Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Danish press -- it's a riot

The protests across the Arab world against the 12 caricatures of Mohammed which appeared in a Danish newspaper -- and which can be seen here (scroll down) -- are continuing to gain pace, several months after the cartoons first appeared (see previous Bloghead coverage here). Danish ambassadors have been summoned, embassies closed, Danish products boycotted, threats of violence issued, street protests launched, etc etc etc. The Danish government and the newspaper which originally published the material have issued semi-apologies, as has the Norwegian PM, as a Norwegian paper reprinted the cartoons recently.
Several points:
  • The media seems to be portraying this as a spontaneous outburst of 'Muslim anger' (an oft-repeated phrase) in the Arab street. Anyone who believes this is an idiot. Several months after the cartoons first appeared, a harsh reaction has clearly been agreed upon at the highest levels -- embassies across a region don't close themselves and ambassadors don't summon themselves.
  • Why now? I haven't seen an explanation of this anywhere.
  • Again, rather than an expression of spontaneous 'Muslim anger,' I see this as another conscious attempt to bully the West into self-censorship when it comes to real and urgent political issues concerninng Muslims, out of fear of Muslim violence. The boycott of Danish products, in particular, is a warning to all of Europe and the entire west; which western paper isn't going to think twice about publishing material potentially 'offensive' to Muslims when the price might be the entire country's economy suffering a blow?
  • If you actually look at the cartoons, I can't say they're not offensive. If I were a Muslim, I would probably be offended. So what? As a Jew, I've been more than offended by plenty of blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons which have appeared over the last few years. Haven't threatened to physically harm anyone, though. As my father-in-law Chaim Bermant once wrote, "The liberty to cause offence, even outrage, is precisely what freedom of speech is about. It presumes the right to be wrong." The real question, to my mind, is not what opinions a society allows to be publicly expressed*, but how a society -- or a group -- reacts when opinions expressed under freedom of speech offend a particular party. With violence and intimidation? Or with education, pr, media work -- trying to change minds peacefully? Only with the latter can a real dialogue, and real freedom of speech, continue to exist.
  • Riding Sun makes a good point:
    Ironically, the fury of the Muslim world's response to these cartoons shows that the cartoons themselves weren't entirely off-base. They depicted Muslims as intolerant and violent, and Muslims responded with intolerance and violence.
    Those who protested the cartoons were united by a common demand that Muslims, and Islam, be treated with respect. The energy that fueled their outrage might be better spent demonstrating why such respect is warranted.
  • Along similar lines, I've seen a few comments suggesting that what's needed now is education in Denmark about Islam and Muslims. Actually, the lesson here is what's needed now is better education among Muslims across the Arab world (and Europe -- where, after all, these riots began a few months back) about proportion, appropriate ways to respond to insults, and freedom of speech.
*I don't include calls to violence and racial hatred in this

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