Saturday, February 04, 2006

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.

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