Not funny at all
By Hiba Tohid
Cartoons aren’t funny when they offend a community and ridicule the beliefs that it holds sacred. Such was the effect that was produced by the caricatures printed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, last year in September. The events that followed were just like the cartoons that caused them — not one bit funny.
Muslims all over the world condemned the publishing of caricatures of the Holy Prophet (SAW) for being highly disrespectful and blasphemous. Editor of Jyllands Posten claims to have done so as a satirical work of art which is a general feature of the Danish press. They have done the same with political figures, influential personalities as well as with figures of Jesus Christ and Jewish rabbis. Therefore, for them and other so-called ‘free press’ proponents around the world, Muslims’ reaction was not justified. Muslims, in their view, were hindering the ‘freedom of press’.
Even if somehow we do accept those caricatures as symbols of free expression, the Danish media’s awe at the repercussions in itself seems a bit absurd since it wasn’t the first time that Muslims had reacted so aggressively to an act of sacrilege. Nor was this the first ever act of profanity against their beliefs. Did not the Danish media remember Muslims’ reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, or for that matter the more recent Dutch movie incident that sparked immense controversy? This still, however, does not justify the nature of the cartoons that were printed in the newspaper. They were derogatory and insulting towards an immensely holy figure that Muslims follow and endear. Validating these cartoons by citing examples of satirizing Jewish rabbis is rather incongruent as Jewish rabbis are just like Muslim clerics who themselves are very regularly criticized in different ways by the Muslim media itself.
As far as satirizing Jesus is concerned, there have been several remarks from within the Christian community implying that they let such jokes flow in order to keep the freedom of press alive.
If we just look a little back in time, we will find there have been several instances within Europe itself when the church has dragged the media into courts for printing material that’s offensive to Christian dogmas
. The most recent of these cases was in Greece where the writer of a controversial comic book was sentenced to six months in jail and his work was banned. The comic book showed Jesus as a ‘naked surfer high on marijuana’
. The Athens court termed the portrayal as ‘hurtful to public decency and blasphemous’.
Similarly, a musical play by a group called 3 Tornadoes in 1994 was banned for portraying ‘pigs on the crucifix’. The blasphemy law in the Netherlands was last exercised in 1968 against a poet who wrote a poem about God. At present, an artist has been sued under the blasphemy law in Poland for sculpting ‘male genitals on to the Christian crucifix’.
Almost all the European countries have their own blasphemy laws including Denmark where there are fines and up to four months of jail term for anyone who ‘publicly offends or insults a religion that is recognized in the country’ under Section 140 of the Danish Criminal Code and also Section 266b which ‘criminalizes the dissemination of statements or other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their religion’
. Of all these countries, Germany
has a more relaxed attitude towards the blasphemy law; but even there a magazine called Titanic has been taken to court some eight times in 15 years by church groups for denigrating the pope
as well as for ridiculing religion.
Yet the most famous of German proceedings under its blasphemy law has been a case in the ‘20s when a German artist showed Jesus on the cross with a gas mask and army boots with a slogan saying “Hold your tongue and continue serving.” His trial lasted three years after which he was acquitted after appealing twice.
Islam does not forbid art completely, yet it has set understandable censorships. As part of these censorships, portrayal of all the prophets has been prohibited in order to prevent any idolatrous inclinations of the people as well as to prevent God’s messengers from becoming subject to any disregard.
Although a few prophets such as Jesus, Moses and Joseph have been depicted in movies and animations, there hasn’t been any Muslims’ reaction to them because they are symbolic of Christianity and Judaism as much as they are of Islam. Hence if followers of other two faiths find such depiction as fitting then it’s their right. Yet when it comes to Prophet Muhammad (SAW), the matter becomes more specific and representative of Muslim faith. This fact has however been respected by non-Muslims (except for a few volatile situations such as the one at present) where they have avoided any effort of portraying Prophet Muhammad (SAW). A prime example of which is the highly acclaimed movie The Message.
However, the insensitivity shown by the Danish newspaper initially to this Muslim sentiment was further highlighted when several European newspapers such as France Soir reprinted these caricatures. This is when the whole subject took an uglier turn.
From debates to protestations, the Muslim community all across the globe objected to this offence. It was more like a domino effect where reactions travelled rapidly across the globe. There was much talk about protests than what led to them.
Although the protests that were made initially had a pacifistic tone and were not even half as much aggressive as they later on became, they were still branded as ‘extremist’ and ‘radical’. Since there were no early apologies or even signs of any conscious guilt from publishers of the caricatures, Muslims’ objections went on to becoming from harmless rallies to embassy attacks and violent protestations which continue to date.
As Pakistani Muslims, our tragedy is that we have not been able to identify the issue as a Muslim problem. We rather let it get owned by the usual champions of our religion for whom all solution lies in burning effigies
. It is not a certain group’s problem. It is the problem of the whole Islamic world and display of such solidarity would have been better if people from all walks of life would have gathered to express their grief over the issue. Shouldn’t the Muslim world find a unified solution to the problem? Recently a very sensible suggestion was put forward in one of the national dailies according to which ‘all Muslim governments should lodge a united complaint against the European media that was responsible for this nefarious act to the United Nations
with a single penalty demand which the offenders should face.’ Regardless of how the UN may take up the case, it would be an effective document showing the Muslim world’s unity
not only to the world but most importantly to Muslims themselves.
Then there’s another thing which has sent in a wrong message. Danish apologies came only after Danish embassies were attacked and the country’s economy suffered with the ban on Danish goods all over the Middle East. The Danish government as well as the press have sent a wrong message that it’s not the peaceful demonstrations or lawful proceedings that will make them move their diplomatic muscle, but a more violent provocation. Now the question is: is this just a miscalculation on Denmark’s part, or do western countries on the whole think like that?
In the post 9/11 world, one keeps on hearing comments like those by a certain section of the European media insisting that publishing of cartoons such as the ones in the Danish newspaper should be carried on so that ‘Muslims get used to such statements’. One is not really sure about this.