Wednesday, February 08, 2006

More Cartoons

A collection of interesting articles on the cartoon controversy:

Tolerance Toward Intolerance.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: "Everyone is Afraid to Criticize Islam".

From the BBC:
Twelve cartoons were originally published by Jyllands-Posten. None showed the Prophet with the face of a pig. Yet such a portrayal has circulated in the Middle East (The BBC was caught out and for a time showed film of this in Gaza without realizing it was not one of the 12).

This picture, a fuzzy grey photocopy, can now be traced back (suspicion having been confirmed by an admission) to a delegation of Danish Muslim leaders who went to the Middle East in November to publicise the cartoons. The visit was organised by Abu Laban, a leading Muslim figure in Denmark.

According to the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet, the delegation took along a pamphlet showing the 12 drawings. But the delegation also showed a number of other pictures, including the "pig" one. The delegation claimed they were the sort of insults that Muslims in Denmark had to endure. These also got into circulation.

(Update: A reader has e-mailed to say that the original of the "pig" picture was from a "pig-squealing" competition held in France every summer. Some character dressed up like a pig. See the link to the neandernews.com site on the right for the details.

Ekstra Bladet has also published a letter taken by the delegation on its mission. This gives the delegation's account of how the cartoons originated and what the reaction to them was. But it also mentions other pictures, which it said were "much more offending." These presumably included the "pig" picture, whose origin is now known.)

Western diplomats appear to have missed this entirely and seem to have made no attempt to counter some of the arguments in the pamphlet or to distinguish between the various portrayals.

It might not have made much difference but it shows how rapidly propaganda can add to fuel to the fire.
And, an interesting parody by Orthomom.

And a cartoon satirizing the whole situation.

Christopher Hitchens has some relevant comments:
Many people have pointed out that the Arab and Muslim press is replete with anti-Jewish caricature, often of the most lurid and hateful kind. In one way the comparison is hopelessly inexact. These foul items mostly appear in countries where the state decides what is published or broadcast. However, when Muslims republish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuate the story of Jewish blood-sacrifice at Passover, they are recycling the fantasies of the Russian Orthodox Christian secret police (in the first instance) and of centuries of Roman Catholic and Lutheran propaganda (in the second). And, when an Israeli politician refers to Palestinians as snakes or pigs or monkeys, it is near to a certainty that he will be a rabbi (most usually Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the disgraceful Shas party) and will cite Talmudic authority for his racism. For most of human history, religion and bigotry have been two sides of the same coin, and it still shows.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mahmood's Den on the cartoons

Mahmood, of Mahmood's Den, gives a very interesting response to the cartoons.
The main thing is the prohibition by Islam on representing the prophets graphically, possibly for fear of some people using that graphic as an idol, hence promoting idolatry practices rather than praying to Allah alone.

These cartoons not only represented the prophet, but made fun of, and denigrated him; that's double trouble.

As every Muslim is brought up to respect not only our prophet but also all those who have been sent by Allah to disperse His religions, and that we do not represent the prophet in any way, shape or form, they were insulted by the caricatures which were seen as the height of blasphemy.

Now as WE revere the prophet of Islam (pbuh) and do not represent him and hold him at the highest platform, and as we hold the other prophets at the same level of love and respect, we expect that everyone else in the world to hold our prophet in the same light. Reciprocal respect, if you like, was a "given" to us.

These cartoons shocked Muslims because we were slapped in the face. That respect, it was found, was not reciprocal at all, but one sided.

Now the way that Muslims went about dealing with this situation is, to me, farcical.

Yes, we should hold the prophet at the highest level of love and affection. Yes, we should defend him and his reputation, but the level that most of the protests I've seen, the worst of which was paradoxically in London, proves the point of those cartoons without a shadow of a doubt: Islam is a religion of hate and violence.

These protests and the way this situation was handled is completely wrong. We - continue to preach - that we have the higher moral hand, that our religion is the religion of peace, that our religion is the highest form of moral contract, yet, we go about the streets in droves holding up placards DEMANDING the death and torture of ANYONE who denigrates our religion and its symbols! Why should anyone respect us if this is the way we go about things?

These protests demanding violence, to me, is a complete moral bancruptcy of those taking part in those protests AND of their particular understanding of Islam.

I keep saying, so what if a dimwitted cartoonist, or Nazi or racist or a stupid person drew a cartoon or swore at our religious symbols or misrepresented them? Is that going to reduce our symbols' place in our and hundreds of millions of Muslims' hearts? Is that going to change their greatness? Of course not. So why was this situation blown up out of all rational repercussions?

I think this situation was used to divert the Muslim nation's attention from the real problems festering in its midst. And these things - a full 5 months after being published - were picked up and used, abused, to do just that.

Forget the festering corruption, negligible education, unemployment, squandering of opportunities, injustice, restriction of speech, restriction of expression, and the hundreds of other bad things we go through on a daily basis, and hang them all on a bunch of Danish cartoonists.

I don't buy it.

These cartoons or the hundreds of thousands of ones which probably have been drawn and are more offensive than the original 12 published because of the brouhaha we created will not negate nor lessen my love and respect for a great man sent by Allah as a saviour of the world.

What DOES offend me greatly however is the once again hijacking of my religion, this time universally by all sects, to show the world that it is ugly, intolerant, and violent.
I would like to make it clear that I don't endorse the sentiments reflected by some of the cartoons published by the Danish newspaper. (Some of them are actually poking fun at the newspaper itself). When I first read selections of the Qur'an as a graduate student in religion, I was very moved - the Qur'an retells many stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, and also refers to later rabbinic traditions (for example, the statement that "he who kills one person, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world").

There was something very similar religiously to what I was accustomed to finding in Judaism - concern for the weak and the poor, the necessity to seek justice, strict insistence on the oneness of God, and the importance of prophecy. The first part of the Muslim confession of faith - the shehadah - is something that Jews would have no problem saying: "There is no god but God." (Compare the sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone").

The portrayal of Muhammed in the Qur'an bears striking similarities to the depiction of prophets in the Bible. I don't see any reason to mock or condemn the figure of Muhammed as he is known from the Qur'an, and it makes sense to me why Muslims revere him.

Like Mahmood with some of his fellow Muslims, I have been enraged and saddened when I feel that fellow Jews are trying to hijack my religion and turn it into an excuse for hatred and violence. A number of years ago, when I was living in Israel, one Shabbat afternoon I was visiting someone in the Old City of Jerusalem. The guests went up on to the roof, where we had a clear view of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount - the place sacred to Jews because it is where the Temple stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. It is also a place holy to Muslims - the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located there. The Dome of the Rock may stand on the spot where the Temple once stood. If you have never seen it, it is a beautiful building, with a golden dome and tiled walls. I was standing next to a young religious Jewish man, an American who was studying in Jerusalem, and we were both looking at the Temple Mount. I said to him something like - isn't it a beautiful building? He pointed to the Dome of the Rock and made as if to shoot at it. He said that it would be good if it were destroyed, so that the Temple could be rebuilt on the spot. I said, but aren't they (Muslims) also human beings, made in the image of God (implying that many people would be killed if the mosques on the Temple Mount were destroyed)? He allowed as they might be, but my words clearly had no effect on his desire to destroy the Dome of the Rock.

I don't see that there's any place in Judaism for this kind of hatred and incitement to violence. Unfortunately not all Jews agree with me on this point.

Other cartoons

Here are some examples of recent anti-semitic cartoons in the Saudi Press, courtesy of The Religious Policeman.

And see this list of recent anti-semitic press reports from the Arab and Muslim world:

Iran TV Discussion on the Myth of the Gas Chambers and the Truth of Protocols of the Elders of Zion; ‘The Only Solution for This Cancerous Tumor [Israel] is Surgery’ (from January 5, 2006).

U.S.-Based Saudi Professor & Former U.N. Fellow in Interview with Iranian State Media: ‘I Agree Wholeheartedly with President Ahmadinejad… There was No Such Thing as the Holocaust’; The Americans are Digging Their Own Grave and Eventually Will Collapse Just as the Soviet Union Collapsed. This was from an interview on Iranian state media.

Iranian TV Blood Libel: Jewish Rabbis Killed Hundreds of European Children to use Their Blood for Passover Holiday & Discussion on Holocaust Denial.

MEMRI also lists articles by Arab and Muslim writers who OPPOSE the use of anti-semitism - it's not just a one-sided story.

But why isn't the U.S. State Department issuing prominent statements about the plethora of anti-semitic stories, TV broadcasts, etc., on the media of the Arab and Muslim world?

Cartoon Context

Andrew Sullivan on the caricatures of Muhammed (he has several good posts on this topic) - "Islamists and Muslims are in a violent uproar about the publication of truly conventional political cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammed. Here are some other cartoons recently printed in the Arab, Muslim press. They are no different than Nazi propaganda in their unvarnished anti-Semitism. And I would defend the right of every one of those papers to publish them. Why, then, cannot Muslims return the favor? What is it about contemporary Islam that seems to make it clearly incompatible wih Western freedom of speech? In that may lie the answer to the most pressing question facing the West today: the illiberal, fanatical religious enemy within."

There are some Muslims who do return the favor (of tolerating even offensive speech), such as the Religious Policeman - alas, they are not the ones in power.

Violence and Cartoons

This is unbelievable - Embassies in Syria Are Burned in Furor Over Prophet Cartoon. The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus were burned down by mobs in protest against the caricatures of Muhammed published first by Danish and then by Norwegian newspapers.

The Vatican also made an unhelpful statement: "deploring the violence" but saying that freedom of speech "cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers." This strikes me as highly self-serving, coming from the Vatican - is Catholicism immune from criticism and mockery? I daresay they would have closed down the exhibit in New York City that showed a few years ago, which included a painting by an African Catholic that depicted elephant dung on the Virgin Mary's breast.

The U.S. State Department also said that about the cartoons: "We find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive." They did say, at least, "We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view."

The leader of Hamas said that the cartoonists should be murdered.

In South Africa, a court forbade Sunday newspapers from reprinting the cartoons.

As far as I know, no American newspaper has reprinted the cartoons - and NPR, which I've been listening to, is not publishing them on the website article about them, using the excuse that it's not necessary to do so in order to tell the story. (An article in today's New York Times discusses how American newspapers and broadcast media generally decided not to show images of the cartoons)

I first heard about the cartoons not from the public media, but from the Religious Policeman blog. The RP is a Saudi, currently living in Britain, who engages in fearless criticism and mockery of his own government and its religious pretensions. He talks about how this whole controversy is fanned by governments in the Middle East in order to distract people from thinking about the real problems in their lives caused by their dictatorial and oppressive governments. He accuses the Saudi government of raising rage about the cartoons to fever pitch in order to direct public attention away from the recent stampede at the Hajj in which hundreds of pilgrims died.

I must say, I think there is a great deal of hypocrisy surrounding this issue. Press and other media in Arab and Muslim countries publish and broadcast anti-semitic cartoons, articles, television series, etc. - which don't just make fun of Jews and Judaism, but defame Jews and spread outright lies, along with denying that the Holocaust occurred (e.g., President Ahmadinejad of Iran). Why hasn't there been a worldwide outrage at this continuous defamation of Jews? The American and European press certainly don't constantly run articles about widespread official anti-semitism in Arab and Muslim countries.

The other thing that offends me is the idea that religion and religious people should be shielded from mockery or otherwise offensive speech. As I've said before, religion, like anything else, is open for criticism, mockery, etc. I don't like it when people mock practices and beliefs that I consider sacred, but that is part of what it means to live in a free society. If Christopher Hitchens writes an article denouncing a particular practice associated with Jewish circumcision, I don't think he should be told to shut up because it might offend my religious sensibilities. Why has religion come to acquire this quality that it is above criticism?

And I speak as a religious person, not as an atheist.

UPDATE, Sunday morning - The Danish Embassy in Beirut was burned by a mob today.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hamas and Us

I received a different perspective on the Hamas victory from a friend involved with the Coalition of Women for Peace group in Israel - Gila Svirsky.
1) Who’s to blame?

Listening to the reactions of passersby at the recent Jerusalem vigil of Women in Black, you would think it was our peaceful little group that put the Hamas into power. This stems from Israeli right-wing politicians who are asserting that Hamas won because of the Gaza withdrawal and other conciliatory overtures, i.e., “rewarding terrorism”. Indeed, Bibi Netanyahu & co. are delighted with the Hamas victory, on which they can now build a fear-saturated election campaign, and return voters to the fold who lately had slipped into something more moderate.

But here’s my take on what made Hamas victorious in the recent elections: Israel’s failure to sit down and negotiate an end to the occupation. This is often phrased as “the failure of Fatah to make progress on peace”, but they amount to the same thing: the Fatah failed because Israel refused to offer any reward for moderation, refusing to sit down and negotiate with them.

And what about the corruption claim – that voting for Hamas was also a vote against the corruption of the Fatah politicians? This may have played a role for some voters, but since when does corruption bring down a politician? Certainly not in Israel, where Sharon’s corruption has been an open book, but forgiven by those who support his politics. Corruption is tolerated when approval ratings are high in other respects. The corruption of the previous Palestinian government would have been overlooked, had the politicians only managed to show some progress on ending the occupation.

2) When terrorists become politicians

I remember standing on the balcony of my home in Jerusalem on a lovely May morning of 1977 and gasping when I heard who had won the Israeli election: Menahem Begin, former head of a Jewish terrorist organization that had killed 91 civilians by bombing the King David Hotel in 1946. And then it was Begin who returned the Sinai Peninsula and negotiated peace with Egypt. In 2001, Israel elected Ariel Sharon, responsible for blood-soaked episodes in Qibiya, Beirut, Gaza, Sabra and Shatila, and more. And then it was Sharon who returned Gaza – imperfect, but a singularly important precedent.

I condemn terrorism, whether ‘rogue’ or state sanctioned, and I would never have voted for Hamas (or Begin or Sharon). But who is better positioned than Hamas to reach a compromise peace agreement? We have the mirror image of Israel in the Palestinian election: Just as the Israeli right (Begin and Sharon) could more easily make concessions than Yitzhak Rabin, who had to fight our right wing all the way, so too the Hamas can mobilize more support for concessions than the more moderate Fatah could now undertake.

3) About creeping fundamentalism

Yes, I am worried about Hamas rule, particularly its domestic agenda in Palestine: I worry about women, non-Muslims, journalists, gays, people in the arts, and all those who benefit from the open society. To what extent will the Hamas increase the role of Shari’a (Muslim) law in civilian life? Or religious education in the schools? On the other hand, it’s quite evident that Palestinians have experienced democracy and will not easily tolerate a closing of their society.

I take heart from this week’s survey of the Palestinian population, published in the Palestinian Authority’s Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda and reported in the Jerusalem Post: 84% of Palestinians support a peace deal with Israel. In case you wondered if this includes the Hamas, 75% of Hamas voters are opposed to calls for the destruction of Israel. The Hamas knows that seculars comprise a large portion of their constituency.

4) And who benefits from ending foreign aid?

So along come American and Israeli politicians advocating for a policy that would isolate and punish the Palestinians by withholding financial aid. Everyone knows this would destabilize the fragile economy, harm the innocent (but not the politicians), and foster increasing bitterness against the secular west. A much more reasonable approach would be to extend support and see how responsibly Hamas uses it. Or does someone have an interest in sowing chaos in the Palestinian territories?

Yes, I too would like to demand a renunciation of terrorism and violence as a precondition for talking …I’d like to demand it from both sides. But realistically this has to be done as part of the negotiations.
I can understand her argument - it makes sense politically. But nonetheless I find it repugnant to think that American taxpayer dollars could get to Hamas.

"Virtual Talmud"

I got an e-mail from someone at Beliefnet, telling me about a new blog they're hosting - "Virtual Talmud." Here's the info.:

Q: Take three rabbis, turn them into bloggers, and what do you get?
A: Virtual Talmud!

"For the sake of heaven," no Jewish blog should be without a link to this novel forum. Virtual Talmud.

And who can resist a blog with headlines like: "The Commandment Pat Robertson Forgot," "Can Alito See the Shades of Gray?" and "Abramoff Fails the Shanda Test."

About Virtual Talmud:
In the spirit of the rabbinic tradition, Beliefnet has asked three rabbis to create a virtual Talmud, blogging on Judaism and the world today. Unlike the talmudic arguments of old, the interactivity of Virtual Talmud makes it possible for any member of our community to talk back to the learned teachers and to each other.

Meet our bloggers:
Rabbi Susan Grossman, a Conservative rabbi, is the rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland. Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, an Orthodox rabbi, received rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Talmud from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Joshua Waxman, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the spiritual leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation, located in Fort Washington, PA.