Reason, Liberty, & Culture

Cartoon jihad is not about hate censorship but the idiosyncratic dogma of one particular faith

By Jonathan Kay

In 2003, artist Dave Brown published a cartoon in Britain's Independent newspaper depicting Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby. "What's wrong?" Sharon is saying. "You never seen a politician kissing babies before?"

The cartoon provoked outrage for two reasons. First, it played on the debunked myth that Israel had massacred Palestinian civilians in Jenin the previous April. Secondly, it evoked the ancient libels against the Jews - the most famous being the claim that Jews use the blood of Gentile children to make their Passover Matzoh.

Yet Brown never felt compelled to go into hiding from Jewish mobs. Nor was he bashful about showing up when the Sharon image won Political Cartoon of the Year honors from Britain's Political Cartoon Society. His award was presented by a former Cabinet minister at the London headquarters of The Economist, with nary a protester in sight. Later, Canadian filmmaker Martin Himel interviewed the Cartoon Society's director, Tim Benson, to find out what he thought of Brown's award-winning creation. The exchange is captured in Himel's 2004 documentary Jenin: Massacring Truth.

Himel: "Why, in all these [British cartoons], don't we see maybe [Yasser] Arafat eating babies?"
Benson: "Maybe Jews don't issue fatwas."
Himel: "What do you mean by that?"
Benson: "Well, if you upset an Islamic or Muslim group, as you know, fatwas can be issued by Ayatollahs and such-like. And maybe it's at the back of each cartoonist's mind that they could be in trouble if they do so."

A dozen cartoonists who published crude depictions of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten are now learning this the hard way. At rallies in Europe and the Middle East, protesters held signs that demanded that such infidels be variously "beheaded," "slain," "exterminated" and "massacred." So much for freedom of speech. Or, as one protester's sign put it: "Freedom of expression - go to hell."

That last one crystallizes the reason the Danish firestorm represents such a watershed in the clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world.

If the cartoons constituted garden-variety hate-speech, there would be no story. Political correctness is now as much a Western value as due process and representative democracy. In 1997, following a terrorist attack in Egypt, Gazette cartoonist Aislin published a cartoon showing a dog wearing an Arab headdress. The heading read, "In the name of Islamic Extremism ...," followed by the words "With our apologies to dogs everywhere." The Montreal newspaper quickly apologized to readers, and few even remember the incident. Such teapot tempests are old hat.

What makes the Jyllands-Posten controversy different is that it is not about hate censorship - which has broad approval across all religions - but about the idiosyncratic dogma of one particular faith.

As Haroon Siddiqui noted in the Toronto Star on Thursday, things began when a Danish author complained he could not get an artist to provide illustrations for an innocent children's book. The reason: Islam forbids pictorial depictions of Muhammad - or at least of his face - as risking idolatry. It doesn't matter whether the depiction is flattering or unflattering, peaceful or menacing. It is forbidden, period. That is what led an editor at Jyllands-Posten - in a misguided effort to uphold the principle of free speech - to commission the cartoons at issue.

All across Europe, the ingredients for a violent culture war are in place. American conservatives like to lampoon Europeans as touchy-feely lefties who will do anything to appease militant Islam. But in recent years, the continent has begun to fight back I say misguided because the cartoons are crude, and not particularly clever. Had they been submitted for publication in the Post, or any other Canadian newspaper, they would have been rejected on that simple basis alone.

But in Europe, it's the lofty principle - not its vulgar implementation - that editors are now standing on. Which is why several other newspapers defied Muslim threats and republished the cartoons this past week. Their point is that the ban on depicting Muhammad is, from a secular perspective, arbitrary - like a fiat against showing a man's elbow. Or an avocado. Or the number eight. And if you give in to that, you're validating a quantum leap in political correctness that opens the door for extremists - of any religion - to enforce any no-go area they please.

All across Europe, the ingredients for a violent culture war are in place. American conservatives like to lampoon Europeans as touchy-feely lefties who will do anything to appease militant Islam. But in recent years, the continent has begun to fight back.

The French decision to ban the hijab from public schools in 2004 is the most famous example. But there are many others. From Jan. 1, 2006 onward, for instance, the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg has required immigrants to take a "conscience test." The questions include: "(13) What would you do if your daughter wants to marry a man of a different religion?", "(22)

You have learned that a terrorist operation is under way. How would you act?", "(27) Some people think the Jews are responsible for many evil actions in the world and even believe that the Jews were behind the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. What do you think?", and, most pertinently to the current crisis, "(3) Some films, plays and books offend the religious sensitivities of people of different religions. In your opinion, what methods should be employed for the prevention of religious sensitivities from being hurt?"

As you run through the test's 30 questions, you realize how abundant and fundamental are the moral divisions between traditional Islam and secular Western society. Some pundits have written that Hamas's victory in last week's Palestinian election was a good thing, because it showed Israel what it's up against. The Danish affair may have the same effect on Europe.

Westerners tend to make triumphalist assumptions about their values. We assume that once traditional societies get a taste of free speech, female emancipation, capitalism and all the rest, they'll quickly cast off their patriarchal strictures and religious dogmas. That's proven true in most of the developing world - including East Asia, eastern Europe and Latin America. But the Muslim world is putting up a stronger fight. A lot of blood will be spilled before it's over. And some of it may belong to cartoonists.

Feb. 8, 2006