Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cartoons Matter

I think this is important:

The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt -- The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq offered money for the murder of a Swedish cartoonist and his editor who recently produced images deemed insulting to Islam, according to a statement carried by Islamist Web sites Saturday.

In a half hour audio file entitled "They plotted yet God too was plotting," Abu Omar al-Baghdadi also named the other insurgent groups in Iraq that al-Qaida was fighting and promised new attacks, particularly against the minority Yazidi sect.

"We are calling for the assassination of cartoonist Lars Vilks who dared insult our Prophet, peace be upon him, and we announce a reward during this generous month of Ramadan of $100,000 for the one who kills this criminal," the transcript on the Web site said.

The al-Qaida leader upped the reward for Vilks' death to $150,000 if he was "slaughtered like a lamb" and offered $50,000 for the killing of the editor of Nerikes Allehanda, the Swedish paper that printed Vilks' cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a dog's body on Aug. 19.

Vilks said from Sweden he believed the matter of his cartoons had been blown out of proportion.

"We have a real problem here," Vilks told The Associated Press by telephone. "We can only hope that Muslims in Europe and in the Western world choose to distance themselves from this and support the idea of freedom of expression..."

...Al-Baghdadi added in his message that if the "crusader state of Sweden" didn't apologize, his organization would also attack major companies.

"We know how to force you to retreat and apologize and if you don't, wait for us to strike the economy of your giant companies including Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, Ikea, and Electrolux," he said....

More here.

I'm struck by the fact that al-Qaida conveys the generous spirit of Ramadan not by offering mercy to those who offend them, but by providing an extra large bounty on their heads. Not being raised on a farm, I can only wonder what lamb slaughtering involves and why it's worth an additional $50,000. I was unaware until now that Sweden had taken part in the Crusades. And I believe "we have a real problem here" is a masterpiece of understatement. Indeed, we have an enormous problem here.

If Western Civilization means anything, it's that freedom of speech, press, and religion are inviolable. Anyone offended can peacefully protest, boycott products or media, and express their competing point of view. Free speech carries risk and consequences, and I have little patience or respect for those who whine "censorship" whenever someone objects to their message. You have a right to speak and others have a right to disagree. If Al-Baghdadi's reference to Ericcson, Scania, Volvo, Ikea, and Electrolux were a call to boycott (which I definitely don't infer from context), that's fair play. But he can not put a price on writers' and artists' heads with a bonus for "extra messy."

Well, obviously he can, but it's barbaric and wrong. This is so self-evident to me that I simply can't understand anyone in the West who fails to regard it as a serious strike at civilization's most essential foundations. Or more: anyone who apologizes for it, expands definitions of hate speech to embrace it, or reassigns or fires cartoonists and their editors to pacify it. The timidity and cowardice I see astounds me.

I can't imagine any circumstance in which I'd draw a cartoon defaming The Prophet (PBUH), any more than I would Jesus Christ or the Buddha. I just wouldn't do that. But today, Ich bin ein Swedish cartoonist.


KRINGE said...

These muslims need to really get a life. Do you see any other religion carry on the insane way the muslims do when there god or prophets are insulted,
When cartoonist Insult Christ does the christian world want to go kill everyone, NO, when budda is made fun of & insulted do the monks wage buddist jihad, I dont think so,

Kringe said...

PS: I would appear the concept of forgiveness is beyond these people

Sherwood Harrington said...

Brian, knowing what we do about the regular readership of your blog, there are at least three very, very capable people with swords sharpened, ready to hack this "kringe" troll into ground sirloin. Which, of course, is exactly what he/she wants.

What we Myrmidons lack, of course, is your ability to absorb aggression and turn it back upon itself in a civilized, genteel way. So have at this jackass, if you want, or leave it up to us.

Or just cancel its comments. You can do that in blogger, and I think it would be appropriate here.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks for your reply, Sherwood. It's an interesting dilemma. I can't quite get past the irony of deleting comments in a post championing free speech. I realize my blog isn't a public forum and I've deleted comments for various reasons before--even recently--but I don't like to do it and I'm inclined to let Kringe's stand for now. Res ipsa loquitur.

If I think things are getting out of hand, though, I'll shut it down. I don't do politics or religion here; they are off-topic by definition.

Sherwood Harrington said...


But know that you've got some pretty brutal thugs at your disposal if you want 'em.

Not that I'm saying that I'm one, of course. I'm just sayin' you've got 'em. Somewhere out here. Just waitin' for the go-go.

Oh. And Ich bin ein Swedish Cartoonist today, too.

Kringe said...

there are at least three very, very capable people with swords sharpened, ready to hack this "kringe" troll into ground sirloin

But know that you've got some pretty brutal thugs at your disposal if you want 'em.

These sounds like a threat to me.

If you find the "losers" comment offensive I sincereley appoligize
Please remopve that part
"heat of the moment thing"

Mike said...

Couple of things -- the idea that a radical fringe represents Muslims is pretty insulting, particularly coming from people in a country where a radical fringe of Christians would like to preach in the public schools and invade other countries to convert them. Most in the west forget (or never knew) that Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu extremist. There are nutcases in every religion ... and, FWIW, Sweden was a major player in the 30 Years War, which wasn't a Crusade in terms of the Middle East but which was certainly a war of religious intolerance with its own share of atrocities.

And I'm also a believer in the free press, but this whole issue of purposely insulting religious figures is troubling. It's not that the press should hesitate to make bold statements, but it is a good thing to occasionally pause for thought before making them. Example: If you criticize a gang in such a way that either gets them arrested or turns a community against them in a way that makes them ineffective, that's worth doing. If you just set yourself up for a mugging in the street without really helping to solve the problem, well, maybe you should have come up with something more effective. There is a difference between Theo Van Gogh, who created a work of thoughtful protest art and unintentionally drew down the wrath of butchers, and the Danish cartoonists who simply hurled insults at a wider community and whose actions primarily harmed innocent third parties.

With power comes responsibility, and the power of the press is no exception.

ronnie said...

I believe I can add some light to the "slaughtered like a lamb" comment. During Ramadan, and particularly for the Eid feast that ends the month, Muslims often kill either a lamb or a goat in a very particular fashion that is consistent with halal (Muslim dietary laws). The animal's throat is cut. When done properly, the animal dies instantly and it is in fact part of a proper halal slaughter that the animal should not feel any pain. I doubt the extremist is calling for a more merciful murder of the cartoonist, only that he'd consider it a bonus if he were killed in halal fashion.

I agree with Mike that for me there's a difference between drawings and writings that intentionally provoke, in this case, Muslims, and those that are valid political commentary which inadvertently provoke them. I felt, frankly, little pity for the Danish cartoonists or publishers. They set out to offend, and announced their intention. I would be extremely interested in seeing the cartoon in question and whether Vilks was trying to be deliberately provocative, in which case he is pretty much reaping what he sowed, or whether he was making some legitimate political/social commentary.

The use of the plural term "images" does make me wonder.

None of this, of course, legitimizes calling for someone's murder for artistic or political expression.

ronnie said...

ronnie said...

Followup - the Wikipedia page about this controversy gives a good history (if accurate) of the flap and also has a sample of one of the three drawings that have caused the trouble. However, it's not one of the really offensive ones, which can be seen here. He essentially depicts the Prophet's head on a dog's body.

Linking the Prophet to a dog is almost certainly intentionally provocative and meant to be insulting.

This fellow probably would've been disappointed if he hadn't caused a fuss.


Brian Fies said...

Mike, mild disagreement on the great responsibility that goes with the great power of free speech (I was bitten by a radioactive founding father...). I think it has to be nearly absolute (no "fire" in theaters, burning KKK crosses on people's lawns, etc.) or it means nothing. I defend the cartoon because it was deliberately provocative and offensive, just as I'd defend Robert Crumb, Julie Doucet, Garry Trudeau, Alan Moore, Al Capp or Andres Serrano regardless of whether I liked or agreed with their content. I see no difference in principle between the artistry of Van Gogh and the insults of Vilks. I also see no reason to give religions a special "hands off" pass because some small number of adherents might be extra-super-duper offended.

As I said in my post, I also don't think people should be shielded from the consequences of saying something stupid--or extra-super-duper offensive--short of physical harm. You might ruin your reputation, lose business, estrange friends and family. Libel and slander laws restrain and punish truly harmful excesses. That's where the social checks and balances should happen. Worst case, a reckless speaker might have to compensate someone they've harmed. Typically not by being gutted like a lamb.

Ronnie, thanks for the background and references. Of course Vilks meant to be insulting and cause a fuss. He may be a self-aggrandizing idiot who thought a fatwa would be a shortcut to the cushy Life of Rushdie and only now realizes he bit off more than he can chew. He poked a nest of angry hornets with a sharp pointy stick just to see what would happen. That's what I like about him. Nests need poking.

Also, don't overlook his editors' role in publishing the cartoon. Particularly in light of recent Scandanavian experience, they knew what they were doing. It may have been a principled defense of free speech, but it was also certainly a calculated decision.

Mike said...

Maybe I've lived too long in the real world of words-and-consequences to be swayed by the theoretical ideals of free speech. When I was all of about eight (as my mother, who visits here, will attest), my little brother came to fetch her because "Joe *** is killing Mike!" She came to the scene to find that Joe, a big guy with a somewhat limited capacity for slinging words, was sitting astride me, pounding me in the face and crying, because as much as he hit me, I'd wise off one more time. "Make him shut his damn mouth!" he cried to my mother.

It was a task she had already been pursuing, and would continue to pursue for several more years, with limited effect.

Eventually I learned that if I would shut my damn mouth, people would stop socking me in the face. I did not shut my damn mouth, but I did learn to wait until I felt it was worth being socked in the face.

That is the great responsibility that comes with freedom of the press. You have to realize that people should not sock you in the face when you insult them. It is wrong. But it will happen, and you need to take that into consideration before you open your damn mouth.

And as much as I hurt Joe's feelings with my sharp tongue, being socked in the face was not what caused the most pain. In later years, when I had grown to have more empathy for others, I learned that some people don't sock you in the face when you wound them. They simply shrivel up and die inside.

I'd rather be socked in the face.

And so I do try to make sure it matters these days, before I unleash that tongue.

ronnie said...

"Eventually I learned that if I would shut my damn mouth, people would stop socking me in the face. I did not shut my damn mouth, but I did learn to wait until I felt it was worth being socked in the face."

I just so totally love this that I wanted to see it again.