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Feb 13 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them

Like most people, I have been dismayed by the demonstrations, the arson, the boycott threats, etc. caused by the publication in Denmark of twelve cartoons that were seen as disrespectful to Islam. I have resisted commenting on it because there was so much coverage that anything I would say would seem superfluous.

But it seems some important aspects of the story are not being told. The coverage has settled into a familiar storyline: The countries of the Islamic world do not understand western concepts of free speech, not to mention western humor in which no sacred cow is immune from skewering. Furthermore those countries are full of irrational religious fanatics who respond with violence to things that offend them, rather than peaceful dialogue.

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the person who decided to publish the cartoons issued a statement that reinforces this view.

“This is about standing for fundamental values that have been the (foundation) for the development of Western democracies over several hundred years, and we are now in a situation where those values are being challenged,” he said.

“I think some of the Muslims who have reacted very strongly to these cartoons are being driven by totalitarian and authoritarian impulses, and the nature of these impulses is that if you give in once they will just put forward new requirements.”

Once the media finds a storyline that is congenial to its readers (and this one definitely reinforces a positive self-image of the west combined with a stereotype of Muslims who currently regarded with suspicion and hostility) it usually tends not to delve too deeply into more subtle issues. But in this case, when you do so, you find that the story is more complex than has been portrayed.

For instance, consider the timeline of this story that is presented. The cartoons were first published on September 30, 2005.

Approximately two weeks later, nearly 3,500 people demonstrated peacefully in Copenhagen. In November, several European newspapers re-published the images, triggering more protests.”

On January 10, 2006, the cartoons were reprinted in the small Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet (circulation: 5.000).

On January 30, the Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten apologizes, saying “In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.”

So far, this story seems reasonable. A newspaper publishes something edgy, some people get upset and protest, and the newspaper apologizes for unwittingly causing offense but defends its rights to free speech. This kind of thing happens routinely.

But apparently some other newspapers saw this apology as some kind of free speech violation, and the Danish newspaper’s apology as capitulation. In order to assert the right to free speech, on February 1, the cartoons were reprinted in the French daily France Soir, and many other European newspapers. And this is what has led to the big demonstrations that we see going on now, with some Muslim communities seeing this as a deliberate insult to their religion.

The main issue of rights seem to be fairly clear. The Danish newspaper had every right to publish the cartoons. People who find the cartoons offensive have every right to protest in non-violent forms, such as holding demonstrations, and even organizing boycotts and breaking off diplomatic relations.

In apologizing, the newspaper was not being censored by governments, it was just saying it was sorry for causing offense. Newspapers depend on advertisers and routinely avoid printing some things to avoid losing readers.

That is the standard storyline. But when you look underneath it, the division between right and wrong, good and bad, start getting blurry, and the motives of the people who published the cartoons become increasingly suspect.

For one thing, the cartoons about Prophet Mohammed were actually solicited by the cultural editor of the newspaper not for their humor but in order to test Muslim sensitivities. Flemming Rose is supposed to have done so because he had heard that cartoonists “were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children’s biography of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad,” since depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, as they are considered idolatrous.

Furthermore, the very same Danish newspaper had rejected cartoons three years earlier that made fun of Christianity because they feared they would cause offense.

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.

The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten.

Zieler received an email back from the paper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”

What this demonstrates is a certain level of hypocrisy because the editor felt that the sensitivities of Muslims were not worth considering but that of Christian were.

The story gets even murkier. Justin Raimondo points out that Flemming Rose seems to be an admirer of those in the US like Daniel Pipes who are “fanatically hostile to Islam.” So the whole story of a somewhat na├»ve editor who innocently publishes cartoons that caused a surprising amount of offense starts becoming unraveled and becomes more and more like a case of deliberate provocation aimed at Muslims.

And it gets worse. More on this tomorrow. . .

POST SCRIPT: Mainstream Churches Fight Back

It looks like mainstream churches are getting fed up with fundamentalist attacks on evolution. Commenter Cathie points out this notice for “Evolution Sunday” organized by them (now past, unfortunately). But it is a good sign. Here is the introduction to their website. You can check if your own church is here, or encourage them to join for next year.

On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.

The New York Times reports that “more than 10,000 ministers from around the country had signed [An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science], which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is “a foundational scientific truth.” To reject it, the letter continues, “is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”

On the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin, ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached yesterday against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution, asserting that the opposition many Christians say exists between science and faith is false.

At St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, “A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.”

And don’t forget, Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species both occur in 2009. Mark your calendars now for the big party that is sure to happen on February 12th of that year.

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