The Mahommad Cartoons

© Donald Richardson, February, 2006

The enormous amount of unnecessary aggression generated by the publication of a series of cartoons on Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, at the end of 2005 made it impossible for Australian publications to re-print them, so the public had to leave judgment to others. I found the offending drawings on a website and decided that a verbal description and appraisal of them would go some way towards addressing this situation; however, no journal would print the article

These drawings arose from an author's complaint to the newspaper, that he could not find an artist willing to illustrate a children's book explaining the Muslim faith. Reacting to this apparent self-censorship in the context of general concern about the underclass of Middle Eastern migrants in Europe - similar to that which we have in Australia - the paper invited cartoonists to comment in the way they do, and it published twelve of the drawings. This occurred some weeks before radical Muslims used them as a trigger for demonstrations. The rent-a-crowds should not, of course, have viewed the actual cartoons but, Muslims being as human as Christians, it is possible that many may have sneaked a peek on the internet or even seen smuggled prints of them.

The cartoon that has been mentioned most often in newspapers may be the only actual representation of The Prophet himself. It is a strong characterization in serious mien, his turban subtly represented as a bomb with a burning fuse, as if an afterthought. There is a representation of a fool sprouting horns and an ingenuous traveller leading a pack-donkey. One is a black-bearded face inscribed tightly within a green crescent. Two show the cartoonists themselves drawing, one looking extremely troubled, half concealing the picture from view, the other labeling it "PR stunt". In two others, the captions carry the potency: an imam says to angry militants "Relaxit is just a sketch made by a Dane in the South-West of Denmark" and a blackboard sports an inscription which translates as "Jyllands-Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs".

Perhaps the funniest to our eyes shows a file of charred martyrs, ascending to Heaven hopefully, being greeted by an imam with the words: "Stop, stop. We ran out of virgins". But, the most incisive - as well as the strongest graphically - has a scimitar-wielding Arab with his eyes censored out by a thick black horizontal line which repeats, in negative, the eye-openings in the black hijabs of two women lined up behind him.

According to Western values, few are remarkably either funny or satirical. Both humour and satire are, of course, culture-bound: a book of Russian political cartoons I have barely raises a smile in me; similarly, American humour can leave many Australians cold. The reason the drawings have inspired such a violent reaction is that traditional Muslim culture has a stricter adherence to the Fourth Commandment ('thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything.') than Christians do. Thus, any visual representation at all is proscribed, not just pictures of The Prophet - hence the exclusively abstract decoration in Muslim books and architecture. Andrew Dutney, in The Independent Weekly of 12 February, 2006, notes that this is blasphemy and points out that - whereas it is a crime in Christendom as well as Islam, and that anti-blasphemy laws are still on our books - it is no longer prosecuted in the West. In Islam, blasphemy is still punishable by death.

This indicates the depth of the cultural difference we have to deal with. Rather than a "war on terror", we have a - much-deeper - "clash of cultures". Some have declared that - because the radicals are impervious to reason - the Middle East is not yet ready for democracy. An indication of this lack of common reason is the call for retaliatory cartoons on the Holocaust. Although vilification of the Jews in cartoons on Muslim countries is common, it is not rational to equate these cartoons with the Holocaust: one is about belief, the other historical fact. (However, people are often more ready to die for their beliefs than the facts of life.)
Possibly, the majority of Muslims in the West appreciate our freedom of speech and can see these cartoons for what they are, but it is the radical extremists that are the concern. The situation is identical with that of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie (which, because it is no longer news, we forget is still in operation and could be effected by a single radical at any time), but with a much greater possible sweep. Indeed the Taliban has offered gold to anyone who kills a Dane. Most commentators have expressed despair at what can be done about the situation but stress the need to do something before the militants acquire WMDs.

The only possible remedy, of course, is education: not inculcation by rote of the Koran, but the kind of humanistic and pluralistic education we have in the West: political correctness in its best sense (i.e., old-fashioned good manners and respect for others). The other side of the coin, though, is that much of our television entertainment breaches this code every evening - a fact that is not lost on Muslim culture. For every freedom there is a corresponding responsibility, of course.

In this educational context, it is unbelievable that Australia passed up a unique opportunity to effect this - in the Far East, at least - when a few years ago the government discontinued Radio Australia broadcasts and leased the facility to a Christian organization, which proceeded to proselytize Asia. It is understandable that now our near neighbours believe that Christianity is the official religion of Australia in the same way that Islam is of the Middle East. Fortunately, Radio Australia is back on air, but the damage done will take years to correct.

The Muslims may reason that proselytization by force is exactly what Western Christians did in the empire-building period. We now see it as unforgivably arrogant that we did so, but 'two wrongs do not make a right' and the countries of Europe are now doing their own penances for it.

Many commentators have attempted to dismiss the cartoons as unfunny scribbles - illogically unable to see that they are, in fact, the very cause of the controversy. In fact, many of the drawings make pertinent points. Because, like the poor, they are always with us, we tend to be not aware of the potency of political cartoons; indeed, they are essential to free communication in our democratic society, often making points that are difficult to say in words. And, from the early days of newspapers, cartoonists have expressed minority or left-wing views that are contrary to those of the government of the day or their papers' proprietors. Our cartoonists are, in fact, among those artists who are - justifiably - very afraid of our new sedition laws.

So, it is not surprising that the most pertinent commentaries on this story have been made by our own cartoonists - Atchison, for example, in The Advertiser of 7 February. But the final word must be that of Nicholson in The Australian of 9 February: he represents himself drawing a cartoon showing a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian "burying their differences", which results in clerics from all three faiths laughing: "That's a good one!"

Finally, we should observe that the newspapers' cry of restriction on freedom of speech has a very hollow ring because our papers - as well as commercial television - practice self-censorship all the time. They often decline to publish items that run against the principles of their political or economic masters: for example, the very significant rise of left-wing governments in South America is only grudgingly reported and in a minority of outlets, and the attempt to impose 'terminator seeds' on the world's agriculture goes totally unreported.

But they do have a point when they say that the Muslims are practicing blackmail - which of course, is a crime in most cultures.