Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why were the cartoons offensive?

A fairly widespread view on the whole cartoon row is that while Jyllands-Posten has the right to publish offensive cartoons, it shouldn't exercise that right. My view on this question depends on precisely why the cartoons are offensive. There are three possibilities:

  1. The cartoons could be offensive because they are defamatory. In particular, they portray Mohammed as endorsing suicide bombing. To the extent that the cartoons are defamatory, of course they should not have been published. Free speech does not extend to the right to spread lies. On the other hand, both the author of the offending cartoons (only two of the twleve cartoons deal with suicide bombing) and the nutters calling for his execution believe that Islam does in fact endorse suicide bombing. So this is unlikely to be the real problem.
  2. The cartoons could be offensive because they are sacriligious. The cartoonists are trying (largely unsuccessfully) to be funny, whereas religion is not a joking matter, at least to those who believe in it. I can't accept this argument. All humour is offensive to somebody - precisely because it involves A using something B takes seriously to give C a laugh at B's expense. Caricatures of Mohammed are acceptable for the same reason that Father Ted is. Danish Muslims should get a sense of humour. The fact that the cartoons are not, in fact, funny does not change this - bad jokes are grounds for groans, not (even peaceful) outrage.
  3. The cartoons could be offensive because they are idolatrous. Islamic law bans any pictures of Mohammed, even entirely respectful ones. In the words of Shaikh Faiz Saddiqi, a spokesman for the Muslim Action Committee, "It is as if the media around the world just don't get it, the publication of an image of the prophet Muhammad in itself is a deep insult." The origin of the row also suggests that this is the case - a Danish publisher couldn't find an illustrator for a book about Mohhamed that was not otherwise anti-Islamic. If this is the real problem, then of course it is acceptable for non-Muslims to publish the cartoons, since Muslim religious law isn't binding on them.

From the behaviour of both moderate and nutty Muslims over the issue, it looks like the real problem is idolatry. That is why it is particularly important that we stand up for free speech rather than taking the soft option of denouncing the cartoonists as insensitive bigots.

Let's suppose that Pastafarians believe that Spaghetti should always be spelt with a capital "S" in homage to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Further, let's suppose that some Pastafarians parade through the streets carrying placards saying "Death to Heinz" after Heinz advertise spaghetti with a small "s", because they find this kind of irreligious behaviour deeply offensive. Does that mean that the rest of the world is suddenly under some kind of moral obligation to use a capital "S"? Of course not.

Giving in to the critics of Jyllands-Posten would set a precedent that we should use a capital "S". Unless you believe that respect for other people's religion only applies to large religions with lots of political clout.

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  • At 12:49 am , Anonymous Jon C said...

    I think you're right - the reason for the anger from the muslim community is more an issue of idolatry (with a sacriligious element).

    Having seen these pictures, read the backstory as to why they were published (thanks heavens for wikipedia!) I am fairly satisfied most of them should have been published.

    However, some of them (particularly the muhammed with a bomb-turban) are concerning. What worries me is that it is vilifying muslims, in a way not that unlike the jews were vilified in Nazi germany (and indeed, many modern day muslim countries). I'd rather have seen cartoons of Muhammed standing next to Aisha (his 6 year old wife). Not in a sleazy way, but simply there makes a point.

    I hate religion, and don't want to be forced to follow anyones religious laws. That said, I don't want to tell people they can't have religious beliefs.

    I guess my point comes down to the fine details. An example - a cartoon of Ariel Sharon with a demonised face and blood covered hands (not unlike cartoons I have seen) - political and satirical. A cartoon of a generic, stereotyped jew with demonised features and blood covered hands - racism and scapegoating an entire ethnic group.

    The question is, is Muhammed a political figure, or representative of muslims as a whole? I'd tend to the latter.

  • At 1:15 pm , Blogger Joe Otten said...

    Of course respect only applies to large religions with political clout. The battleground on this point is over Scientology.


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