February 9, 2006
Drawn to Controversy
Early this week I started getting the letters. By midweek there were dozens of them, all strident, some using BIG CAPS to make their point.
"Do you have the GUTS to reprint those cartoons?" many of them started off.
Some substituted another part of the male anatomy for guts -- heck, I don't even have the guts to reprint that word.
"Rob, do you DARE publish this!" said another letter.
And another: "You have a RESPONSIBILITY to publish the controversial cartoons on Islamofascism. PUBLISH THE CARTOONS... we need to resist the Islamofascists on ALL fronts. In solidarity with the people of free Europe and in support of the concept of freedom."
The letter writers wanted The Journal to reprint cartoons of the prophet Muhammed that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September. The cartoons have sparked international outrage among Muslims, including riots, kidnapping, diplomatic reprisals and death threats.
I composed a standard reply for all these correspondents, some of whom seemed to belong to a concerted campaign or movement.
"Dear Writer," I began, "I have the guts to publish the cartoons if YOU have the TIME to stand guard in front of our offices and my house."
I didn't sign on to be on the front lines of the war of civilizations, and I certainly don't intend to be pushed there on account of some third-rate scribbles -- which, by the way, I wouldn't have published in the first place.
Just about everybody I've spoken with thinks the cartoons are appropriate, even funny. But the cartoon of the prophet Muhammed with a bomb for a turban was a crude, racist stereotype of an entire religion. We've published plenty of offensive cartoons and images. Our April 19, 2002 full-color cover caricature of Yasser Arafat sucking the bones of the dove of peace as blood dripped from his chin comes to mind. Numerous liberal groups protested that issue. Even last week's cover on Hamas, showing a hand holding a victory sign, a grenade and the ink-stained finger of a Palestinian voter, drew criticism.
But those images were attacks on specific people or groups, not an entire religion. I understand suicide bombers and terrorists act in the name of their religion. But for a newspaper to publish a cartoon that then indicts that religion crosses a line of logic and sensitivity.
"The bottom line is we live in a world based on freedom of expression," Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told me.
"But it's a double-edged sword. Especially in the times we live in, people should have enough derech eretz not to mock entire religions," the rabbi said, using the Hebrew expression for "respect."
There is the teensiest bit of hypocrisy in the reaction of some Jews and Jewish groups. These are the same people who regularly blow gaskets every time the Los Angeles Times runs an op-ed cartoon of, say, an Israeli soldier with a Star of David on his helmet. If the paper published an image defaming all Jews and Judaism, these groups would be livid -- and they'd be right.
But of course, that's where the comparison ends. The hypocrisy on the Muslim side is of staggering, laughable-were-it-not-so-tragic proportions. The state-sponsored Arab media gushes with anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, anti-Hindu caricatures and writings. Groups like the Wiesenthal Center and MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, have been tracking such outrages for years. The bitter irony is that the European press, which itself has trafficked in anti-Israel cartoons that easily cross the line to anti-Semitism, has rarely if ever denounced these transgressions. And now their publishers and governments are shocked, shocked by the reaction from countries whose own press has long escaped their condemnation.
I won't reprint those Danish cartoons, but I will reprint the above cartoon taken from a recent Palestinian newspaper, showing a Muslim girl crucified by an American and Israeli spear as Jews look on and gloat.
This is but one example. A program on state sponsored Syrian television dramatized the blood libel, and there were TV programs in Iran alleging that Israelis have murdered Palestinian children to use their eyes to give sight to blind Israeli children. The media and mosques mock and defame Jews, Americans and Christians, and the harshest reaction they garner is condemnation from the few organizations smart enough to understand where such extremism inexorably leads.
It leads to the beheading of American journalists, the kidnapping of innocent Christians aid workers -- all in the name of Islam. "Muslims of the world, be reasonable," wrote Jihad Momani, editor-in-chief of the weekly independent newspaper Al-Shihan in an editorial alongside the cartoons. "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" Following the publication, Momani was fired.
Hypocrisy of this scope and scale goes beyond the capacity of mere individuals -- it must be the work of governments. Indeed, many analysts believe that Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and/or Egypt have a hand in these riots. "It's hard to believe this is spontaneous combustion," Rabbi Cooper said.
The cartoons initially appeared in September. Imans of state-funded mosques carried them around, whipping up Muslim youth who, as the riots earlier this year in France proved, are fairly well-alienated in any case.
Why the leaders of this effort pulled the trigger now is a matter of speculation. Rabbi Cooper believes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to defuse pressure on his country's development of nuclear weapons and test the international community's resolve in confronting the "Arab street." The Iranian News Agency actually runs an Arab-language newspaper on the Internet, al-Vefagh, that has stoked the controversy. The latest cartoon from al-Vefagh (pictured above), shows a Jew at work penning anti-Islam cartoons.
"The Iranians are taking notes, seeing how far they can push the West," Rabbi Cooper said. "God forbid when they have nuclear weapons and can really bully us."
Writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dastour, Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy said, "Perhaps the Muslim governments who spearheaded the campaign -- led by Egypt -- felt this was an easy way to burnish their Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists are stronger than they have been in many years."
On Tuesday, the Iranians found an even more insidious way to fan the flames: its largest newspaper launched a competition to find the 12 "best" cartoons about the Holocaust.
"The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let's see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons," Farid Mortazavi, graphics editor for Tehran's Hamshahri newspaper, told the London Times.
My guess is Art Spiegelman isn't going to be a finalist in this competition.
My other guess is that, crude and stupid as those cartoons will be, no Jews will start burning buildings or kidnapping Iranians.
This cartoon crisis is a battlefront in the war of civilizations. But that war isn't between Islam and the West. It is between the tolerant and the intolerant, fanatics and moderates.
Those cartoons provided fuel for the fanatics to stoke the flames of the war.
But anybody with a wisp of hope for humanity cannot have a shred of sympathy for the rioters, the religious leaders and governments behind them.
Salaam al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), told me that the cartoons crossed the line from free speech to hate speech. Many European countries have laws against Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda, he said, and publishers of cartoons like these should face similar punishments. "Everybody has the right to be a racist," he said, "but society has a responsibility to speak to these issues."
In a press release, MPAC has condemned the cartoons and the violence. But its condemnation of the violence strikes me as too tame, too couched in criticism of the cartoons themselves.
Here's some free advice to the leaders of American Muslim groups: Organize a massive, peaceful counterdemonstration against the rioters and their backers within Arab and Islamic regimes. Demonstrate for a peaceful resolution to this issue. Show the passion of moderate Islam. There is no excuse for crossing the line from being provoked and offended, to being violent.
I could publish those cartoons if I wanted to, but I don't want to. The biggest casualty of this campaign of thuggery and intimidation is not free speech, but moderate Islam.