Essays - English

Rage And Caricature*

*This article appeared as a column in Tempo Magazine, 2006

A tidal wave of worldwide rage, and 12 cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish daily – this is what is happening today. Need Muslims be so angry?

Let’s therefore examine, with more calm, the caricatures in question. The Economist has called them nothing more than “a schoolboy prank.” This view, we know, is not entirely based on fact. The one of that equates the Prophet with a terrorist—the one with a bomb in his turban—is unequivocally a representation of Islam as Violence. It is this, and not so much the showing of the Prophet’s likeness per se, that draws the ire of Muslims the world over.

Moreover, there is a lot of misinformation out there, designed to incite anger to suit assorted political goals. There is the story of Abu Laban, for instance. Last December, the Danish Imam took some highly incendiary Muhammad images (as a pig, as a pedophile demon) on a tour of the Middle East to rally support against Jyllands-Posten and the Danish government. It was later discovered that one of the images was a poor reproduction of AP’s photo of a French pig-squealing contest.

On the other hand, neither is the appellation entirely fictitious, in the sense that most of the cartoons, taken together, are a trite mix of stereotypes, smugness and unfunny commentary.

One of them, for instance, shows a friendly-looking Prophet standing on a cloud, greeting mangled suicide bombers with: “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!” The allusion is clear: virgins are the promised reward to martyrs.

At first glance, this cartoon is quite funny, the sort that elicits a chuckle or two. But perhaps only to those who are casual in dealing with humour. Or those who do not look on sex as a big deal. But to others who really believe in the holy virtues of the Prophet, the cartoon clearly infuriates. Even the feminist reaction may well be divided: between those who denounce any disrespectful portrayal of women, and those who see the cartoons as an affirmation of male injustice towards women, including that of the Prophet’s. Here, the reader’s familiarity with the history of Islam plays a huge role.

Another example: The Prophet is a wanderer. It is sundown; he stands in the middle of a desert. There is a donkey in the background. Courteous-but-unimaginative is an understatement.

Less dull is the one with Muhammad not as the Prophet of Islam but as a 7th grader Arab-looking boy. He stands in front of a blackboard, pointing to a Farsi chalking which translates into “The editorial team of Jyllands Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” Written on his shirt is the word “Fremtiden” (the future). The message may or may not be aimed at the cartoon publishers—an effort at self-deprecation, if you will—rather than Islam.

Islam and Europe

It is quite plain that Islamic religious law does not apply in a secular Europe. There can be no legal prohibition on the publication of drawings of the Prophet, by Jyllands-Posten or otherwise, despite the well-known Muslim injunction against it. The majority of European Muslims, immigrants in particular, seem to understand this. Even if they are no stranger to poverty and marginalisation, and are vulnerable to promises of a newer, truer “identity” that will transform their lives, for them Europe represents one fundamental opportunity: freedom. And for that, there is a price to pay.

Not that it has ever been easy. In the last few years, especially since September 11th, right wing and anti-immigrant movements have gained strength across Europe. While free speech remains lauded as a hard-won human right as well as a keystone of liberal societies, more and more European countries have passed laws protecting religions and minorities that in fact limit expression.

Last year, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church in secular France won a suit prohibiting a rendition of the Last Supper by a fashion designer who replaced the Apostles with thinly clad women. In seven European—supposedly “progressive”—countries, it is still illegal to say that Hitler did not murder millions of Jews. Just last week, the British rightwing historian David Irving was sentenced to languish in an Austrian prison for three years for engaging his free speech rights on this topic. Evidently, in such context, laws that limit expression are designed to uphold hegemony, not to promote respect for religion. They are symbols of conservatism, not liberalism.

In all of this, Islam as a religion of the minority has often been given a short shrift. The recent failure of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to propose a new law extending protections against blasphemy to all religions (not just Christianity) is especially telling.

Meanwhile, the extreme right-wing sympathies of Jyllands-Posten are no secret. The Süddeutsche 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.” It has even been suggested by members of the Danish Left that Jyllands-Posten is notorious for its declarations of support for the Nazis in the 1930s, hence its active participation in Denmark’s recent shift to the right.

Just as palpable is the political agenda driving the newspaper’s commissioning and subsequent publication of the 12 caricatures. Jyllands-Posten did not only refuse, three years ago, to publish cartoons portraying Jesus on the grounds that they would offend readers; it did so, according to its then editor, precisely because the daily “did not ask for (the caricatures).” Compare this to the invitation it later extended to 40 illustrators to draw images of Muhammad on the grounds of “testing the limits of self-censorship of Danish public opinion”. 

Yet, the irony of the country’s most right-wing newspaper casting itself as the beacon of free speech is not lost on many. Neither is that tired, misleading “clash of civilizations” thesis Samuel Huntington tried to force down our throats a decade ago.

Muslims’ Share of Injustice

Like “Islam”, the “West” is hardly a single, monolithic construct. The paradox notwithstanding, Britain and America—both in the high echelons of government and the press—have exercised uncommon restraint in their handling of the religious sensitivity issue. Despite the national guilt trip for having invaded the Muslim heartland on bogus grounds, the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has been widely quoted for his denouncing of the publication of the cartoons as “insensitive” and “unnecessary.” Ditto “The Leader of the Free World”, who has been counseling world governments on the need to be “respectful”.

In the meantime, it is also worth noting that Denmark is hardly the poster girl of free speech. Article 140 of the Criminal Code allows for a fine and up to four months of imprisonment for demeaning a "recognized religious community." And thus is the indignation (though not the violence) of Muslims understandable; the cartoon controversy is, as the Paris-based scholar Olivier Roy maintains, “not so much about what is permissible in Islam as it is about discrimination.”

And yet, once again, need Muslims be so angry? The ideal formula for living together would doubtless be one that sees the right to freedom of opinion and expression as one of the cornerstones of any society. This right includes "the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19). This right is far from absolute, but it is our contemporary exigency to live with differences of opinion, plural interpretations and the privacy of faith.

Thus, while it is legitimate to insist that the “West” understand Islam, it is equally valid to demand of Muslims the same respect for the “other side”.

Needless to say, the history of Jesus in art through the ages is an equally bloody one. Yet, it has undergone many trials and tribulations: from symbol of the Transcendent (Paul Klee) and metaphor of the Absurd (Francis Bacon) to a journey to the Unknown (Joseph Beuys) and a meditation on the Altogether-Different (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman). In 1926, on Marx Ernst’s canvas, the Son of God is a blonde baby being spanked by a scarlet-dressed Mary. Of the more recent, and more inflammatory, examples, the "Piss Christ” (a Christian crucifix in a glass of urine) as well as the “Virgin Mary Covered in Feces”, were tolerated, whatever the real reasons might have been.

For sure, Christians and Jews too have had their share of rage. Anti-Semitic cartoons would almost everywhere be deemed “hate speeches” and their authors likely held liable to legal prosecution. Last year, a furore erupted over a cartoon by one Gerhard Haderer, an Austrian, depicting Christ as a binge-drinking friend of Jimi Hendrix and naked surfer on cannabis. Haderer was oblivious to the fact that his book, The Life of Jesus, which was meant to be a playful piece of religious satire, had been published in Greece until he received a summons to appear in court in Athens on the charge of blasphemy.

Still, the fact remains: whether as question mark, object of ridicule, alter ego or Pastor Bonus, the Christ of the 20th Century is a far cry from the shepherd found in 3rd and 4th Century iconoclasm. And yet, Christianity continues to prevail.

Perhaps we Muslims have to learn how to relax, to live with what is inescapable. A headmaster in a Cairo school summed it up: “If we were confident about our faith we wouldn’t have to react so hysterically.” For hysteria breeds irrationality, and the more we see of the terrible toll this rage has taken on the world, it seems clear that peace in God has little to do with calling His name. Worse still, the face of Muslim outrage, too, is often one of injustice.

Three weeks ago, at the start of the global protests, my daughter and I were on Baghdad Street in Singapore. At the entrance of an Arab restaurant a signboard said: “Danish Citizens Are Not Permitted”. My daughter nudged one of the waiters: “But what about Danish Muslims?” Shamefaced, the waiter just stood there. He did not, could not, give an answer to this ten-year old child.

Laksmi Pamuntjak
Poet, writer