Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cartoons v. Reality

Last year Afghans protested after a US marine in Guantánamo had urinated on the Qur'an. It was a vile act and there was an official inquiry. The marine in question explained that he had been urinating on a prisoner and a few drops had fallen accidentally on the Qur'an - as if pissing on a prisoner (an old imperial habit) was somehow more acceptable.
Tariq Ali

I've kept more or less aloof from this unholy cartoons row up to now, partly because the characters taking the spotlight at each extreme stand for causes I'd rather not associate with, partly because I'm always suspicious of the way some stories are blown up by the media, especially when they concern itself.

"Freedom of the press"? C'mon! Newspapers are not "free", most are run by very rich people, with the aim of getting even richer, and politically, of maintaining the system that enables them to stay that way. How often do we hear them enthusing over freedom on the internet?

When it comes to maintaining ignorance, inciting hatred, and manipulating naive mobs, the zeal of fanatic preachers is nothing like as powerful as the modern media.

On the other hand, looking at all the things happening in the Middle East,
I can think of lots more things to get worked up about than a cartoon insult to the Prophet, even if I were a devout Muslim. There's those far more disgusting pictures from Abu Ghraib, for a start, and the video of British soldiers battering Iraqi youths, with gleeful commentary. "Sticks and stones..." ?
Plenty of bones being broken, I'd say.

Then there's the Israeli army taking steps to cut off the Palestinian West Bank as US and Israeli governments discuss how they will starve the Palestinian people into submission, to punish them for voting wrongly.

Which brings me to a couple of questions. One, how come the cartoons row broke out just now, when the paper that published the attack on Muhammed, aimed at stirring up hatred of Muslims, did so back in September? Does the news travel slow, or was it fortuitous that the provocation was so timed as to be detonated when it suits? (I was reminded of a similar time gap last year between a certain Israel Shamir contriving himself an invitation to the House of Lords, supposedly as the guest of Lord Ahmed, and the appearance three months later of reams of ignorant or malicious condemnation of the Labour peer - just in time for a general election). Second, apart from European racists, to whose advantage is it that Muslim anger is diverted on to Europe, and its effects harm not just trade but visitors, including peace and aid volunteers?

Why did the Danish paper commission and print offensive cartoons anyway? Some ill-informed, if not ill-intentioned Western commentators have sought to present this as freedom to oppose religious intolerance and bigotry, patting themselves on the back for supposedly tolerating criticism or humour about religion, unlike these intolerant Muslims. But the late much-loved Dave Allen who some cite was a Catholic, his jokes were about priests, not people's beliefs, and besides -they were funny. Salman Rushdie writes as someone brought up a Muslim. But the Danish paper admitted it would not carry cartoons offending Christians, and it was a Norwegian paper run by Evagelical Christians that followed up. Was a cartoon of the prophet Muhammed with a bomb supposed to be funny, was it meant to amuse, or was it intended to equate Islam and terrorism and incite hatred of Muslims? One does not have to be an expert iconologist to make a guess.

Nevertheless, as a provocation, it could not have had such effect, or at such a conveniant time, if it was not that some Muslim leaders and perhaps governments saw a chance to pursue their own aims, and consolidate their hold on followers (there's nothing like a siege mentality, as Zionist leaders know, to instil obediance and fanaticism in your crowd). So they too played their alotted part.

Now here's some angles on the cartoon row, that give us insights which much of the media has witheld. First, an extract from the US based online "Counterpunch":

Daniel Pipes and the Danish Editor. by John Sugg,
Counter Punch February 14

Only a brief mention in the Washington Post gave a hint at a fact desperately needed to understand the situation. The Post described the affair as "a calculated insult … by a right-wing newspaper in a country where bigotry toward the minority Muslim population is a major, if frequently unacknowledged, problem."

How bad is Pipes? He wants the utter military obliteration of the Palestinians; indeed, from the Muslim world, his racism is about as blatant as that of the Holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Pipes’ frequent outbursts of racism -- designed to toss gasoline on the neo-cons’ lust for a wholesale conflict of cultures -- earned him a Bush nomination to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded think tank. Rose came to America to commune with Pipes in 2004, and it was after that meeting the cartoon gambit materialized. It’s also worth noting that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrapped himself in protestations about freedom of speech, and that’s commendable. But he is one of Bush’s few fans in Europe, steeped in the we-versus-them rhetoric, and having sent troops to the Iraqi Crusade.
The Cartoons and the Neocon, 2006

Next, here's Peter Schwartz, a German socialist, writing on
Denmark and Jyllands-Posten: The background to a provocation (extract)

The basic lie in the controversy over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by Danish and European newspapers is the claim that the conflict is between free speech and religious censorship, or between Western enlightenment and Islamic bigotry. An examination of the prevailing political conditions in Denmark reveals how bogus such arguments are. One would be hard pressed to find another European country where political changes over the past few years have found such a clear—and repellent—expression.

In a country renowned for its tolerance and openness, the social crisis and the betrayals carried out by the old working class organizations have openedthe way for the emergence of political forces which systematically encourage xenophobia and racism. The newspaper Jyllands-Posten has played a prominent role in this process.

Last autumn Jyllands-Posten assigned 40 prominent Danish caricaturists to draw the Prophet Muhammad. Twelve responded and the results were published on September 30. The project was deliberately designed to provoke.According to the cultural editor of the newspaper, Flemming Rose, it was aimed at "testing the limits of self-censorship in Danish public opinion"when it comes to Islam and Muslims. He added: "In a secular society, Muslims have to live with the fact of being ridiculed, scoffed at and made to look ridiculous."

When the anticipated reaction by the Muslim community failed to arise, the newspaper continued its campaign, determined to create a full-scale scandal. After a week had gone by without protest, journalists turned on Danish Islamic religious leaders who were well known for their fundamentalist views and demanded: "Why don’t you protest?" Eventually, the latter reacted and alerted their co-thinkers in the Middle East.

At this point the head of the Danish government, Andres Fogh Rasmussen, and the xenophobic Danish People’s Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, swung into action. Fogh Rasmussen demonstratively turned down appeals by concerned Arab ambassadors for talks to clarify the issue. Even after 22 former Danish ambassadors appealed to the prime minister to hold discussions with the representatives of Islamic states, Rasmussen maintained his stance, arguing that "freedom of the press" could not be a topic for diplomatic discussion. The chairperson of the Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjaersgaard, insulted Danish Muslims who complained about the caricatures, publicly denouncing them as national traitors because they supposedly placed their religious beliefs above free speech.

From the start, the campaign had nothing to do with "free speech" and everything to do with the political agenda of the Fogh Rasmussen government, comprising of a coalition of right-wing neo-liberals and conservatives, together with the Danish People’s Party.The latter rose to prominence in the 1990s when all of the country’s bourgeois parties—including the then-governing Social Democrats—responded to a mounting social crisis with xenophobic campaigns. The People’s Party declared at the time that Islam was a "cancerous ulcer" and "terrorist movement." Kjaersgaard, notorious for her racist outbursts, declared that the Islamic world could not be regarded as civilized. "There is only one civilization, and that is ours," she said.

Fogh Rasmussen, at that time the chairman of the right-wing Venstre party, adopted much of the racist demagogy of the People’s Party. In the election campaign of 2001 he demanded, among other things, that "criminal foreigners" be thrown out of the country within 48 hours. His campaign utilized an election poster featuring pictures of Muslim criminals to suggest that all Muslims were violent. Venstre won the electionand, together with the traditional conservative party, formed a minority government, which was supported by the extremist People’s Party.Danish politics lurched far to the right. The country’s immigration laws were drastically tightened, while spending for development aid was cut back.

In the Iraq war, which was opposed by the majority of the Danish population, Fogh Rasmussen lined up behind the Bush administration and sent a contingent of Danish troops to help occupy the country.The campaign unleashed by Jyllands-Posten is a continuation and intensification of this reactionary trajectory, aimed at bolstering the xenophobic policies of the government and strengthening its support for US imperialism.The caricatures themselves are patently racist. They suggest that every Muslim is a potential terrorist. Reports and pictures of outraged Muslims protesting the defamation of their prophet are used to reinforce this slander. Official politics and the media throughout Europe are increasingly preoccupied with such agitation.

Muslims are collectively held responsible for acts carried out by terrorist groups, although they bear no responsibility for them. In the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, Muslims seeking to stay in the country must answer a catalog of questions probing their religious beliefs. Television news presenters regularly malign Muslims for being prepared to protest against the defamation of Muhammad, but not against acts carried out by terrorist groups in the name of Islam, suggesting that they secretly support such acts. A campaign is emerging to depict Islam as an inferior culture that isincompatible with "Western values."

There are clear parallels here to the anti-Semitic caricatures that were spread in the 1930s by fascist newspapers such as the Nazi Sturrmer. The depiction of Jews as sub-humans served as the ideological preparation for the Holocaust. Today the systematic defamation of Muslims is being used to prepare public opinion for new wars against countries such as Iran and Syria—wars which will be even more brutal than the Iraq war, and could well involve the use of nuclear weapons. It is no coincidence that it was the Jyllands-Posten that took up this initiative. The newspaper is notorious for its declarations of support for the Nazis in the 1930s, and has played a key role in Denmark’s recent shift to the right.

With editorial offices in the rural area of Arhus, Jyllands-Posten remained a relatively insignificant provincial newspaper until the beginning of the 1980s. At that time it began an aggressive policy of expansion. It bought up smaller regional and local newspapers and launched a price war with the two established newspapers in the Danish capital—Berlingske Tidende and Politiken—and rapidly built up its circulation to 170,000, becoming the biggest circulation newspaper in the country.

In the 1990s the decidedly conservative paper increasingly developed into a mouthpiece for openly xenophobic, right-wing forces. Nearly a quarter of the editorial board was dismissed, and the quality of the paper sank as its aggressiveness rose. Shortly before the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, Jyllands-Posten ran a headline reading, "Islam is the Most Belligerent."

The newspaper ran an expose about an alleged Muslim death-list of Jewish names—until it emerged that the whole thing was a fabrication.One year ago the editor-in-chief resigned because the newspaper carried a report, in the midst of an election campaign, alleging the systematic abuse of welfare rights by asylum-seekers. The sensational charges were published against his will.

The notorious right-wing sympathies of Jyllands-Posten are no secret. The Suddeutsche Zeitung describes it as "a newspaper with an almost missionary zeal, boasting that it has been successful in breaking the ideological and political grip of left-wing liberals over Danish society." According to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, it would be "an inadmissible simplification" to equate Jyllands-Posten with the People’s Party, but they are certainly "fellow combatants in the broader sense."

The Frankfurt Rundshau writes: "Connoisseurs of Danish media will note withno little irony that it is precisely Jyllands-Posten which is now considered to be a beacon for free speech, i.e., the most right-wing of the Danish newspapers, which normally thrashes anyone who dares to advance a different point of view."

Full article can be found at

Lastly, from another angle, here is Tariq Ali in the Guardian:


This is the real outrage
Amid the cartoon furore, Danish imams ignore the tragedies suffered by Muslims across the world
Tariq Ali Monday February 13, 2006

The latest round of culture wars does neither side any good. The western civilisational fundamentalists insist on seeing Muslims as the other - different, alien and morally evil. Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons in bad faith. Their aim was not to engage in debate but to provoke, and they succeeded. The same newspaper declined to print caricatures of Jesus. I am an atheist and do not know the meaning of the "religious pain" that is felt by believers of every cast when what they believe in is insulted. I am not insulted by billions of Christians, Muslims and Jews believing there is a God and praying to this nonexistent deity on a regular basis.

But the cartoon depicting Muhammad as a terrorist is a crude racist stereotype. The implication is that every Muslim is a potential terrorist. This is the sort of nonsense that leads to Islamophobia.

Muslims have every right to protest, but the overreaction was unnecessary. In reality, the number of original demonstrators was tiny: 300 in Pakistan, 400 in Indonesia, 200 in Tripoli, a few hundred in Britain (before Saturday's bigger reconciliation march), and government-organised hoodlums in Damascus burning an embassy. Beirut was a bit larger. Why blow this up and pretend that the protests had entered the subsoil of spontaneous mass anger? They certainly haven't anywhere in the Muslim world, though the European media has been busy fertilising the widespread ignorance that exists in this continent.
How many citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers did take humanity forward by recognising no external authority of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: "Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes." Hume: "The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words." There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the generalised anti-Muslim ravings in the media.

What I find interesting is that these demonstrations and embassy-burnings are a response to a tasteless cartoon. Did the Danish imam who travelled round the Muslim world pleading for this show the same anger at Danish troops being sent to Iraq? The occupation of Iraq has costs tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Where is the response to that or the tortures in Abu Ghraib? Or the rapes of Iraqi women by occupying soldiers? Where is the response to the daily deaths of Palestinians? These are the issues that anger me. Last year Afghans protested after a US marine in Guantánamo had urinated on the Qur'an. It was a vile act and there was an official inquiry. The marine in question explained that he had been urinating on a prisoner and a few drops had fallen accidentally on the Qur'an - as if pissing on a prisoner (an old imperial habit) was somehow more acceptable.

Yesterday, footage of British soldiers brutalising and abusing civilians in Iraq - beating teenagers with batons until they pass out, posing for the camera as they kick corpses - was made public. No one can seriously imagine these are the isolated incidents the Ministry of Defence claims; they are of course the norm under colonial occupations. Who will protest now - the media pundits defending the Enlightenment or Muslim clerics frothing over the cartoons?

It's strange that the Danish imams and their friends abroad ignore the real tragedy and instead ensure that the cartoons are now being reprinted everywhere. How will it end? Like all these things do, with no gains on either side and a last tango in Copenhagen around a mountain of unused butter. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine the occupations continue.

· Tariq Ali is the author of Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. Email:
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006


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