Monday, February 06, 2006

islam, protest and some very unfunny cartoons

It's obvious that we need to strive for consistency in the reach and application of laws, which is just one reason - and there are others - why those whose participation in Friday's and Saturday's more peaceful marches - which protested against the publication of the 'satirical' cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad - crossed the line from protest to incitement to violence should be cautioned and possibly prosecuted for their behaviour. It's no good decrying the fact that two leading members of the BNP were acquitted of inciting hatred for their xenophobic rants at private meetings if a blind eye is turned to street protests which encourage the beheading of all who insult Islam. However, we also need the application of the law to be sensible as well as consistent, which is why it is entirely right and proper that the police did not arrest the more extreme protesters at the event and risk turning a peaceful march into a violent one, as well as stirring up this mess even further.

There are also a couple of factors which should encourage us to tread carefully. Firstly, it is quite clear from the placards and banners held aloft on the march that all were created by the same hand. As anyone who has attended an anti-nazi or anti-war rally will testify, it's very easy to get handed a banner by some unsavoury type and hold it aloft - although in my youth we took the precaution of tearing off the bit at the top which read 'Socialist Worker'. I'm not suggesting that the (mainly young) men who carried the placards should be excused as naive; just speculating that it would be very easy in the heat of anger and spurred by the desire to protest to use the most shocking, beligerant slogan possible, if it were available. It's clearly the case that extremist groups were exploiting the situation to further their own agenda.

Secondly, the article which best mirrors my position on this whole debate is Gary Younge's article in the Guardian on Saturday. Younge, like me, deplores the publication of these incredibly unpleasant, misleading cartoons - though neither of us would deprive the press of the right to publish them - and he makes plenty of good points about the protests, although looking at the article again now I note that it was not Younge, but another commentator whose article I can't find now, who pointed out that Muslims have had little experience in establishing a tradition of protest in the same way that we in the west have, and the ferocity of their demonstrations in recent days reflects this. No excuses, but it's worth remembering.

Younge, meanwhile, apart from pointing out the obvious fact that "If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in anti-racism should be no less so", observes that "the right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. If newspapers have the right to offend then surely their targets have the right to be offended. Moreover, if you are bold enough to knowingly offend a community then you should be bold enough to withstand the consequences, so long as that community expresses displeasure within the law." I'm far from convinced that the reprinting of the cartoons in the Danish and French press is a representation of the Press's commitment to freedom of speech; or at least, if it is, it's a crass expression of dumb machismo rather than thoughful journalism. More likely it's what it appears to be - islamophobia (thinly) disguised as satire. Denmark is, lest we forget, a country where Islam can be discussed as a 'cancer in our midst' by a leading politician.

Writing before today's knee-jerk reports - most of the press are urging 'immediate action' on protesters - Gary Younge points out that Muslims:

"are vilified twice: once through the cartoon, and again for exercising their democratic right to protest. The inflammatory response to their protest reminds me of the quote from Steve Biko, the South African black nationalist: "Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked."

Elsewhere, Sarah Joseph - who despite her name is the editor of Emel, 'the muslim lifestyle magazine' - makes an obvious but valuable observation:

"The Holocaust did not occur overnight. It took time to establish a people as subhuman, and cartoons played their part. Does Europe not remember its past and the Nazi propaganda of Der Stürmer?

Now the great shape-shifter of fascism seems to have taken on the clothes of "freedom of speech". If these cartoons were designed to provoke Muslim fundamentalists, maybe they have done more to reveal the prejudices of Europe. Europe has a history of turning on its minorities. Will that be its future too?".

1 comment:

Stephen Newton said...

The cartoons may or may not be funny, that’s hardly the point. It’s easy to depict them as being provocative for the sake of provocation (and one of the cartoons makes that point), but I've looked closely and think they make for fair comment. Only a small (perhaps very tiny) minority of Muslims may belive martyrs are rewarded with virgins, but it's that minority that produces suicide bombers. Don't they deserve to be mocked?