Friday, February 10, 2006

The Cartoon Controversy

Jamie Tappenden at Left2Right has a fairly lengthy (and interesting) post regarding the cartoon controversy. Amongst other things he talks about how some added cartoons, of indeterminate origin but far more inflamatory nature, are being used to stoke the fires. This is probably a good justification for newspapers to publish the actual cartoons just so that it's clear what came from where. Prof. Tappenden also points out that some of the original cartoons are actually critical of the project, and thus the cartoons themselves are a nice little microcosm of the debate.

Professor Tappenden also inadvertently comments on another of the issues salient to the comic controversy: moral authority. You see, Prof. Tappenden is Left2Right's resident Scandinavian, and thus in a special position to criticize or comment on Scandinavian political affairs.

After the controversy exploded an Iranian paper responded by calling for cartoons about the Holocaust -- which felt a bit to me like, after being insulted by Bob, going over and spitting on Harry.

The point is -- and I don't think it's completely illegitimate -- that they're trying to highlight a double standard about the way Europeans (and the rest of the West) treat Islam versus the way it treats Judaism. Had Iran instead published cartoons about Jesus, which would have been more consistent, a whole raft of American and European newspapers would have had no problem reprinting them, in fact, probably would have done so just to score ratings or extra sales -- these are the countries that made Life of Brian a hit, after all. And, certainly, that wouldn't have been a very effective way of demonstrating a double-standard.

The legitimate feature of their argument is pointing out:

Is a there a difference between cartoons associating Islam with terrorism because there's some prominent examples of Islamic terrorists, and, say, older cartoons associating Judaism with banking or controlling the money because there were some prominent Jewish bankers?

Nowadays we'd be uncomfortable with even that kind of relatively innocuous sweeping generalization -- it smacks too much of foul stereotypes.

That said, the Holocaust also places Europe in very special circumstances and any reasonable person should be able to understand that Europeans would be extra-senstive about how Jews are treated by their newspapers given that history.

The follow-up question then, is: does the history of Western colonization of the Middle East mean that there should be an equal sort of special consideration given to the formerly colonized?


Prof. Tappenden has a fascinating, detailed analysis of the original cartoons up now that's definately worth checking out.

He also makes the following point (check this site for cartoons, numbering 1 at the top and working down):

The basis for the objections is often cited to be at least in part the religious injunction against depictions of Mohammed. The reason given for this injunction is that such depictions potentially foster idolatry. But if that is the basis, then cartoons 1 and 3 are much more serious violators. Insulting caricatures incorporating aggressive messages are unlikely to induce idolatry, and if anything would discourage it!

I imagine the majority of people getting angry over the cartoons have no better an understanding of the theological nuances of why depicting the prophet is bad than the majority of any other religious group on this planet has of their religions' various dogma. My guess if you ask most people why drawing pictures of Mohammed, or taking God's name in vain, or showing Jesus on the cross from above, is bad, they'd think it has something to do with showing disrespect, then wave their hands a bit.

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