26 June 2006

Making caricatures of us all

January ended with the news that a tanker loaded with ten thousand tonnes of phosphoric acid had sunk off the French coast, threatening to leak eighty tonnes of fuel oil into the English Channel. It had all the makings of a major news story. As the British Press focused on the House of Commons vote over the controversial religious hatred bill, news that Danish firms were seeking an end to a boycott of their goods was receiving scant attention. By the end of the week everything had changed; the tanker was long forgotten and one story was dominating the headlines.

I have to admit that by the evening of 2 February I was pretty angry. Collecting my wife from the station, having just turned off the Six O’Clock News, I was foaming all the way home about the way Muslims have to react so stupidly every time a red flag is waved in front of us. Just after I became Muslim seven and a half years ago, another convert told me that the action we had taken was a bit like jumping on board a sinking ship. That day reminded me of his analogy. Disconnecting from the mainstream media and plugging into the Internet provided some relief however; I suddenly noticed that amidst the commentary from the Muslims of cyberspace it was actually very hard to find people saying anything stupid after all. All I could see were the silent images in the online press.

The cartoons in question were first published four months previously in Denmark, apparently to test the boundaries of freedom of expression. Perhaps Denmark had already established these boundaries when its Supreme Court ruled that a supermarket chain had the right to sack a young Muslim woman for wearing a headscarf to work. Of course, we can’t say this; it’s changing the subject. No, the newspaper in question, Jyllands Posten, consulted the Danish theologian Professor Tim Jensen before publishing the cartoons. He responded with the advice that the cartoons should not be published, pointing out that “It will offend Muslims and only cause pointless provocation.” So the newspaper went ahead and published them anyway.

On 20 October 2005, the BBC reported that ambassadors of ten Muslim countries had complained to the Danish prime minister about the newspaper's cartoons. Then the story disappeared for three months, only to reappear when Arla Foods announced it would have one hundred redundancies after its sales in the Middle East fell to zero. In this bizarre twist to the usual sanctions regime, Danish companies were pleading for a food-for-oil programme. Thus the EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, chipped in to criticise the papers that re-ran the cartoons. Why did they re-run the cartoons? Did they, too, need to establish the boundaries? Were they still in doubt? Of course not. Nothing stirs fame like controversy. So away they waved with the red flag.

Throughout the day on 2 February, the media was stirring the story. When I returned to my car in the evening, the presenters on the evening news seemed to be continuing from where I had left them in the morning. The package was introduced in sombre mood on the midday television news; we listened as the reporter told us that another clash of cultures, like that seen with the Satanic Verses, “was developing fast”. Then, turning to the other camera with a smile, the presenter told us how to contribute to the debate online. While the sales of Lurpak continued to plummet, a self-righteous media began to fight back, chanting death to the enemies who have no respect for pointless provocation. Calls to boycott Middle Eastern goods quickly faded, however, when it was realised that the only Middle Eastern goods available were oil and stale baklava.

Apparently there had been a massive wave of protest across the Middle East, although at that stage nobody had managed to capture the thronging crowds on camera. A world shortage in wide-angle lenses meant that every photographer was forced to go for the up-close-and-personal look. Still, that would soon change once the word got about. One of the protests involved a group of men pouring lighter fluid over a Danish flag which appeared to be made of tissue paper before setting it alight. I should think, were it not for its obligatory incineration, Danes would be touched by the affection with which the protesters had recreated their national flag; one protester had clearly spent hours on his neatly crayoned standard. Elsewhere, men whose convictions were so strong that they had to hide their faces beneath scarves briefly surrounded the EU offices in Gaza and fired bullets into the air, gaining prime time airing on the television news. But rolling into a town just outside London, a camera crew filmed men walking out of a mosque looking scarily unperturbed. Even the non-Muslim asked for his opinion on the street seemed oblivious to the media frenzy unveiling around him. Unprepared, he stuttered something about nothing and shrugged his shoulders.

Personally I believe there must be better ways to honour our blessed Prophet, peace be upon him, than to violently demand a non-Muslim newspaper observes Islamic principles of not depicting the Prophets. Islam has always prohibited this because it wanted to prevent its followers from taking them as objects of worship down the line. That’s not unreasonable, if you think of the way Iconography has been used in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity. But would we not be better off honouring Muhammed, peace be upon him, by living as he lived, trying to curb our anger and observing patience? But then again, by and large that was what the Muslims representing themselves have been saying. Indeed there were no ritual bonfires of tubs of Lurpak in the car park at my mosque after Jummah prayer the following week, although I gather a convicted drug dealer thought it would be a good idea to turn up in London dressed as a suicide bomber.

On the other hand, the media was making much of the democratic right to cause offence in the civilised countries of Western Europe today. Unlike those ignorant, backward Muslims over there with their quaint ways and failure to appreciate satire, Denmark is a land of enlightened souls doing nothing but exploring their boundaries. Yes indeed, Denmark is such a pleasant civilised land that a radio station in Copenhagen had to have its broadcasting licence taken away in August last year after calling for the extermination of Muslims. Whilst exploring the boundaries of freedom of expression, Kaj Wilhelmsen told listeners to Radio Holger: “There are only two possible reactions if you want to stop this bomb terrorism – either you expel all Muslims from Western Europe so they cannot plant bombs, or you exterminate the fanatical Muslims which would mean killing a substantial part of Muslim immigrants.” As Queen Margrethe of Denmark is quoted as saying in her autobiography, it is time to take the challenge of Islam seriously: “We have let this issue float around for too long, because we are tolerant and rather lazy.” You see: we in the civilized West are much too tolerant to behave like those flag-made-of-tissue-burning, sanction-wielding brutes over there.

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