“Barbarism begins her reign by banishing the Muses.”
– Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, 1749
The past several days of mayhem throughout the Muslim world — all thanks to a handful of mild cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed — have provided a clarifying moment for those still uncertain about what the West faces from radical disciples of the Islamic faith.
What’s clear is that East and West are not just cultures apart, but centuries, and that certain elements of the Muslim world would like to drag us back into the Dark Ages.
What is also clear is that the West’s own leaders, both in Europe and the USA, as well as many of our own journalists, have been weak-spined when it comes to defending the principles of free expression that the artists in Denmark were exploring.
Instead of stepping up to passionately defend freedoms won through centuries of bloody sacrifice, most have bowed to ayatollahs of sensitivity, rebuking the higher calling of enlightenment and sending the cartoonists into hiding under threat of death.
Many U.S. newspapers have declined to reproduce the cartoons out of respect for Muslims, setting up the absurd implication that an open airing of the debate’s content constitutes disrespect. Both the U.S. State Department and the Vatican have declared that Muslims were justified in being offended, while former president Bill Clinton, speaking in Qatar last month, called the cartoons “appalling.”
Of course, one can always justify being offended because taking offense is always a subjective act of volition. What is appalling, meanwhile, is appeasing crazed radicals in betrayal of moderate Muslims courageously trying to speak truth to insanity. Appalling is our official genuflection to an irrational horde that has no interest in compromise or reason but only in submission. Ours.
While our government is issuing sanctimonious sympathy notes to the hysterical mobs, a Jordanian editor is arrested for publishing three of the cartoons and urging Muslims to “be reasonable.” While President Bush and Clinton were feeling the pain of religious fanatics, marauders were burning Danish government buildings in Beirut, and Damascus, Syria, and promising Londoners a 9/11 of their own.
Such are the fruits of appeasement.
The controversy that should have been a “Digest” item on a slow news day — rather than heralded as a clash of two civilizations — surrounds 12 cartoons that Danish artists drew to illustrate a newspaper article in September in the center-right daily Jyllands-Posten.
Jyllands-Posten, Page 3 of culture section, Sept., 2005.
The cartoons can be viewed here.
The cartoons, more prosaic than provocative, are deemed blasphemous to the Muslim world for reasons that aren’t clear. Some believers of Islam forbid any depictions of the prophet, while others tolerate certain images. If lampooning Mohammed is forbidden, then certainly devout Muslims should refrain from drawing images of Mohammed. But exactly what does this have to do with the rest of us? One does not have to be Islamophobic to resist submitting to the vicissitudes of Islamic law.
By Western standards, the cartoons fall short of wildly controversial. One shows Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban. Another has Mohammed telling suicide bombers he has run out of virgins with which to reward them. Non-literalists understand the sentiment at play. The cartoonists’ art highlights how fanatics have hijacked religion and used Mohammed to advance nefarious ends. Surely, modern Islam has no stake in defending bombers who praise Allah while killing innocents.
The history of political cartooning is a history of satire and outrage. We arrived at this level of fragile tolerance not by caving to the demands of every sensitive soul, but by struggling with principles — ideas rather than emotions.
The French master Honore’ Daumier, for instance, was jailed for his caricatures of King Louis-Phillippe. Boss Tweed, the 19th-century political boss of Tammany Hall, offered Thomas Nast, the father of American cartooning, a bribe to cease and desist what Tweed famously referred to as “them damned pictures.” Hitler reportedly put British caricaturist David Low on a death list.
Thanks to this heritage of healthy irreverence, today self-deprecation and parody are favorite ingredients in the volatile, spicy stew we call freedom. That’s why we roast our most powerful in tribute — and why politicians collect, frame and display cartoons that lampoon them. The ability to laugh at oneself, or to shrug off insult, is a sign both of a mature ego and a mature society.
Unfortunately, much of the Arab/Muslim world enjoys no such legacy, much to its cultural impoverishment and to our potential peril. It might help us to win this war of ideas if we properly understand our own.
Those defending Muslim outrage insist that Christians or Jews would be equally outraged were their religious leaders caricatured. Indeed, they often are.
Political cartoonist Doug Marlette remembers when Jewish leaders came to his editor’s office and used pica rulers to measure the noses on his drawings of Menachem Begin. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker called him a “tool of Satan” when he highlighted the hypocrisies of their “Praise the Lord” scam, or as they later changed the name without irony or grammar, “People That Love.” So it goes.
Two common apologist arguments beg rebuttal. One of them compares printing inflammatory cartoons to crying “fire” in a crowded theater, implying that one shouldn’t express things certain to offend others. Never mind that all political commentary would cease by such a standard, but the reason crying “fire” is forbidden is practical. People panic and stampede when they hear it, and it is false. It is imperative to cry “fire” when there really is a fire. It is also imperative to cry foul when cartoonists face death threats for doodling.
An inapt comparison
The other argument, also based on a logical fallacy, is that the Danish cartoons are comparable to racist caricatures of Jews in Nazi Germany and blacks in the segregationist South. The Boston Globe, which saw fit in the past to defend “Piss Christ” (a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine) as well as a depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in feces as worthy of government subsidy, made such a case recently.
There are at least two reasons why The Globe’s comparison is bogus: gas chambers and lynchings. Both the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were officially sanctioned enforcers of immoral social orders that used caricature to further degrade and dehumanize beleaguered minorities they ultimately murdered.
There is no equivalence between organized murder on behalf of a malignant social system and a half-dozen nerdy artists, speaking only for themselves, lampooning a fanatical religious sect whose members, by the way, specifically advance the delightful goal of exterminating millions of “infidels.”
The correct comparison, in fact, for Nazi and Klan terrorists are their brothers under the hoods — the jihadists who issued a death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie, who beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl and businessman Nick Berg, and who kidnapped an innocent American female journalist and showed videos of her sobbing and terrified among armed men holding guns to her head.
These are the fascist thugs, not the artists who draw cartoons in the service of democracy and truth. And those who out of a misguided sense of cultural sensitivity and niceness try to justify Muslim outrage over a cartoon are, frankly, lending aid and comfort to the enemies of civilization.
Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, is syndicated by Tribune Media Services. She is also a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.