Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Who did start the fire?

Okay, this is going to be my last 'serious' post for the week. Promise. It's not that I'm having a particularly sincere week or anything - it's just that I feel that I can't let the whole Who Framed Muhammad the Terrorist thing go by without saying something about it.

Here's my two cents worth then. In this whole cartoon controversy (which would be ridiculous if it weren't so scary) the one question that's not getting asked enough, in my opinion, is this - what are hordes of people in the Middle East doing reading Danish newspapers in the first place?

Look, I'm not trying to defend the cartoonist or the editor - if only because I think the cartoons themselves were so not funny. Which is not to say the editor was wrong to publish them, just stupid; an error, in my opinion, not of ethics or even judgement but simply of taste.

That being so, everyone seems to be assuming that it was only natural that the cartoons would cause the kind of outrage that they have. Maybe I'm just naive, but I don't see why. I mean it's not like this is some mainstream international publication we're talking about (I'm willing to bet that half these protesters couldn't point to Denmark on a map) and it is just a stupid cartoon for crying out loud.

The point is not that the people in the Middle East are overreacting, the point is that they're clearly being made to overreact. If we assume that most people living in Egypt and Afghanistan don't read Danish newspapers with their morning coffee, then someone is taking the trouble to find this one obscure set of cartoons, make an issue out of them, and stir up a whole bunch of people to protest against them, many of whom, I'm willing to bet, haven't even seen the cartoons in question. These are not spontaneous protests, they are carefully orchestrated acts of violence put together by a malevolent system intent on destruction for its own political ends. The people actually protesting (and dying) in the streets may be genuinely outraged (though who knows what levels of misinformation their outrage stems from [1]) but they are merely pawns in a larger game - and in that sense are the true victims of this travesty.

If we're going to make sense of these events, we need to look beyond the actual protesters to the people who are spreading and amplifying this malice. In the debate between freedom of press and 'public' outrage, the role of these professional troublemakers has been largely ignored, but it's that role that we most critically need to understand. If the editors of the newspaper are guilty of anything, it is only of providing fuel to this propaganda machine [2]. That's what makes this whole episode so scary - the fact that so complete a non-issue can so easily be manipulated into becoming an international incident; that so insignificant a spark can be made to explode in the combustible atmosphere of the Middle East. Blaming either the protesters or the media is not the answer - finding out how we can stop political interests in the region from using the headstrongness of one and the desperation of the other to their own advantage is.

[1] I'm fascinated, for instance, by the process by which the blame for the cartoons has spread from one individual newspaper to all of Denmark, and from there to America and her allies. I feel the Danish should protest this as an insult to their nation. Having your favourite prophet made fun of may be fairly offensive, but surely being accused of electing Bush to power is much worse.

[2] The fact that these protests have sprung up right around the time that a prominent state in the region is the focus of intense scrutiny over its alleged nuclear program may just be coincidence, of course. Then again, it might not.


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20 comments:

Veena said...

Agree. While there's no question that junta is being incited by vested interests, do remember that it really wasn't only the Danish newspaper. Looks like it was re-published in almost every publication in Europe. Wouldn't be surprised if quite a few people do read Le Monde for instance - though whether they would burn embassies is another question altogether. But it kind of raises this us against Europe(and by extension America!!!) situation.

the One said...

>>The point is not that the people in the Middle East are overreacting, the point is that they're clearly being made to overreact.

Indeed, and this article describes how. A quote:

"A group of ultra-conservative Danish imams set off for a tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a dossier .. "

bharath said...

what are hordes of people in the Middle East doing reading Danish newspapers in the first place? very interesting question.

Islamic law runs the Middle East. So whatever be the paper, if they "feel" it violates their religion in any particular, they will raise a cry. After all Rushdie was not spared, even in India that much. so, the outrage is not a question of who reads those papers, but who published that cartoon.

However ridiculous this may seem, this is how things are run in Islamic states. Like Vatican once asked astronomers to do all the research they like but go easy on the big bang and not to contradict it. Stephen Hawkings proposed an alternate model that contradicts it at a later date.

Sometimes power structures are a very important part of the picture. If Islamic community were a majority and held the power then they would actually be doing something else. you can only guess.

Danish have a larger interest at stake. I don't know how they perceive the Middle East. But it is likely they will not protest back but deal with it diplomatically as they are doing now: they have apologised for the hurt sentiments but said that it does not violate the Danish law.

ozymandiaz said...

There is a very large Muslim contention in Denmark as there is in France (where said cartoons were published almost immediately after the Danish). And you are correct in that they are made to be outraged as Muslim clerics embellished the cartoons with even more inflammatory additions. This to me begs the question; if it is heresy to make a caricature of Mohammed doesn’t that make the clerics heretics? To me this whole ordeal is akin to Southern Baptists railing against homosexuality because the bible preaches against it. Well, the bible preaches against a whole boat load of various sins just as, I am sure, there are more things heretical in the Qur’an. But once again, religion is a political tool…

Falstaff said...

Veena: I guess. Though I think that's more the vicious cycle that gets started after you make an issue out of it - it becomes an issue, other people cover it, it becomes even more an issue, etc. One of the risks of living in a networked world is that nothing is ever safely local anymore. That certainly works to the troublemakers advantage, though I'm not sure what on e can do about it.

The one: Thanks. That was a fascinating article.

Falstaff said...

Oz: Yes, well. If you start trying to be logical about that, there are plenty of other flaws. I mean the very idiocy of the argument that says: a) We revere and respect Prophet Muhammad b) Prophet Muhammad was a peaceful man who would never have considered using bombs or violence c) therefore, we must defend our faith in him through bombs and violence. See if you can spot the flaw in that one.

Brown Magic said...

You're right- they aren't funny. They are offensive and perhaps do speak to latent racism in Danish society. I wouldn't know.

I don't care what those rioting have been told. Newspapers in Saudi Arabia publish plenty of anti-semitic cartoons. Iran is having a freakin Holocaust cartoon contest because of the untapped humour potential of genocide. Glass Houses and the like.

This is an idiotic reaction from people on the streets and people in power. Children in Basra staged a peaceful protest yesterday and if they can do it so can the Lebanese.

And the Iranian drama has been going on more or less since August 2002 when NCRI revealed the existence of Natanz. I don't believe that has anything to do with that.

still clueless said...

Falstaff, true that ppl in the Middle East are being *made* to overreact..being from the subcontinent we r all 2 familiar with the politics of terror...but dont u think the press/ western world/ other side of this equation is as guilty of inciteful and inflammatory behaviour as the truant globe-trotting imams? every one of those editors cudve condoned the Danish act by publishing a neutral fact-based news piece in sympathy, but instead they *chose* 2 take sides by reprinting the cartoons... seriously, wats the plot??? and wats with this whole "oh the cartoonist is being victimised by intolerant fanatics, he represents freedom of speech in the modern world, ala Rushdie/ VanGogh" crap thats coming up in the (European) press...honestly, he isnt! hes an insensitive idiot with more power than he deserves in a country with a sizeable minority population...as much at fault as a fatwa-issuing imam...with due respect to his child-bearing abilities, the gentleman deserves 2 b kicked in the b*lls!!!
im not condoning the flag burning or the violence that has ensued, but the dismissal of this matter as small fry, "ridiculous if not so scary", is just as offensive...what happened was wrong, the reaction shdve been expected, the Danes admit it and apologise...so then why is the rest of the world trying to play indulgent aunt?!?!?

Falstaff said...

Brown Magic: I'm not necessarily saying that the two are related. I just find it interesting that in the days before this story broke, all the papers were talking about Iran's nuclear program and that story's got safely pushed to the background now. Still, you're probably right and there's no connection. Agree with your other points.

Clueless: Let me put it to you this way. When the Taliban was in power, it was considered an offense against Islam for a woman to be seen in public without a veil. Suppose a woman, knowing full well what the Taliban reaction would be, were to step out of her house with a burkha and was beaten and abused as a result by a group of fundamentalists. Would you consider her to be 'just as much at fault as a fatwa-issuing imam'?

You'll probably argue that it's not the same thing as publishing a bunch of random cartoons. The trouble is, it's the same principle and it's not clear where the line between the important and the avoidable is to be drawn or who should decide that. Maybe cartoons are avoidable. But what about editorials? What about calls for sanctions against Iran's nuclear program? What about advertisements for liquor? What about movies that show arabic terrorists? Each or any one of these could be interpreted (with little or no trouble) as being offensive to Islam. How do we decide which of them we consider important enough to keep and which we are willing to let go? Whether or not you believe the cartoonist is insensitive is irrelevant - no one's defending his talent or his sense of humour. You're welcome to publish as many scathing reviews of him as you like (or protest in whatever other way pleases you). But if you choose to act violently against other people using this as an excuse, then the responsibility is entirely yours. I find people who don't turn off their cellphones in concerts offensive - does this mean I can kill them and then claim it was their fault for offending my musical sensibilities? Surely that's not a world you would want to live in. Or perhaps you'd prefer a world where only people you like, people you consider to be proper human beings had the right to freedom of expression. They used to have that in America. It was called slavery.

The rest of the world is not playing indulgent aunt, they're simply recognising that if they let Denmark get victimised for this now, sooner or later they're going to face the same kind of causeless violence directed at them. Conciliating aggression was what Europe did really well in the 1930s when the Nazis were attacking country after country. And look how that turned out.

And no, I don't think the news media is as responsible for inciting violence as the imams. To begin with, do you really think it's credible, in the Internet world, that if these newspapers hadn't published the cartoons people wouldn't have got access to them? And if you're assuming that these European newspapers are the chief source of information for the protestors (which I doubt) would you rather they didn't give their side of the story, and let the imams say whatever they wanted? The role of the media isn't just to provide information, it's also to prevent disinformation.

One last point: notice that for all this talk about the protestors being the injured party, there isn't actually anything that gives people (minorities or otherwise) the right to not be offended. Insult is not victimisation. Intolerant / insensitive material has just about as much right to be published and read as anything else - people who don't like it should simply not read it. It may be ugly, but it's not wrong. Which is why the whole issue is so ridiculous.

Falstaff said...

A quick follow up to my last comment: Someone just pointed out to me that there is actually a law, at least in India, against actions intended to give offence to people from other religions. So the last paragraph of my comment above may not be entirely accurate. I didn't know that. I'll say only that: a) I think it's a dangerous and wrong-headed law that should be abolished b) Presumably there is no such law in Denmark, which is why no one's brought it up yet and c) If such laws did exist, that would be all the more reason to persecute the cartoonist via the law rather than through random acts of violence.

Aishwarya said...

Thanks for writing this. I tried to blog about it a couple of days ago - either my own inability to express what I meant or other people's inability to understand it led to a bit of disagreement. My main issue is this:
Suppose a woman, knowing full well what the Taliban reaction would be, were to step out of her house with a burkha and was beaten and abused as a result by a group of fundamentalists. Would you consider her to be 'just as much at fault as a fatwa-issuing imam'?

It's easy to say that the woman should be able to wear what she likes, that a newspaper in Denmark should be allowed to publish what it likes. But human life is involved now, and maybe sometimes you need to not exercise your rights just to keep people alive.

Anonymous said...

Why do you "think it's a dangerous and wrong-headed law that should be abolished"?
As you yourself remarked in the next sentence "If such laws did exist, that would be all the more reason to persecute the cartoonist via the law rather than through random acts of violence"...
...which would be a more civilized option, wouldn't it?

Falstaff said...

Aishwarya: Thanks. Though I disagree - the trouble is that by modifying your own actions and conciliating the madmen, you end up strengthening and encouraging them; and it's not as though the fanatics are likely to be content with what you're offering them - they'll only find something else to politicise. The further you back off from your rights the harder they'll push, so that eventually you'll basically have no rights left, and how many lives will be lost in the big picture is ambiguous. (If the European powers had pushed back on the Nazis the day they invaded their first country, would we have lost more lives in WW II or less - who can tell?) . I would go one step further and say that the people who are equally responsible for the violence are precisely those who don't exercise their right - their silence makes them accomplices to the mayhem precisely because it strengthens the side of the fanatics.

Even if you believe that it would have been better for the editors to not have published, however, it's still a far cry to saying they're equally responsible. If a police team tries to take out a man holding an entire auditorium of people hostage, and a few hostages get killed in the process, does that make the police team equally responsible for their deaths? Should we put them on trial for murder? surely not.

anonymous: I think it's wrong-headed because I see no reason why religion, of all things, should get special treatment. If the argument is that people should have the right not to be insulted then why shouldn't it apply to pretty much anything that they see as being part of their identity? Why just religion? Why is it okay to be offended if someone makes fun of Muhammad or the Buddha but not if they make fun of Nietzsche or Beethoven, or of your favourite clothes designer or brand of automobile? By giving special treatment to religion you're essentially legitimising the idea that religion is an absolute and giving fundamentalists of all denominations the moral high ground they need to win more supporters to their cause.

I think it's dangerouse because religion is fundamentally illogical and adaptive. Who's to say what constitutes an offense against it? if a bunch of losers somewhere in the world decided tomorrow that wearing black is offensive to their religious sensibilities, does this mean i have to change my entire wardrobe. If they decide that homosexuality offends them, does that mean that one could get thrown into prison for being gay?

still clueless said...

v interesting arguments...
Falstaff, point well made re backing off on ur rights and strengthening the madmen...except, this issue isnt half as noble as u make it sound!....lets not confuse original intent with ex-poste theorising...a bunch of cartoons were printed by an obscure paper with negligible circulation with an intention to "humour" a religious community, who, surprise surprise, didnt find it funny...they protested, more papers got involved, issue snowballed, and the entire episode was then, rightly or wrongly, represented as a stand off between upholders of free press and an offended religious minority...to my over simplistic (and oft clued out) mind, this issue is quite different from ur hostage/ Taliban/ concert (dude!?!?) examples, simply bcoz it *is* possible 2 differentiate between the necessary and the avoidable…infact, that’s the very least id expect from the leaders of a civilised society…and if u don’t expect them 2 b able 2 do this, then, my friend, I shudder 2 think who u voted for….ur self righteous Mr President, Texas Ranger with 1/2 a brain, how was the poor old sod to know that "he tried 2 kill my daddy" isnt reason enuff 2 murder thousands of civilians, right? The expectations one has of a bank clerk must naturally b quite different from those of an elected officer or those of a journalist who has the power 2 shape public opinion…discretion and awareness is the least id expect frm the latter...no?
The use of violence is ofcourse wrong…not on grounds of morality (now that’s a new one from me!) but bcoz it never achieves anything…which is precisely why one needs to give this issue importance, to figure out what went wrong and how did things come to such a head...not dismiss it in a oh-wat-is-the-world-coming-2 way!
Lastly, after much to-ing and fro-ing, u have finally hit the nail on the head…religion *must* b given special treatment bcoz it *is* a very sensitive issue…wars have been fought, people killed, countries ravaged and history books scarred bcoz of the toxic combination of religious apathy and religious intolerance…think cow-grease-bullet-bite story...most ppl *will* get offended if u mock their religious faith…atleast far more ppl will react to protect their religion than to protect Beethoven...they may kill and burn, or they may protest in silence…if the former, lives will be lost, if the latter, it will become a case in point to later instigate the offended party..but it will not go unnoticed…lets not argue whether this shd or shd not b so, whether ppl shd b more tolerant and stoic or not...knowing that they *will* react, that they *do* care, and they *can* be instigated easily, why in Heaven's name provide ammo 2 a troublemaker? Y can't u find another forum to exercise ur rights? why join the party by adding insult 2 injury? Throwing caution to the winds wrt ur own life is ok…go ahead, b a martyr….but wen ur actions have such *obvious* and far reaching consequences as Muhammad-with-a-bomb-turban did…id rather u hold ur peace!!!

?! said...

The cartoonist could've exercised discretion, which some gent associated with being the better part of valour. He did not.

They could've exercised restraint and protested peacefully, they did not.

If they did not know already that the issues being raised are sensitive, call it tuition fees.

If they did and wanted to take a principled stand, call it service tax.

Too bad, so sad. Difficult to gather any sympathy for them. Nobody has the "freedom" to light a match during a gas leak.

The orchestration of violence is something that is probably the root of the issue though.

?! said...

And logically, if woman-not-in-burqa stepped out, she might deserve support n all for being brave.

But no sympathy for being set upon by Taliban.

Those who take "principled" stands should not crib @ the flak. And when it is clear that their "principles" are going to affect *other* people's lives, then they should just shut the hell up.

Would you feel the same about the woman if she knew the Taliban would raze the street she lived in, yet went ahead and did it ?

What happened to the freedom of say, anonymous employee of US Embassy in some country to just be wimp and live life in cowed silence? He is now denied that opportunity cos some stoopid Danish fruitcake thought playing with fire was "humourous".

Aishwarya said...

I never meant to give the impression that I held the cartoonists equally responsible... really! Only that they knew how certain sections of the Islamic world would react, and they still did it. That doesn't make them culpable, but the riots could have been prevented.

The rioters have been provoked, both by the real cartoons and the fake ones, but I will not absolve them of the blame for those deaths.

Wade said...

I don't think there is a tremendous mystery here, though the mainstream media have not been very clear as to how it all happened.

Roughly speaking

1 Someone wants to illustrate a children's book about Muhammed but all artisits are too scared to take on the job.
2 Fleming Rose decides to test whether the islamists realy have stopped the exercise of free speech bychallenging artists to submit cartoons. How much this was about freedom to speech and how much about provoking a debate about Islam in Denmark is subject to some debate.
3 Radical Danish Imams led by Abu Liden (who had come to Denmark originally because he had been kicked out of his native Egypt and the UAE for being a radical islam trouble maker), set about stirring things up as much as they can in Denmerk. They fail to make any progress with the legal system as the cartoons are clearly legal, they try and get middle east ambassadors stirred up but the Danish PM says its an independent newspaper, nothing to do with him.
3 The newspspers were reprinted in an Egyptian newspaper - nobody takes much notice (October)
4 The radical Danish Imams having got nowhere in Denmark try to internationalise it by going on three trips round the Middle East with a 43 page dossier including 3 far more inflamatory cartoons which they seem to have mad up (someone has found the original photo one of these more offensive drawings weas taken from - of a French farmer in a pig squealing contest. December
5 250 people are crushed to death in the annual hajj in MeccaLots of people are critical of the Saudi authorities. for incompetent organisation. So the leading clerics decide to denounce the cartons as a diversionary tactic and get Denmnarks Saudi ambassador withdrawn. This really lights the fuse.
6 Several other Arab regimes decide it's in their interests to throw fuel onto the fire. The Egyptians want to be seen as "more Islamic", The Iranians want to divert attention from their nuclear program and create a sense of muslim unity as they ebetr crucual UN votes re their nuclear weapons program. Syria wants to sure up its regime by diverting attention from its assaination of Lebanese politicians. radical muslim groups in London and elsewere in the west want to take the opportunity to further their agenda of alienateing western muslims from the host country by promoting the view that its all about islamophobia and hoping that the authorities will have a heavy handed response that sets themselvesup as muslim martyrs. More moderate muslims such as Karzai and some in Iarq want to make sure they are being seen as Islamic.
7 IN many western countries newspapers se the issue as essentially another step in the erosion of freedom iof speech in Europe due to Islamic terror threats. The papaers in US and UK are too scared to publish as they realise that they would almost certainly be subject to death threats etc. Thee UK governmnet iskeen to cave in to censorship as they are too reliant on muslim votes which they have already isloated by joining the Iraq war. The US government figures (i) this will at least bring the Europeans closer to the US by tasteing a muslim backlash (2) that they are vulnerable gven the numbers of Americasn in the middle east and (3) Bush has some respect for the idea of respecting religious beliefs given hos own crazy beliefs.)

8 The muslim leaders to some extent lose control of the situation as fpor example hotheads in Pakistan turn the thing into a general excuse for anti West riots.

So the answer is that though you could point at somone like Fleming Rose as starting the fire at various stages it was in theinterests of various people to fan the flames to further their own interest.

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