The cartoon conundrum

Sometimes the clash of civilisations theory proposed by Samuel Huntington and debated in arts faculties around the world becomes all too real. Like today, for instance, when the Danish embassy in Beirut was torched, injuring hundreds. And the Western media, including two Fairfax-owned newspapers in New Zealand, are continuing to fan the flames by reprinting the cartoons in solidarity. All of which is why I think blogger Tim Blair is so brave for becoming the first person in the Australian media to reproduce the inflammatory cartoons this afternoon.

Blair published them in response to the call by Victorian Sheik Fehmi El-Imam for the Australian media not to publish them. Which seemed to serve as red rag to the bull – as Blair put it in his typically blunt manner, “Warning politely declined, Sheik.” Which is a predictable reaction to a fairly self-defeating request. The Sheik’s comments virtually guaranteed their publication.
I was tempted to put them up here on Thursday and Friday, and debate whether they should have been published in the first place, but ultimately decided not to go there. It would have necessarily involved extensive discussions with other people within the SMH and would potentially have placed others in harm’s way. For the same reason, I’m not going to link to them now. It will only slow people who want to find them down by about three seconds.
This whole incident is a storm, or perhaps more accurately a Molotov cocktail in a teacup. It seems almost surreal that you can publish a cartoon in a relatively obscure newspaper in Europe and cost your countries’ companies millions of dollars and get your embassy torched amid massive protests in the Middle East. I won’t bother condemning these outrages. It’s obvious.
But I don’t think either side has distinguished itself much. The West does rightly cherish its freedom of speech, but along with any freedom comes a degree of responsibility in its use. If you goad somebody by being deliberately provocative, you shouldn’t be shocked by the response. And because the cartoons were published as a deliberate response to the problem of finding illustrators to depict the Prophet, it seems like they were asking for an explosive response.
Jyllands-Posten is far from blameless, in my opinion, because I think a different standard of behaviour should be applied to the West. I think most Australians would agree that the Islamic world’s attitude to free speech troubles us, and that we would love to see it develop to become more like our own. But given that we are all aware of the problem, it doesn’t seem sensible or helpful to aggravate it like this. If you bait a dog with sharp teeth, and it bites you, is it a huge surprise?
The other problem is that the illustrations seem to have so little merit. Depicting the Prophet with a turban-bomb is basically just offensiveness for its own sake. And while personally I don’t have a problem with that, I can understand that people do. And it’s not like our own record with religious icons and free speech is particularly distinguished – look at the furore over Piss Christ, which made waves in the US Senate and which Australian Christians took to court. Religious people of any persuasion are enraged by blasphemy to a degree that’s hard for a non-believer to comprehend.
The West’s self-righteousness is also fairly hard for the Islamic world to take, as these press quotes suggest, Among them, I’ve got particular sympathy for the perspective of Shireen Mazari in Pakistan’s The Nation:
The hypocrisy and falsehoods surrounding [Europe’s] claim to “freedom of expression” is what needs to be exposed. Legal and political challenges are far more effective than simply burning flags or death threats which only undermine the strong case that Muslims have against these forces of hate in Europe.
And as The Guardian writes:
It is one thing to assert the right to publish an image of the Prophet… but it is another thing to put that right to the test, especially when to do so inevitably causes offence to many Muslims… That is why the restraint of most of the British press may be the wiser course – at least for now. There has to be a very good reason for giving gratuitous offence of this kind.
I suspect that all the high-falutin’ solidarity in the Western press would not have happened were this not a chance to proclaim our moral superiority over the Islamic world. After all, the attempts to ban Piss Christ didn’t inspire art galleries across the world to replicate the image as a show of defiance against the Christian right.
There may well be a time when the West needs to band together to protect its most fundamental rights and beliefs, and to assert that we will not compromise on the principles which are important to us for anyone. It may be necessary to offend people of other religions to do so. And if the struggle is objectively important, or the work of art valuable, count me in. The defence of The Satanic Verses is an excellent example of a battle for freedom of expression worth fighting.
When you know you’re guaranteed a disproportionate, violent, ugly reaction, it’s worth thinking twice about the value of a course of action. Ultimately, when I look at these unfunny, pointlessly offensive cartoons, it’s hard to conclude that they’re worth the hassle.