Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cartoon violence

The mainstream media rarely cedes limelight to a blogger, but Tim Blair's decision to publish those infamous cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed has made him hot property. While other desktop pundits have published the offending pictures, it's Tim's name that's popped up everywhere from the Sydney Morning Herald to Triple-M talkbalk radio. I'm not suggesting he did it for fame - to the contrary, I'm fairly sure Tim did it as a matter of principle. Which is the problem.

As with every post-9/11 newsbit involving violence and Muslims, the right has seized on these doodles to kick Islam in general. Before we heard a peep from Australia's Muslim community, the cartoons were being used by non-Muslim bloggers to stoke a sense of 'Us vs Them', reinforcing the false Western-Muslim paradigm that's fastened like a leech to the War on Terror. In his post Tim Blair labeled a Muslim leader's request for non-publication as "orders" to the non-Muslim population, and praised the Danish publisher of the cartoons as "taking one for the (non-Muslim) team". Others have claimed that a failure to publish amounts to cowardice and capitulation to the Muslim (not terrorist) menace.

The Jyllands-Posten commissioned the cartoons to promote debate about the violent reaction among Muslims to criticism of Islam; or so it claims. What it actually did was call for Danish cartoonists to portray Muhammad "as they see him" - effectively an invitation to make blanket statements about Islam, with no link to the original issue of self-censorship in the Danish media. This is exactly what the 4th, 6th, 10th and 11th cartoons (and arguably some of the others) do, following the top-down order of publication at Wikipedia. It was deliberate shit-stirring from the outset, so it's no surprise the pictures have been used for this purpose by Islamophobes the world over.

Whether Islam fosters violence, oppresses women etc are all subjects for debate under the right to free speech on which liberal democracies are founded. But these cartoons don't promote debate; their sole effect is to evoke fear and revulsion in the viewer. They come close to the kind of behaviour that got Catch the Fire Ministries (CFM) a court order under Victoria's anti-vilification legislation, pertinent extracts of which follow.

(8) A person must not, on the grounds of religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.
(11) A person does not contravene section 8 if the person establishes that the person’s conduct was engaged in reasonably and in good faith -
    (a) In the performance exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
    (b) In the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held, or any other conduct engaged in, for -
      (i) any genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific purpose; or
      (ii) any purpose that is in the public interest; or
    (c) In making or publishing a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest.
What nailed CFM was their claim - without supporting evidence - that Australia's Muslim community as a whole is conspiring to take over the country, with the ultimate goal of forcing conversion to Islam upon the wider population. It was CFM's design to stoke hostility towards a given community regardless of facts, in the same way that Islamic governments use the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to demonise Jews.

Whether this sort of thing should be banned by law is up for debate (see the CFM link above for starters). But it's certainly undesirable, and politicians are right to condemn it and editors to refuse publication. The Mohammed cartoons lack the deliberate falsities featured in the CFM sermon, but they still sail pretty close to any definition of hate-speech one cares to use. They impose guilt by proxy, targeting all Muslims by pandering to the non-Muslim viewer's tribal instinct. How is this different from 19th-century cartoons portraying the Chinese as slant-eyed degenerates poised to overrun Australia (and *gasp* cavort with white women)?

In the present political context, these sad little pictures are headier stuff than depictions of Jesus submerged in urine or having sex with Mary Magdalene. Publication should be allowed, but promoting them isn't socially responsible and those who choose not to can ignore charges of abetting the downfall of Western Civilisation. Or worse, being Un-Australian.


Couponsteve said...

Perhaps this is another straw on an already overburdened camel...
but then again the 19th century cartoons against the Chinese were troublesome but we've pretty much (with the occasional exceptions)overcome them in the last 100 years, maybe that's how long it'll take for anti-Islamic press to cool down.

Anonymous said...

heh. Them reacting by burning embassies probably simply helps to validate Islamophobia thus far.

John Lee said...

yes, but the point is that Australian Muslims haven't burnt embassies...

John Lee said...

to put this in perspective, it's like tagging me as a xenophobe because Japanese embassies were stoned in China.