The moving finger draws, and having draws moves on,
nor all your piety nor wit, shall lure it back to cancel half a line.
You have to feel sorry for the Danes, the least funny people on earth. Melancholia is their forte, angst their heritage. Over the years these former Vikings have tried to lighten their psychic load with an output of fairytales, sickly pastries and slick pornography, but to no avail. On the world’s stages, Hamlet and Ophelia keep playing out their tragic destiny in a castle near Copenhagen, reinforcing the national stereotype: gloomy, introverted, grief ridden.
To be or not to be, is not the question. It’s to speak or not to speak. To publish or prohibit. To think aloud or wrap your conscience in a flag or faith. The printing of the controversial cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post), was not–thankfully – motivated by a desire to introduce the world to Danish humor. The aim was less of audacious. It was seeking a response to the spread of self censorship in the wake of religious intolerance. A Danish academic had been brutally bashed for reading extracts from the Qur’an to non Muslim students. A Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, had been murdered for his critique Islam’s attitude to women. The Jutland Post asked the board of the Danish Editorial Cartoonist Union–probably a cabal of grim depressives on the brink of suicide–to invite its members to “draw Mohammed as they see him”. Twelve artists responded. The result was published last September, today Danish embassies are in flames, people are dying, the cartoonists are on the run.
Who started the fire? Free speech is under assault from fundamentalists of all persuasions. A high profile Christian minister much loved by the White House has again called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected President of Venezuela, on the grounds that his views are a threat to Americans. “Chavez calls Bush a war criminal”, gasps Pat Robertson on Fox News. The interviewers agree: “the world would be better off without him“.
Such views are vile, but I will campaign for the right to hear them expressed. If their calls for assassination had been directed at George Bush, Tony Blair or John Howard, these bigots would be hauled behind bars as roughly as Cindy Sheehan was hauled from her seat at the State of the Union address, due of the words on her t-shirt: 2245 Dead. How many more?
Despite its claim to be fighting for freedom, the US military is no believer in freedom of speech. In Iraq, Al Jazeera offices are bombed, numerous independent journalists are shot or “detained”. A cartoon in the pro war Washington Post commenting on the horrific injuries facing the “battle hardened” troops elicited a letter of outrage from six Joint Chiefs of Staff. The real outrage, of course, is that such men are still bombing the dwellings of Iraqis, Afghanis, even Pakistanis. The Rolling Stones lyrics are censored at Superbowl. Australian artist, Azlan McLennan, burnt holes in his country’s flag and hung it from a Melbourne art gallery billboard, captioned “Proudly unAustralian”. The police swooped. All this madness in the same few days.
Standing up for free speech is not always easy. How quickly the mighty Google succumbed to commercial imperatives by censoring its search engine to appease Beijing. Last November, historian David Irving was arrested in Austria for two speeches he made in 1989, during which he allegedly claimed there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz. It is a crime in Austria to minimise the atrocities of the Third Reich and the historian faces up to 10 years imprisonment if found guilty, notes the BBC. Despite the good intentions of the lawmakers, this is a ridiculous affront to the right of citizens to believe what they like. Once Irving is locked up, who’s next?
Okay, so why are the rampaging Muslims so angry? The caricatures of Mohammed are mild–this is the most outrageous. One cartoon is even funny, a first for the Danish Editorial Cartoonist Union, with its depiction of the Prophet standing on a cloud, greeting ascended suicide bombers with the warning, “Stop, stop, we’re fresh out of virgins!” It reminds me of an Easter Monday cartoon I once printed in a student paper, which caused a storm. It depicted an anthropologist emerging from the burial cave of Jesus with skeletal remains, shouting “call off the holiday, I’ve found his bones”. How tame it seems now, how wild it seemed then.
Having been prosecuted on two continents for publishing satirical cartoons, I am well aware of the power of the pen to inflame. The embassy-burning Muslims are wrong to riot on several counts.
1) All religion is superstition, so by definition its core claims are open to doubt and a bit of a laugh.
2) If God/Allah really exists, then he/she personifies the best of humankind and can thus take a joke. A heaven without humor is hell.
3) Besides, there’s a rich lore of jocularity and anti authoritarian wisdom in the epigrams of Muslim mystics, the Sufis. (“You will not attain Truth until a thousand honest people have testified you’re a heretic”–the Junaid of Baghad). Young Muslims are making waves on the comedy circuit
4) If a mere caricature, and Danish at that, can send the faithful into a spasm, then the cartoon is only the catalyst, not the cordite. Could the psychic explosion be a way of distracting doubt; perhaps your faith is not as solid as it should be, or you sense it may not be the sole measure of human worth. You try to crush these qualms by running amok.
5) To be shocked by the views of others can be beneficial to mental health.
6) Medieval Muslim artists, renaissance Christians, modern scholars and commercial hacks have often created paintings, illuminated manuscripts, book covers and contemporary drawings depicting Mohammed in full face. Numerous examples are presented here.
Perhaps the cartoon riots are more an expression of rage against the West, than a defence of the dignity of Mohammed. And who can blame this rage? Over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed and at least thrice that number maimed. Citizens are worse off now than under the tyranny of Saddam–less oil, less electricity, less clean water, less security–and they’re still under the thumbs of Marines, mercenaries and misfits. Just as fish cannot see the water in which they swim, the Bush administration is oblivious to the river of blood soaking its armpits. In the TV footage of rioting Muslims in Syria, one placard stood out: The West has entered a Dark Age. That much is true. Both sides are blinded by belief, so let’s use free speech to open each other’s eyes, or our tongues will turn to lead.
RICHARD NEVILLE can be reached through his website The Future This Week.
This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 8/2006.