February 12, 2006

Voltaire and the cartoons

One of Sweden's biggest newspapers Svenska Dagbladet, decided already from the beginning, before the media hysteria, not to publish the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad*. Chief editor Lena K Samuelsson writes in her editorial on Saturday, february 11th with the title:

"Freedom of press is also the right to disregard"

Furthermore she writes:

One can think what one likes about Jyllands-Posten's publication or presumed less noble motives, but they did make use of the right to publish whatever they want. A basic right in a free and open society.

Svenska Dagbladet defends that right, we promote a spirited discussion and debate with room for a lot. However with the right to publish whatever we feel as being of importance, the right and responsibility to disregard (certain materials for publication) follows.
Without influence from the outside.

The caricatures depict a tired stereotype of a "dangerous stranger". It was actually not a difficult decision to disregard them for publication, not last autumn in correlation to Jyllands-Postens publication of them, nor now either.

On "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" (CNN) today, an interview with a tired yet spirited Prime Minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, we could hear similar tones, for the first time, coming from the State of Denmark.

While defending the freedom of expression and press, Fogh Rasmussen reiterated time and again, the responsibility that comes with such a right.

From the start of this debate, there has been a tepid response from the leaders of Denmark and Europe regarding the nature of the publication of the caricatures. Indeed, the media is separated from the press (with exception of Berlusconi's empire), and thus the real object of debate from the Muslim side has not and should not have been the idea of the state controlling the media, but in the words of Voltaire;

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."-

Voltaire himself, after writing a play called “Mahomet, ou le Fanatism”, experienced some censorship. And ironically it is his words today that echo in the current debate surrounding the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad*.

However we never heard Fogh Rasmussen or French Finance Minister Sarkozy say the first, most important part of the quote they continuously base their arguments on. A quote from a person like Voltaire that French, and later, European democracy and freedom of speech were built on;

"Jyllands-Posten, I disapprove of what you say..."

*Peace and blessings be upon him


DaveNC said...

Hello Shaykhspeara.

I too, saw the Rasmussen interview on "The Situation Room" and, while not an apology, his face did seem to bear the weigh of this whole controversy.

On my Friday show, we got into a heated debate regarding this issue. I took the time to review the cartoons before finally weighing in and share the opinion that most are pretty uninspiring, humorous or worthy of any value other than provocation.

While I realize the public relations value of apologies, I think they will do little to make up for the damge already wrought on both sides of the issue. I think that both pro and anti muslim forces have taken great advantage of this controversy to make their cartoon like depictions of their opposition more true to life. The fact that the most violent of protests have occurred in Syria, Lebanon and Iran give the Bush Administration an opportunity to suggest that Assad and Ahmadinajad are using this for purely political purposes, true or not. And anti-muslim "democracy" advocates are getting a chance to show that democracy can't exist in an Islamic state. While that may apply to Saudi Arabia as well, these advocates are using this violence to show that Iran and potentially Palestine's democratic elections should be nullified.

I think, the most important dialogues that can exist are for moderates of all religions to join together and air their displeasure at attacks on religious icons but to also support the right of others to not adhere to the sacredness of their viewpoint.

I also think Muslims can better make their point by adopting the Western method of the boycott. Don't target Danish products (an entire nation cannot be held responsible for the actions of a feee press), target the paper's advertisers. Organize a campaign where those advertisers are alerted to the disdain held by the Muslim people for supporting a publication that defames a religion. With the threat of 1.3 billion lost customers advertisers will pull their support quickly. Make a point of finding every newspaper and media source that reprinted the cartoons, compile their advertisers and repeat the process. Watch how quickly publishers and editors begin issuing apologies, accepting "resignations" from offenders and how quickly the careers of those offenders come to an end because no for profit media resource will hire them.

Also, I think there is a great opportunity for a journalist or blogger with more time and resources than me to trace the back story of the decision to create and print these articles. I know that the editor was responding to a woman's frustration for not being able to find an illustrator to pen her children's book on the life of Mohammad but something about that official story rang hollow with me. Wouldn't someone who wished to depict the life of the prophet, and had conducted enough research on the subject, discovered early on the prohibition of illustrating the prophet? And, if so, wouldn't she have chalked up that knowledge and moved on to a text driven telling of the story instrad rather than complaining to a newspaper that she couldn't find an illustrator to pen her story? Are all Danish illustrators that savvy about prohibitions on depicting the prophet? Not one cartoonist in all of Denmark would touch the subject? Does that sound a bit fishy to you? And, is there any connection between Jyllens-Posten and The Lincoln Group, the media company of mysterious origins that has been cited as U.S. Administration's proxy for planting positive stories in Iraq and U.S. media?

Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said...

Hi Dave! :)
A much valued input from you, as always. Thank you. I shall definately concider your suggestions.´

I agree, now it would do little to change the events that passed, should politicians express their dismay, however, as a normal (hopefully), swede and muslim, i would have appreciated if from the start the debate had centered around us normal muslims who felt angered and upset by the absolute apathy from the politicians side to acknowledge the matter.

It seems the debate focuses on a minority of muslims and extremists on the other side, whom in the first place, should not have been the focal point at all.

Politicians send out signals, that is a fact. And the signal from the very beginning has been "the cartoons are alright and we will die for their right to publish them".

To the majority of muslims in Denmark and Scandinavia primarily, who are civilized, a clear approach should have been adopted from the start where Politicians and other public figures condemn the cartoons as the islampophobic creations they are, without implying that they are at liberties to forbid or dictate what media publishes.

Extremists are extremists, and yes they might have not cared either way, but I, and the majority of muslims who don't condone violence and acts beyond legality, would have felt alot more comfortable, had we not been "politically chastized" by media and politicians for "not supporting freedom of speech."

MD said...

I've said so much already on this issue, that all I have to say now is that I think it's quite basic to KNOW and UNDERSTAND that truly, with rights, comes responsibility. If they thought the Jesus-cartoons were offensive, then where did the 'sense' of responsibility towards a 'foreign' religion to theirs, disappear when they published the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s cartoons?

Oh well. The argument rages.

hleJAC said...

You’ve missed the point entirely...

My English isn’t as good as my good friend Shaykhspeara’s. Now that you know, you may continue with that in mind.

Freedom of speech and democracy isn’t built upon the quote 'I disapprove of what you say.' And it certainly isn’t the most important part of Voltaire’s quote. That part of the quote was Voltaire’s private opinion, an opinion which everyone in a democracy might agree or choose not to agree to. The later part, however, is the embodiment of freedom of speech and democracy. That is also the reason why that’s the part of the quote that is most quoted by the public domain. Another democratic version could also be:

'I might approve or disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.'

No matter how hard the Muslim representatives do try to make the subject into something that is black or white, it still isn’t. Is a big grey area, which furthers stresses the importance of not saying 'I disapprove of what you say' by politicians or news editors. Not saying it, because the importance of freedom of speech goes higher than your personal opinion on whether a cartoon is offensive or not. On whether it’s funny or not.

Since 9/11 Bush, along with the American government, has tried, in a similar fashion, to paint the world into a bilateral image of good and bad. Into black and white, into we and they. Since 9/11 we find ourselves in a perpetual state of martial law, where basic democratic rights are being infringed in order to fight terrorism. We are seeing censorship by law being justified as the savior of freedom of speech. It doesn’t take much logic to understand that we and they is a huge generalization of a world that’s much more diverse. Much more grey.

Painting comedy is a huge grey zone. After all, historically, everything that has been taboo, everything that has been unmentionable, has always been the best material for comedy. And history teaches us that what’s taboo today is accepted tomorrow. Every citizen has the right to approve or disapprove of what has been said (or drawn in this case). That’s the point of a democracy, but every citizen in favor of a democracy has to agree that we all have the right to say what we want. And that right is such a big building stone in a democratic society that we should all be prepared to defend that right to death. Hence the reason 'I will defend to death your right to say it' is and should be quoted as the foundation of democracy.


Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said...

Welcome hlejac :) It's about time!

Well yes indeed, foundation it is however spirit it is not.

The first part of the saying is the spirit of demnocracy, that one can disagree to something while not at liberty to forbid or restrict.

The role of politicians is very important for they are those who often dictate political correctness, even if they cannot legislate it.

It should be political incorrect to call all muslims terrorists, even if freedom of speach should enclose such a statement under the liberties that come with freedom of speach.

Furthermore we are not allowed to say what we want. Just recently in england a politician was reprimanded for comparing a journalist to a concentration camp officer, (the journalist, unknowingly to the politician, happened to be jew).

So no we cannot say what we want, there are laws that "edit" it. That is not the issue though. Indeed the world is not black or white and should never be percieved so. Nor can we infringe upon what is being joked about, however law has already been able to infringe upon how it is said (anti semitism, racism etc).

In this case with the Danish cartoons...the area is even greyer...and thus if not to forbid them, the cartoons should bring upon them the first part of Voltaire's saying as well.

hleJAC said...

What is politically correct?

Shaykhspeara, call it spirit or whatever you whish, it still isn’t ”the most important part of the quote.” If you can’t acknowledge the other side of that first part (i.e. I approve of what you say) as an equally valid statement from politicians then you are indeed painting the debate over the cartoons into right and wrong. Into black and white.

You are right; we can’t say whatever we want. But then we aren’t living in a perfect democracy either. The goal in a democracy should be to reduce censorship rather than increase it. To reduce control of what can or can not be said. Every infringement in our information freedom is a step closer towards totalitarianism. Toward an undemocratic society (e.g. Cuba, China etc.).

Of course the above all sounds very sound and rational, but how to implement it in the real world? You gave me some good examples, let’s start with those.

Let’s begin with the fact that someone in England got reprimanded for comparing a journalist to a concentration camp officer. As I recall it you can compare someone in Sweden with being a concentration camp officer but you can’t call them that directly. Not sure if this fact is true, but that’s not the point. The point is that it makes sense. We all have a teacher or acquaintance that we have compared to a SS officer. Comparing someone to something should never be legislated against. All analysis builds upon this freedom.

The example of Nazism is an excellent one, because it’s the one most used when people start defending censorship of speech. Instead of using Nazism as an excuse to forbid certain statements (i.e. increase censorship), I think we should reconsider the legislations made against Nazism. For instant, (I have to use Sweden as example since I live here) in Sweden you can’t carry a swastika because it’s associated with Nazism. While in India and Japan it symbolizes peace and well being and can be seen everywhere.

I’m not the first one to point out the political taboo that exists against Nazism and its symbols. Noam Chomsky has done this many times, and since he is a Jew they don’t call him anti-Semite. Instead he is labeled to be an anti-Jew. Neither Chomsky nor I deny of the atrocities that toke place during World War II or the importance of them. But rather of the excessiveness (the huge amount of media time focusing on them for instance). If the ideology and symbols of every state that commits mass murder should be forbidden then what about so called democratic states (e.g. USA) that commit mass murder?

You keep address the issue with the term political correctness as if it’s something explicit. A few years back, on every American news channel, you could hear the anchors addressing Americans with African background as Afro-Americans because it was the politically correct thing to say. After a while it proved to be unpractical, it just toke too long to say. So they went back to addressing them as black again.

When rap music first exploded, Americans, black and white, went on huge demonstration with the congress behind them to censor it. Because they used the n-word, and because they felt it was degrading to black people and women. Today rap music has breached the gap between races. Rather than erecting it.

When nudity first became common in the media, Christian groups (along with politicians) protested loudly that it was a sin against god. And so on, and so fourth…

Nowhere in the cartoons is it said that “all Muslims are terrorists." That’s how you’ve interpreted them. You can’t make your own interpretation the principle for political correctness to fall after. After all, others thought (and many still do) that nudity should be deemed politically incorrect too.


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