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On Those Danish Cartoons

Why a handful of pictures has fueled such fury


Published February 15, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

Remember "Piss Christ"? In case you've forgotten, that was Andres Serrano's 1987 photo of a crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. Two years after the photo was taken, it set off a firestorm of public controversy, particularly because Serrano was the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Alfonse D'Amato (R-New York) called it "a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity," and tore up a copy of "Piss Christ" on the Senate floor.

About three seconds on Google will show you that Serrano's artwork has become the blogosphere's paradigm for the current furor over those Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

But wait -- let's take a look at something else Sen. D'Amato said as part of his anti-Serrano rant in May 1989:

"If this continues and if this goes un-rectified, where will it end? They will say, 'This is free speech.' Well, if you want free speech, you want to draw dirty pictures, you want to do anything you want, that is your business, but not with taxpayers' money."

That controversy, in other words, was mainly about public money and whether it should be used to subsidize what many people found stupid, incomprehensible and gratuitously offensive. The fact that Serrano and "Piss Christ" had garnered a lot of praise from juries of art experts confirmed many ordinary folks' suspicion that the denizens of "high art" inhabit a weird and incomprehensible parallel universe that the rest of us would do well to avoid.

To the best of my recollection (and a Google search), no one called for Serrano's arrest or execution, nor did anyone try to burn down the galleries displaying his work. And that's why a lot of people are confounded by the uproar over the Danish cartoons. It isn't that Westerners are culturally accepting of humor that skewers religion and Muslims aren't. It's the sense that, however much we believe in tolerance and cross-cultural understanding, the television pictures of angry mobs in Indonesia, Afghanistan and Beirut portray people whose values seem to be utterly alien to ours.

One of the more measured reactions to the cartoons, after all, came from Malaysia's prime minister, who told a conference in Kuala Lumpur, "The West should treat Islam the way it wants Islam to treat the West and vice versa -- they should accept one another as equals."

Pretty sensible stuff. Yet as he made those remarks, protestors outside the hall were chanting, "Long live Islam. Destroy Denmark. Destroy Israel. Destroy George Bush. Destroy America."

And now, perhaps, we've made it to the core of the issue. Notice how quickly that chant leapt from praising The Faith to demanding the destruction of both America and Israel? How did we get pulled into this? Why does anger and frustration over the drawings so readily morph into anger and frustration at America, and the West generally?

Is it about Israel? Colonialism? Globalization? Iraq? Afghanistan? Bush? A huge Western plot? Corrupt local leaders? A failed local educational system? A lack of democracy? How hard it is to get visas to travel to Europe and America? How Muslim immigrants are treated once they get here?

The answer, unfortunately, is all of the above and none of the above. The debate over the cartoons has touched an unusually raw nerve in the Muslim world. It is not just that Muslim beliefs forbid any visual representation of the Prophet, or even that anger over violating that principle is new (it isn't; an article in Sunday's New York Times mentioned a Washington, D.C., hostage-taking in the 1970s to protest the release of a film about Mohammed). It is the fact that this particular violation of one of Islam's core beliefs seems so gratuitous, and comes at a moment when many ordinary Muslims have bought into the idea that the West is engaged in a long-term program to abuse and humiliate them.

It is the anger of a culture that believes fervently in its own innate goodness and universality, but finds itself overwhelmed by both the pop culture and the military power of the secular West. It is borne of a sense that the West talks about "respect" but offers little of it in return.

There is a free speech issue here, to be sure. But it's equally true that ideologues on both sides have stoked the flames in the service of their own narrow agendas. Papers that have reprinted, or even described, the cartoons have focused, laser-like, on the two most provocative drawings: the one showing the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban, and the one in which he turns away suicide bombers trying to enter heaven pleading that he has run out of virgins with whom to entertain them.

Here in the States, one rightwing website is soliciting more cartoons about Moham-med. An Iranian newspaper responded with a cartoon showing Hitler and Anne Frank in bed together, and announced a contest asking readers to submit more Holocaust-themed cartoons. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the February 10 Washington Post, called Muslim moderates "the mob's agents and interpreters." Protestors in London carried signs that read, "Behead those who insult Islam" and "Europe, you will pay -- your 9/11 is on its way!"

The governments of Syria and Egypt have egged on the controversy in order to burnish their own credentials in the face of Islamist opposition at home, and to stymie the U.S.'s push for political reform in the region. To the Americans they are saying, "See, if we loosen up and allow real democracy, hot-heads will take over." To those same hot-heads they are saying, "This is the free speech and democracy the West talks so much about -- a license for blasphemy. Better to reject imported notions of 'democracy' and have a strong government that enforces piety in the media."

The sad thing is that the original point the Danish newspaper tried to make was a valid one. This all began when a Danish publisher was unable to find anyone to illustrate a children's book on the Prophet precisely because illustrators feared a violent reaction if they accepted the work. In the most telling of the original drawings, the artist draws himself at his easel, looking fearfully over his shoulder as he sketches the Prophet.

And that seems appropriate, because -- let's all be honest now -- fear is what this has been about from the beginning. Fear of Islam. Fear of the West. Fear of extremism. Fear for one's culture. Fear of change. Fear of each other.

Gordon Robison is a Shelburne-based journalist and consultant who has spent nearly two decades living in and reporting on the Middle East. He writes regularly on the region at http://www.mideastanalysis.com.