“Rage over cartoons” has been the gist of many a headline over the past week describing the violence with which masked gunmen and arsonist mobs in the Islamic world have been protesting the publication in Denmark five months ago of political cartoons caricaturing Mohammed.
Rage, yes. But let’s please get over the idea that this latest violence has anything much to do with the cartoons.
“Religion of Peace,” Love & Understanding
This is more of the same rage that for years–decades, actually–has brought us parades of masked gunmen, along with bombings, beheadings, the murder of aid workers, tourists, and journalists, the assaults on resorts in Kenya and Bali, on the trains and subways of Madrid and London, on the weddings, funerals, and religious ceremonies of Israel and post-Baathist Iraq. This is more of the same rage–inspired one may presume by factors other than Danish political satire–that produced that act of war known as September 11.
With each step, we have looked for ways to defuse the anger by understanding the grievances. Bookshops have filled with volumes on the history of Islam, the wounded pride, the regional distinctions, the contending forces within Islam itself. Our political leaders, who have relatively little to say–and just as well–about Buddhism, Hinduism, or for that matter Animism, have taken to celebrating the end of Ramadan, invited Islamic moderates to their state dinner tables and told us over and over that Islam is a religion of peace. We have debated whether to describe those who deviate from this serene vision as Islamic radicals, Islamo-fascists, militant Islamists, or plain old evil-doers, terrorists, fascists, and thugs who happen to be Muslims.
And as the Danish drawings have made world headlines in recent days, our statesman have given every sign of being more disturbed by the contents of the cartoons than by the grotesque and bullying violence of the response. From many quarters, we have been warned that we must above all exercise that Christian virtue of turning the other cheek–if not positively feeling the rioters’ pain. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, self-described chief diplomat of the world, has stepped into the cartoon fray, taking the time–while accepting a $500,000 environmental prize in the United Arab Emirates–to say he shares the “anguish” of Muslims over the cartoons, but urges them to “forgive the wrong they have suffered.” Bill Clinton has condemned the cartoons as “totally outrageous.” The Bush White House has agreed with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen that all sides should move ahead “through dialogue and tolerance, not violence”–as if all sides had committed acts of equal gravity. The State Department has trotted out a spokesman to pronounce the cartoons “offensive” and a spokeswoman to scold that “Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable”–a reprimand presumably meant not for the gunmen and arsonists but for the press that dared publish the cartoons.
The press, which these days includes the Internet, has been struggling over whether to run the cartoons or not–a debate salted with allusions to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” to print or not to print. Two editors in Jordan who bravely reprinted the cartoons–reportedly on the theory that people should at least know what they are rioting about–have been arrested. Newspapers in Germany, Norway, France, Spain, Mexico, Iceland, and Hungary have run the cartoons. Many in the U.S. have given them a pass. The Times of London ran an editorial on the matter with links to the cartoons, explaining this was meant to underscore that the viewing of them is a matter of choice. And some Western newspapers and blogs have been prompted to review the vast archive of grossly Anti-American anti-western, and above all anti-Semitic cartoons published daily in the state-controlled press in the most dictatorial countries of the Muslim world. They will soon have plenty more to review. An Iranian state newspaper is holding a Holocaust cartoon contest.
But all this might be chalked up as merely a sort of jarring cultural or religious misunderstanding, needing mainly a big dose of the patience, tolerance, and dialogue so many world statesmen have been urging–were it not for the violence, and the credible threats of violence. Palestinian gunmen have stormed the European Union offices in Gaza and threatened to kidnap Scandinavians and Germans. Mobs have attacked and torched the Danish embassies in Beirut, Damascus, and Tehran, with assaults for good measure on the embassies of Norway. The Danish cartoonist, his newspaper, and others who have published the cartoons have been getting bomb threats and death threats. Iran’s Holocaust contest is no joke not simply because it is sick–which it is–but because it is accompanied by Iran’s building of nuclear bombs, teaching and funding of terror, and officially announced plans to annihilate Israel.
A Pain That We’re Used to
These things cross a line that separates “dialogue” from acts of terrorism and war. Whatever the offense, or lack of it, the real question for the free world is where we draw the line over threats and violent acts meant to control or kill us. Are there any grounds on which it is all right for Palestinians, swimming for decades in Western aid, to storm the EU offices in Gaza? Are there any grounds on which it is acceptable for embassies to go up in smoke because the authorities of Syria, or Lebanon, or Iran, do not protect them? Are there any grounds on which it is appropriate for a secretary general of the U.N. to treat such attacks as mere breaches of etiquette, pronouncing himself “alarmed” apparently in equal measure by cartoonists and gunmen?
What’s noteworthy about the latest violence is not that it is unusual–but how very ordinary in so many ways it has become. Yes, of course, the grimly whimsical surprise is that this time the lightning rod has turned out to be not the famous London underground, or the grand train stations of Madrid, or the twin towers of New York, but a set of cartoons out of Copenhagen. The Danish drawings did not trigger some previously nonexistent fury. They have simply become the latest litmus test of how very much the worst thugs of the Islamic world believe they are entitled to get away with, whatever the pretext.
As for the cartoons, what ought to jump out here is that it is not, in fact, common for the Western press to caricature Mohammed, or even to run pointed cartoons about Islam. One has to wonder if the organizers of the gunmen, arsonists and death-threat-deliverers (and it takes a fair amount of organization to get hold of Danish flags in Gaza, or burn an embassy in the police-state of Syria) had to scour the ample outpourings of the Western press looking for something, anything, over which to take offense, and–faced with reams of material trying to understand their pain–had to fall back as a last resort on the cartoons of Denmark. To what extent is the Western press already afraid to risk offending those who even before the recent protests had racked up a record of death threats and murder?
If statehood, citizenship, and civilization itself are to mean anything, we are all in the end accountable for our own actions. When people riot and brutalize and burn, there are individuals in the crowds who are responsible. And in the places where this is happening, if the governments will not call these individuals to account, we need to hold those governments themselves responsible. Cartoons alone, to quote another line from Hamlet, are in a class with nothing more than “words, words, words,” and those are grounds on which newspapers, nations, and religions may have their disagreements and their dialogues. But when violence enters the picture, that is a matter for governments to settle, and in the free world the job of government and politicians is not to opine upon cartoons, but to lay down the law that no one may with impunity threaten our liberty and lives.
–Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.