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From Cartoons to Chaos By: Abraham H. Miller
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 17, 2006

“An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; you respect me; I respect you." So screams an Islamic marcher in a Paris street demonstration against the right of Danish newspapers to publish cartoons of Mohammed.

The mantra is not quite respect for Western culture and Western values of freedom of speech and the press. It is more accurately translated as: You do what I want, or I’ll blow you up!

Amid the demonstrators shouting “Allah Akabar,” stand two young men supporting freedom of the press. One holds a Danish flag; the other holds a sign calling for the right of freedom of the press.

The demonstrators gather around them. Some shout, “We are being provoked.” Others shout, “They wouldn’t do this in another demonstration.”

What is patently clear is that the Islamic marchers have no comprehension that the freedom that protects their right to march in the streets of Paris also protects the rights of the two counter demonstrators to protest the Muslim’s march. In a free and open society demonstrators and counter-demonstrators share the same right to promulgate their views.

It looks dicey for the two demonstrators. One bearded old man screams the ultimate Islamic insult at them, “Homosexuals!” But cooler heads in the demonstration prevail--after all, the cameras are rolling--and the two courageous young men escape unharmed.

The essence of immigration, until now, has been that when you voluntarily change geography, you also change history and culture. You become part of the culture that you entered. You embrace its institutions. You don’t demand that the culture bend to your will and your culture. You are an immigrant. You are not a conqueror.

Muslims who immigrate to the West, and then demand the imposition of Islamic law and Islamic norms, have no respect for their adoptive society. They have arrogated to themselves the right to speak to the West as cultural superiors.

When Muslims demand that the Danish government stop the publication of the offending cartoons and when they boycott Danish products, they impose their notion of collective guilt on all Danes. They hold all Danes responsible for the actions of one paper, and they know full well that in Western society, unlike in most Muslim countries, the government has no control over what papers print.

Compare Islam’s response to the cartoons with America’s response to the 9-11 attacks. From President Bush on down, the official reaction, as well as that of most Americans, was that it was inconceivable to hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of the terrorists. Indeed, this was the tone struck by many of us asked to speak in public forums after the tragedy. We took pains to make that distinction.

In many ways, the cartoon riots inadvertently tell us more about Islam, and the facile way that anti-Western anger is mobilized in the Islamic world, than they do about the Danish cartoons. The episodes underscore the Islamic world’s primitive notion of collective guilt, and how most Western pundits and politicians have been so busy falling over themselves with apologias that they forgot to examine whether indeed Islam does expressly prohibit representations of the prophet.

If so, why is there a carving of Mohammed in the Supreme Court building and why hasn’t anyone rioted over it? After all, it has been there on the North Wall since 1935.

There are representations of Mohammed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (Paris), and the Edinburgh University Library. The riot crowd has its work cut out for it.

Some of the best of Islam’s scholars note that there is nothing in the Koran that explicitly condemns the representation of Mohammed. Indeed, the painting of “Book of the Assumption of Mohammed” is considered a great and inspiring work of art and is believed to have been painted my a Muslim artist around 1436 in Heart, Afghanistan. It depicts Mohammed’s ascension to heaven, and it hangs in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The cartoons however offensive some Moslems might find them are hardly as offensive as the death, destruction and mayhem of the response to them.

They are hardly as offensive as the cynical manipulation of a people’s piety by contemptuous politicians with a very secular political agenda. And, the cartoons are hardly as denigrating as the unflinching, unabashed cowardice of most of the American media, especially the electronic media, which has a long history of exploiting blood, sex and blasphemy in order to achieve ratings.

Suddenly much of the American media has developed religious sensibilities—a development that the Catholic League and most Christian fundamentalists must find astounding in light of the way in which the media will spare no defamation of Christian theology to get a laugh or rationalize the artistic value of a religious icon dunked in urine (see: "Piss Christ") and hung on the wall of a compliant art gallery.

I am convinced that Dr. William Donohue of the Catholic League would find his formidable tasks so much easier if once in a while he could issue a fatwa or mobilize the football team of a Catholic school to impart lessons in street culture to some of the patrons of the arts. But Dr. Donohue of course would never consider such a course of action, for it would be un-Christian.

Christians routinely endure plays, widely reviewed and advertised in our media, in which Jesus is depicted as a bi-sexual or homosexual having affairs with his apostles and causing a spurned Judas to have his unrequited love transformed into vengeance.

Yet, if Christians were reacting to such offenses as Muslims did, there hardly would be a theater, library or museum left standing. Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, can call fundamentalist Christians “American Jihadists,” but so far I haven’t seen Friedman dodging a “fatwa” or sharing a safe house with Salman Rushdie.

A cartoon of Mohammed gives sufficient offense to cause rioting, killing and the invocation of the collective guilt of an entire civilization—ours. Yet, suicide bombings, beheadings, honor murders, and the rest of the cult of violence endemic to the Islamic world call forth no such demonstrations. The cartoons caused Western politicians to convene conversations with both representatives of Islamic countries and the Islamic faith, but where are the similar convocations by Islamic leaders for the daily brutality from its side of the cultural divide?

Indeed, the Islamic world feels no need to apologize for Syria’s televised series showing Jews killing a Christian boy and using his blood for baking Passover matzos. The Islamic world routinely refers to Christians and Jews as the offspring of pigs and apes. It actively publishes the Czarist forgery (later used by Hitler) of a Jewish plot to control the world known as the “Protocols of Zion.” It routinely publishes cartoons that reveal the worst kind of racism and bigotry, and it apologies for nothing.

It has yet to tell us why it permits and encourages the murder of Muslims who convert to Christianity but believes it is the obligation of Western, Christian society to permit Muslims to convert Christians to Islam without so much as interference.

If we look at who is orchestrating riots over the cartoon issue, we find people with a very temporal political agenda. In Beirut and Damascus, Syrian Ba’athists, people who worship Karl Marx, fomented the riots. Arrest records from Beirut indicate that it was not piety but rent a rioter that resulted in the large group of Palestinians and Syrians, not Lebanese, who ended up in jail.

The riots are a convenient distraction from the ongoing investigation into Syria’s role in the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Indeed, since the riots international pressure on Syria has abated.

Tehran, where little takes place without the approval of its authoritarian government, has also had riots. Tehran blames the Jews for the cartoons and somehow links the crisis to its need for highly enriched uranium so that the oil-saturated country can supposedly generate electricity through nuclear energy. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad describes the cartoons as “a blessing from God.”

Hamas has inherited a treasury that appears to have been shipped to the Cayman Islands and an economic dependency on Israel, a country it seeks to destroy. Riots in the Palestinian Authority and the continued fulminating against the West are good diversions for a political entity that is not viable. Of course, an economy that is dependent on Western convoys each morning might find that rioting, kidnapping aid workers and shooting Kalashnikovs might be a temporary respite from its economic misfortune but ultimately not the most suitable approach to solving its economic problems.

The cartoons themselves had been hand carried to the Middle East by a group of Danish Muslims, who unsure of the degree of the offense, put a few of their own in the mix just to make sure that they generated the proper outrage—no blasphemy there. Yet, these Danish Muslim peddlers of deceit went from country to country incapable of soliciting any interest in this great outrage.

Their fortunes changed when they arrived in Qatar, where Islamic televangelist and suicide-bomb promoter Yussef al Qaradawi saw the opportunity others had missed and summarily issued a fatwa. He then used his Al Jazeera television show to falsely assert that images of the prophet were not allowed in Islam and that the Danish paper had violated Islam, ”The Only True Faith.”

In the Middle East where collective guilt persists and one routinely speaks of groups as if they existed without individuals, al-Qardawi was able to take the exaggerated actions of one newspaper and successfully indict an entire civilization. Sheik Qaradawi describes himself as an Islamic moderate. Who says there is no clash of civilizations here?

America and the West have routinely been quick to distinguish the perpetrators of terrorism from the Muslims next door. Even the bin Ladin family was flown unharmed and with preferential treatment out of the country immediately after 09/11.

Not so the Islamic riot crew in that has denounced all of Denmark and the West. Had we imposed similar, puerile notions of collective guilt after 09/11, Nevada would be swarming with an Islamic population behind barbed wire and fifty caliber machine guns. But that is something we as a society would find incompatible with our basic understanding of justice and freedom. The same democratic ethos that abhors collective guilt also permits offensive speech. After all, speech that does not offend someone does not need constitutional protection.

The outrage of Islamic rioters saddling he West with collective guilt for an offense that is barely what it appears to be is compounded by our own media, which has taken al-Qaradawi’s interpretation of Islam at face value and conveniently hid their cowardice behind it so as to avoid publishing the cartoons.

The other day I listened to a journalist from the San Jose Mercury News on public radio KQED rationalize his paper's decision to describe the cartoons instead of printing them out of concern for religious sensitivities. This from a newspaper that just years ago ran a prominent and totally fictional series on how the CIA created the urban crack epidemic. The story almost ignited the urban ghettos, resulted in a series of congressional investigations, and despite having been shown to be a hoax is still widely believed in the African-American community.

A media that vaunts child pornography as art and thinks that a nude painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe is not offensive to the religious values of millions of Hispanics now embraces sensitivity as a virtue. The New York Times has long steamrolled even national security in the name of freedom of the press and now refuses to publish the cartoons of Mohammed. How can one take its newfound religious sensitivities seriously? Especially when the offense emitted by the Danish cartoons pales in comparison to the violence in the Islamic world and the cowardice of the American media.

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Abraham H. Miller is emeritus professor, University of Cincinnati. He has written extensively on the Middle East for both academic and popular venues.

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