Connecting dots?

by Yule Heibel on February 5, 2006

Call me paranoid, but here’s something that bothers me: via very different sources, I came across two articles in the today (Feb.4/06) that make very similar arguments, albeit for seemingly different purposes. Seemingly. The first, by Simon Jenkins, is called These cartoons don’t defend free speech, they threaten it. It begins with a soothing affirmation of inclusionist sentiments (sentimentality?) that publication of the offending cartoons (and c’mon, you know which ones, unless you’ve been under a rock) cannot be defended under the guise of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and it then goes on to argue that unless the press censors itself (Mr. Jenkins, can you hear yourself here?), governments will be forced to accept the kind of crypto-fascist legislation that was only recently defeated in the UK:

The traditional balance between free speech and respect for the feelings of others is evidently becoming harder to sustain. (…) [um, tradititional, Mr. Jenkins? whatever do you mean?…]

(…) Last week there were demands from some (not all) Muslim leaders for governments to “apologise” for the cartoons and somehow forbid their dissemination. It was a demand that Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, commendably rejected. It assumed that governments had in some sense allowed the cartoons and were thus in a position to atone for them. Many governments might be happy to fall into this trap and seek to control deeds for which they may have to apologise. (…)

In all matters of self-regulation the danger is clear. If important institutions, in this case the press, will not practise self-discipline then governments will practise it for them. Ascribing evil consequences to religious faith is a sure way of causing offence. Banning such offence is an equally sure way for a politician to curry favour with a minority and thus advance the authoritarian tendency. The present Home Office needs no such encouragement.

Offending an opponent has long been a feature of polemics, just as challenging the boundaries of taste has been a feature of art. It is rightly surrounded by legal and ethical palisades. These include the laws of libel and slander and concepts such as fair comment, right of reply and not stirring racial hatred. None of them is absolute. All rely on the exercise of judgment by those in positions of power. All rely on that bulwark of democracy, tolerance of the feelings of others. This was encapsulated by Lord Clark in his defining quality of civilisation: courtesy.

Too many politicians would rather not trust the self-restraint of others and would take the power of restraint onto themselves. Recent British legislation shows that a censor is waiting round every corner. This past week must have sent his hopes soaring because of the idiot antics of a few continental journalists.

The best defence of free speech can only be to curb its excess and respect its courtesy. [page one and then page two…]

Got that? Let it sink in: what it means is that we have these wonderful freedoms here, and they’re ever so civilised, don’t you know, and never a nasty word is spoken and never a feeling is ruffled out of place, because — well, because our nice little freedoms are, well, nice, you know, and we don’t go around pissing anyone off, and as long as we don’t go pissing anyone off, then the government gets to play nice, too, you know, and keep everything real friendly, like. See? But if any of youse go pissing people off, well then, don’t come crying to any nice folks in the diplomatic corps if all of a sudden you find yourself with your very own dictatorial government on your hands that’s passing out fascist legislation on the homefront. ‘Cause the government really couldn’t help itself, it had to do something to rein all those nasty uncouth brutes in who weren’t being civilised!

I think I’m going to weep.

And then, on the very same day, I read an opinion piece dated January 27 from the same paper, the It’s by Gerard Baker, and it’s called Prepare yourself for the unthinkable: war against Iran may be a necessity. Mr. Baker, uncannily, sounds just like Mr. Jenkins (or should that read: Mr. Jenkins sounds just like Mr. Baker?). Tewwibly, tewwibly ciwwiwised, don’t you know, as he makes his case for the postmodern post-orwellian white man’s burden:

THE UNIMAGINABLE but ultimately inescapable truth is that we are going to have to get ready for war with Iran. Being of a free-speaking, free-thinking disposition, we generally find in the West that hand-wringing, finger-pointing and second-guessing come more easily to us than cold, strategic thinking. Confronted with nightmarish perils we instinctively choose to seize the opportunity to blame each other, cursing our domestic opponents for the situation they’ve put us in. [More…]

Why do we have to face this “inescapable” truth? Because if we let Iran continue, our very own western governments will be forced (against their terribly civilised will, presumably) to crack down hard on our civil freedoms, all in the effort to keep us safe …from ourselves:

…the kind of society we live in and cherish in the West, a long way from Tehran or Damascus, will change beyond recognition [if Iran continues on its nuclear path and if we don’t pound it into the dust now, according to Baker]. We balk now at intrusive government measures to tap our phones or stop us saying incendiary things in mosques. Imagine how much more our freedoms will be curtailed if our governments fear we are just one telephone call or e-mail, one plane journey or truckload away from another Hiroshima. [More…]

And there you have it, dear civilised ladies and gentlemen: in order to preserve our cherished, civilised civil freedoms, we have to self-censor and make war. Make sense? Good, you may move up in the orwellian ranks.

—— ~~~ ——

To see the cartoons as they appeared, click here and scroll down a ways. For an explanation of the images in English words in a different article, click here — this is useful in terms of understanding any Danish text included in the cartoon(s), as well as understanding how the image illustrates a saying or some aspect of Danish popular culture or society. The entire article is worth reading for background information. Do take a look at the images, too: they’re pretty tame as far as cartoons go. Most of them would function easily enough as illustrations, which is what they were commissioned for in the first place. The ensuing row has to do with the fact that Islam forbids any representation of Mohammed, regardless of whether it’s favourable or not, and it has been exacerbated by fundamentalists’ insistence that they be accorded special privileges in western society by having this iconographic ban respected. No other religion that forbids representation of its gods is given this special status, however. Jews cannot sue or threaten to burn down the offices of newspapers (or kill its cartoonists) if they publish images that purport to represent God. (And let’s emphasise “purport”: one of the other things understood in the West is that images are fictions. They are not real. This might in part be a cultural quirk of ours, but it deserves to be admitted as one of our freedoms. If we agree on that basis, we can argue about whether the images are offensive, but we can’t argue from the basis of their “realness.” In part, the current arguments are clashes between literalists and those who are comfortable with fiction. Fundamentalists hate people who feel comfortable with fiction, it seems. To them, modern society is a decadent den of fictionalists who must be brought to heel by literalists.)

Read this article for more on how death threats were issued against the cartoonists months ago, back in December 2005: “The Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami and its youth branch have offered a bounty for anyone who murders the Danish illustators who drew cartoons of Muhammad for the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten”. Since then — in January 2006 — “Muslim intellectuals and representatives of Muslim organizations in Denmark have visited a number of Muslim countries to ‘explain’ the matter to local political and religious leaders and media. Their ‘explanations’ were biased and inaccurate. The Danish-Egyptian Dialog Center in Cairo says that after meeting with the Muslim representatives from Denmark the Egyptian press has claimed that Danish newspapers are waging a campaign against Islam, that Copenhagen plans to introduce a state censored version of the Koran, that a Danish film is underway ‘to show how horrible Islam is’, and that the matter involves 120 cartoons – not 12.” (See here. In response, the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, responds some days later that he “is shocked at the way in which some Muslims are misrepresenting Denmark in the Islamic world.” See here.)

By the end of last month, Denmark’s moderate Muslims were politely telling the fundamentalists to get lost, but to no avail. See this article:

A group of Muslims in the Danish city of Århus intend to organize a network of Muslims who do not want to be represented by fundamentalist Danish imams or others who preach the Sharia laws and oppression of women. “There is a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society,” said Bünyamin Simsek, a city councillor and one of the organizers. Århus witnessed severe riots after the publication of the cartoons in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten last Autumn.

In Copenhagen, too, moderate Muslims are speaking out. Hadi Kahn, an IT consultant and the chairman of the Organization of Pakistani Students in Denmark (OPSA), describes himself as a modern Muslim living in a Western society. He says that he does not feel he is being represented by the Muslim groups. When he goes to the mosque for Friday prayers he says the imam does not say much that is useful for him. “We have no need for imams in Denmark. They do not do anything for us,” he says. According to Mr Kahn the imams are not in touch with Danish society. He says too few of them speak Danish and too few of them are opposed to stoning as a punishment. [More…]

Ayaan Hirsi Ali posted a funny counter-counter cartoon on her website: it depicts a George Smiley-ish fellow in cap and glasses talking to a person in full medieval armour, on whose back a thrown rock is bouncing to the ground. Cap-man points to armoured guy and says, “You’re a cartoonist working on Jyllands-Posten, eh?”. Hirsi Ali incidentally supports solidarity with western freedoms and advocates publishing the cartoons as widely as possible. And if anyone still thinks the cartoons are offensive, take a look at these photographs (i.e., not made-up drawings), also courtesy of Hirsi Ali, which show European-based fundamentalist Muslims protesting with placards that read “Behead those who insult Islam!”; “Europe is the cancer, Islam is the answer”; “Exterminate those who slander Islam”; and “Europe you will pay — demolition is on it’s [sic!] way”, among other niceties of tolerance and peace. Oh, and it warns Europeans that they should “Be prepared for the real Holocaust!”


maria February 5, 2006 at 1:09 pm


Yule Heibel February 5, 2006 at 2:06 pm

What’s so depressing, if you think about it in the paranoid way I’m suggesting, is that the publication of the cartoons by a Danish paper of rightwing persuasion starts to make sense, too. You get the rightwingers upping the ante so that — as the fight escalates into the “popular” discourse — it becomes more and more “inevitable” that governments need to “step in” to “protect” their citizens.

Of course I’m of the perhaps unsavoury opinion that the citizens in question are a bunch of dumb-shits. What I mean is that the issue of the cartoons has devolved into a fight between stupid people, the ones with double-digit IQs. Whether it’s the lumpenfundamentalists of the islamofascist bent or the morons in the west who are mouthing mealysyllabic pieties about how we shouldn’t “offend” anyone… You only have to read the Guardian’s blog (someone named Bell, I believe) and check the comments to despair entirely of all humankind. You can read the westerners, in defence of fundamentalists’ outrage, arguing that the cartoons in question are comparable to Nazi Third Reich anti-semitic propaganda cartoons, for example, and you have to ask yourself: have we collectively no sense at all? They’re totally incomparable on several fronts (something I might write something longer about sometime). Or you read the same westerners arguing that the prophet’s supporters have a right to be offended — yet these offended ones base their offendedness on the “fact” that the prophet is personally offended (and how would they know this?), and that he (this guy who founded a supposedly peaceful religion, right?) would be totally d’accord with riots and assaults on other people in his name. Hello?

It’s like a giant slug-fest between the terminally retarded, for chrissakes!

For a completely different reaction to “offensive” cartooning, sparked by a Tom Toles cartoon and the US military reaction to it, see this Washington Post article:

In a protest with an unusual number of high-level signatures, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and each of its five members have fired off a letter assailing a Washington Post cartoon as “beyond tasteless.”

The cartoon in question shows a quadruple amputee in an army hospital bed, with “Dr. Rumsfeld” attending. He tells the patient, “I’m listing your condition as battle-hardened.”
The Post’s editorial page editor said:

Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor, said he doesn’t “censor Tom” and that “a cartoonist works best if he or she doesn’t feel there’s someone breathing over their shoulder. He’s an independent actor, like our columnists.” Hiatt said he makes comments on drafts of cartoons but that Toles is free to ignore them.

Tom Toles, the artist who created the cartoon, noted:

“It is the nature of cartooning that someone can read an analogy a cartoon uses to mean things other than what was intended,” Toles said. “The only way to avoid that problem is to draw cartoons that have no impact.”

That’s an intelligent comment.

So much other stuff is bullshit. If a person is using their brain, I don’t care what their religion is. I admit that stupid people drive me up the wall, though.

Here, I’ve referred to her before, but I’ll close with a review about Irshad Manji, the wonderful lipstick lesbian and muslim refusenik (she is a believing, practicing Muslim):

…Manji has become a key Muslim voice on the world stage, striving to explore a culture and civilization whose inward collapse has given rise to a militant creed at war with the modern world. Along with her book, commentaries appearing in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, the National Post, The Globe and Mail and elsewhere have left fundamentalist Muslims furious.

Manji’s book is partly polemics and partly a frank effort to describe the Muslim faith she was born into. Having journeyed through the culture shaped by that faith, she has acquired insights into the Islamic world that only an insider could possess. She knows instinctively and by experience the plight of Muslim women within a traditional culture that often tends toward misogyny. As someone who came of age in Canada — her parents were compelled to migrate from Uganda, then under the control of notorious despot Idi Amin — Manji is very much the face of the new Canada as well.


A public intellectual, in my view, is one who walks into the sound and fury of contemporary discord, stakes out his or her turf, and engages opponents by putting forward informed and well-reasoned arguments. It requires stamina, a love of learning, a gift for elegant writing, wit, intelligence and, above all, courage.

Manji has ably demonstrated those attributes. But it is her courage, in particular, that distinguishes her from her peers. [More…]

More like this, please…

joseph duemer February 6, 2006 at 8:32 am

Yule, thanks for this post. My reaction was more emotional than informational.

Yule Heibel February 6, 2006 at 12:51 pm

What’s not to get emotional about, Joe? This is like watching cannibalism.

I’m extremely depressed by all this, and by some of the blogs I’ve read, including Shelley’s. I guess I should be glad that no one reads mine, because that way I can just try to let this die a quiet death and tink happy tawts instead, take my dog for a walk and enjoy the sun that finally came out, help my kids with their work, try to figure out how to get a job/ make some money, and stop blogging. It’s certainly an utterly useless activity, sort of like folding the napkins at the cannibals feast, when fundamentalist imams in madrassahs keep preaching the “secret protocols of zion” and similar garbage as “fact” while the west continues to accord them freedom of speech as it self-censors itself into the soup du jour. Pass the fork, I think it’s done…

Yule Heibel February 6, 2006 at 1:06 pm

Last word: I’ll mention Irshad Manji once more, and would ask anyone who reads this to explore her site. And if you’re so inclined, take a listen to her MP3 message, where she argues that to promote tolerance, the Muslim community has to confront intolerance. From the MP3: “There’s a toxic alchemy of duplicity and complacency among Muslims today, including those of us [Muslims] in the West. The way to promote tolerance is to actively tackle the intolerance that’s percolating in our own ranks.” You can’t have it all ways — attack lame cartoons in the west, torch foreign embassies, and teach the destruction of Israel and hatred of Jews to the young people in your madrassahs, while simultaneously thumping the Koran as a gospel of peace and tolerance. “Toxic alchemy of duplicity and complacency,” no kidding.

joseph duemer February 6, 2006 at 7:47 pm

Since nobody reads me either, we can just go on talking to each other. I hope so. A while ago the composer David Rakowski set some poems of mine to music & we joked that by combining the audience of contemporary poetry with the audience for contemporary music we had effectively eliminated any possibility of having an audience at all. Sometimes that’s how I feel about blogging. Eventually, though, the songs got performed & recorded & there may even be a CD one of these days. So, you never know. Keep blogging. I’ll keep reading you.

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