Sunday, February 12, 2006

Christopher Hitchens: The Cartoon Debate

Cartoon Debate : The case for mocking religion
by Christopher Hitchens
Slate; Reposted at Guerilla News Network

Christopher Hitchens analyzes the cartoon crisis and the government's response.
As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week’s international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate.

“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.”

Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was reported as a prepared government statement. How appalling for the country of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration. What does he mean “unacceptable”? That it should be forbidden? And how abysmal that a “spokesman” cannot distinguish between criticism of a belief system and slander against a people. However, the illiterate McCormack is right in unintentionally comparing racist libels to religious faith. 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.

Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.

Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.” ( By the way, hasn’t the word “offensive” become really offensive lately?) The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a “holy” book. But I will not be told I can’t eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger. But these same principles of mine also prevent me from wreaking random violence on the nearest church, or kidnapping a Muslim at random and holding him hostage, or violating diplomatic immunity by attacking the embassy or the envoys of even the most despotic Islamic state, or making a moronic spectacle of myself threatening blood and fire to faraway individuals who may have hurt my feelings. The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.

To Read the Entire Article

Also check out Ricia's post on this subject:

Argument for Change in Discourse


Anonymous said...

I really think the debate surrounding "freedom of speech" in this case is a diversion. The illustrations were called for and published with intent - political intent. They were re-circulated by religiously backed/run newspapers (Christian) and all of this within a xenophobic context (debates surrounding immigration issues in those countries).

They were free to publish whatever they chose. That freedom was not impeded and it was excercised with full knowledge that the images would offend. The article that was meant to justify these images, was about self censorship, and yet the same news company rejected satirical illustrations of Christ a few years earlier on the basis of readership sensitivities. That would have been a perfect example to compliment their article, no?

I don't argue that they should or should not have, because I really find the angle / spin on the debate irrelevant. Except that it does promote further misleading perceptions of people of Islamic faith. Which is rather too timely, given the 'global war' machine...

Michael Benton said...


Thanks for the comment. I'm having a hard time coming to a clear position on this matter ...too much distortion in the media reports. I also recognize how this plays into current Islamaphobia.

Still fundamentalist Muslims have a long record of attacking foreign writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, for perceived offenses. The cartoons are but the tip of the iceberg? They are also hypocritical in that their media have long mocked other faiths?

Anonymous said...

I'll need to be brief.. but I think I'd like to post a (more rational) statement in this regard too - one that isn't inflamed by comment sections on blogs (euh, the stuff folks are saying..)

I think fundamentalism can only be hypocritical (stop). No matter what realm it lives in.

And I think that the reason so many are having trouble putting their finger down on this one, is that the debate forum has been hijacked from the start. Placed in a "freedom of the press" or "freedom of speach" context from the onset by those defending their choice to publish the cartoons.

The article here refers to Bush's statements and points out that race/faith/nationality have been lumped together as 'one'. This is the very same thing the extremists have and are doing. For what purpose? Or do we believe that everyone involved is really stupid - even with a healthy supply of advisors at their disposal..?

The politicizing of faith is a calculated manipulation to benefit those whose motivation is faith. The use of faith to politize a nation of peoples, is a calculated manipulation to benefit those with political motivation.

This should have come to the foremost surface of the debate, and (I believe) it would have really benefitted many on all 'sides' to have this dialogue occur.

It was, it seems, that the motivation and intent of creating and publishing those cartoons was political - and in fact the context this occured within could only have produced a political subtext. So why isn't this being discussed?

Instead, these "unbiased" and "objective" journalism corp's get to hide behind a contrived and dummied down pretence.

I don't understand why this should be so easy for them to do. If we are mindful of the relevance of this issue (in depth) to the 'big picture' and current events... Well, we wouldn't allow ourselves to get sucked in so easily...

That's my quick two-cents... : )

Anonymous said...

i've expanded on this, in a post : )

Michael Benton said...

Thanks, I replied at your weblog

Susannity said...

I can be a dolt sometimes. I didn't realize you had a blog Ricia and am so happy to hear that you do! I'm looking forward to reading your stuff. I guess the last few times I clicked on folks' names, it didn't link to a blog so I had stopped doing so - figured they were ex-bloggers like myself or readers only.

I agree with you that the cartoons could have been created with a political intent. Most writings have intent no? Is that paper hypocritical for not having published anti-Christian material - yes. I think why "free speech" dialogue makes folks queasy sometimes is because we want the aspect of anyone being able to speak their mind, but we also have concerns about words that can instigate harm - fighting words, etc. I'm not a lawyer, but I know there are those kinds of limitations on speech in that vein and most of us are not aware of exactly what falls into that category and what doesn't.
I do believe the argument made by muslims that this is sacred stuff and shouldn't be mocked is just plain wrong. There are lots of things folks hold dear that are mocked and/or questioned, and it should be so. This is not questioning something that is immutable.
I think what has made this such a huge issue is the violence that has erupted. If they had just ignored it or made a slight rebuke, it would be forgotten already imho.

Anonymous said...

hi - again susanne!

no one who is deeply religious will believe their faith should be mocked and everyone who is deeply religious will be obligated to call for retractions and appologies

they are allowed to, under (most) democratic nations laws

and we are allowed to 'ignore' the call or express disapproval over it, in turn

where we truly have cause for concern
is when this kind of fanaticism infiltrates our legal system (such as is happening with abortion laws in the US, for eg) or our governance / policies, etc. literally in spite of democratic ideology.

there is cause for concern when:

nurses and doctors working at abortion clinics are being shot or killed by explosives

entire families are slain, or voluntarily poisonned themselves

children are being sufficated or incinerated in their own beds, by their own parents

- all for the cause of some faith

we can say we disagree and we can rail against it
we can work toward social change
political and systemic change
but would the actions of these people justify some other disagreeable act by some third party?
or some other disagreeable act in revenge?
should everyone of similar faith be branded with this stigma? for the past, the present and the future?
don't we all know someone who shares a faith with those noted above (all fairly recent eg's of actual events) who does not even in the slightest, interpret the same faith in the same way?

where faith meets politics, we have more than a concern on our hands (for eg's):

countries like ireland (among other eg's) are divided with terribly violent outbursts taking countless innocent victims / genocide has been enacted by fellow 'countrymen' / wars are waged without provocation etc etc

now, we have a much more complex situation to grasp

for eg: is the US a Christian Nation? Is your nation a Zionist Crusader? Are all US citizens immoral degraded human beings?

well of course not. but this is the viewpoint from the other extreme

do we want to play that game?

.... long response... sorry. now i am rambling...

all to say
that within the debate that has circulated
i've been stunned to see how much the extremists reaction influenced so many peoples opinion on the matter

and that is of interest to me - as these images were "devilerred" so readily to us, while other images and debate context's were not.

violence takes many forms
social economic harrassment is a kind of violence
the extremists view the West as excercising these kinds of violent tactics and perhaps the illustrations merely symbolize that
to them

geee whiz.... why can i not stop????

Anonymous said...

oh man.. i should have read that over before pressing "submit".. sorry! to both of you...

Michael Benton said...


Never say your sorry for being passionate, concerned and involved... in your post at your site, here, and elsewhere you have given me much food for thought, I especially needed your insights into the many threads circulating around this issue (as just today me and my students were discussing this issue)--I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

I just had a thorough discussion with my son about the issue. As the cartoons will be front page on our streets tomorrow morning. Teachers at schools here are preparing for discussion and (at his school anyway) are taking preventative measures by taking time for a debate in class. I'm actually very pleased with this concept (we'll see how the discussions go).

I gave him an online tour, both of the cartoons and the media coverage on violent protests. Explanations on "extremism" in all its most visible forms, media influences, political agenda's. It's surprising what a (nearly) ten year old is perfectly capable of digesting, if you keep your language in-check and digestable. He had some good observations of his own too. One of his first reactions to the rioting images was "that can't just be about cartoons can it?".

Sometimes, it is just that simple. A simple thought leading to further thought. One hopes.

I wish I could say with any confidence that such discussions between parents and their children will be 'preventative' this week. My province is very largely to blame for the Conservative minority gov't that just took hold in Canuckistan. So - the real down side here, is that I'm going to have to endure "freedom of speech" at it's worst, everywhere i go for a little while....

It's possible I'll really need to be more detached, afterall.
: )