just proposed a cartoon contest on the subject of the Holocaust, following the old tried and true European proverb: when in doubt, blame the Jews. Subtle to subtler: the cultural editor of the Posten had mentioned his interest in publishing those cartoons. You know freedom of speech and stuff, with all due respect for cultures and all.

Not quite; the Holocaust is no laughing matter. The Posten recently apologized for the Muhammad caricatures, sorry guys, we never thought it would go this far, and in the same instant announced it was out of the question to publish funnies on the Holocaust. There are limits, after all.

God (with all due respect to His Almightiness, of course) only knows how bad those cartoons will be, but does this also mean there are limits to freedom of speech? Errr, well. Hm. The Holocaust is the limit against which the world has built itself after 1945. Can’t touch it. As for common racism, luckily, that’s still within bounds. Knock yourself out.

Under their harmless appearance, some of these caricatures are downright insulting. The reaction they drew is clearly disproportionate, but it serves the purpose of confirming everybody’s prejudices. Everybody’s happy, everybody was right. And this is where the whole story is lacking something. As a friend of mine was recently pointing out, satire is suppose to expose the issues of the time, the weaknesses of society. If islamism is clearly one such weakness, the return of Europe’s repressed racism is another, that we tend to defend more than criticize, these days. This is after all, as we’ve heard time and time again, a clash of civilizations. The Muslim world, it’s like a time machine, they still live in the Middle Ages! They don’t understand shit. Freedom of expression, they don’t get it, democracy, they don’t get it, tolerance, all they do is cut each other’s throats. You sit on their face and it bothers them, what the hell? They come here in OUR country and they complain about the treatment they get?

The argument of freedom of speech is a pretty common rhetoric tool on the western side of the Atlantic. Only recently I had to hear it in answer to an article I had written about the mascot of the University of Illinois [7]. Chief Illiniwek is usually embodied by a corn-fed, befreckled fratboy, who dresses up like a true Indian, dances around and otherwise somersaults through half-time shows at football and basketball games. He is the oldest mascot in the country, defended by the Illinois alumni like their lives depend on it. He represents, they say, local native heritage with dignity. He is, as we quite easily say around here, a tradition. Many Native American organizations have complained, usually to get the reply that they do not get it, it’s an homage to you guys, and anyway this is America where we have freedom of speech, two or three redskins crying like babies surely won’t change that, now, will it?
Of course it won’t. Alumni have money on their side. Unless the NCAA carries on its threats of sanctions against the school, nothing will change. We’re talking about a state where until the 80s, the high school team in the town of Pekin was called the Chinks. No kidding.

So yeah, this is America. Ah, there’s a lot of things to say about Americans! Among other things, their papers mostly stayed out of the whole controversy. Interesting.

Americans just can’t shut up

Freedom of speech in the US is a different story. We’re talking about a country where a Jewish lawyer for the ACLU defended the rights of the American Nazi Party to march in a Jewish suburb of Chicago. This is also the land of Noam Chomski, abhorred in France for having let one of his texts appear as the preface in a book by the Holocaust-denier Faurisson. Chomsky was attacked for it in France, but his opinion on the subject has always been quite clear. In keeping with his libertarian ideas, he sees no limit to freedom of speech, not even Holocaust-denial which he personally reviles. Any point of view can be expressed; its quality, of course, is a different story. What is slightly surprising in the way the cartoons deal has developed, is precisely that we know that this absolutist view on freedom of speech is not very popular in France, and in Europe in general. France has made it a mission to provide a state stamp to historical truth when needed, as was shown in a heated debate on the recent law meant to recognize the "positive influence of French colonialism". In France, racism is against the law. Not that I mind, but it makes no difference, of course. Covert racism is often presented as the exclusive property of French conservatives. The left is anticlerical and antiracist, among other antithingisms, therefore their comments, always anticlerical, are necessarily also always antiracist, so there!

The hypocrisy seems obvious, but still it helps in acting surprised when the time comes. The Posten editor got caught at his own game. You can act stupid and pretend that you do not understand what was so insulting in some of the Posten’s cartoons: as much as the ridiculous problem of the representation of Muhammad (that I really think secondary, at this point), it is another instance of gross equation, Islam=terrorism, that is starting to get old. The affair, orchestrated by the same fanatical minorities portrayed in the drawings and by the media, is not that different from other recent debates. The treatment is biased, and we’re all in it for the spectacle. Not much is said about the context all those demonstrations took place in. In Lebanon, it seems pro-Syrian groups were responsible. In Afghanistan, the affair was used as an opportunity to attack American bases. To us the Saracens, to them the Crusaders. Fundamentalists probably don’t really give a damn about this story anyway. It is a good opportunity to destroy everything righteously. Is that great or what? Virtue, righteousness, is also what leads our media in search of a new virginity. After too much complacency for the powerful, defying the dark islamist menace shows they have balls and ethics.
Ah, balls and ethics! How many crimes are committed in your name!


[1What a great expression... it seems the Muslim world is a twilight zone, a dimension parallel to ours, the civilized Judeo-Christian world, where religion never infringes on freedom of expression, and cops give out flowers to passers-by while reciting the articles of the declaration of human rights with all due respect to all cultures

[2Which you can see here since you insist.

[3Their last issue, coming out right after the death of De Gaulle, lampooned a recent disaster where people had died in a nightclub fire, and its treatment in press headlines. The front page read :"Tragic dance at Colombey (De Gaulle’s residence): 1 dead."

[4Personal translation, from this page in French.

[5A French free-lance reporter, he exposed money laundering practices in big Luxembourg banks. He is now being sued by... the state of Luxembourg! Here in French.

[6These are the three extra images, here, here and here, clearly chosen for their enormity. These pictures were not published in the Posten, and the one of the man wearing a pig-snout was apparently illustrating a story on a pig-squealing contest in France!

[7Chief Illiniwek. Classy.