La Stampa (Italy) April 2002. “Surely they don’t want to kill me again?”
First, my appreciation to Ibrahim for publishing that Mohammad cartoon on our joint blog. I might not have, for fear of offending perhaps, but he’s gone and done it for me. Clearly, Judeo-Arab Conspiracy is a place where civility is important, but political correctness may be left at the door.
Ibrahim’s post can be responded to on many levels. His thesis, if I follow him correctly, is that there are these two caricatures that offended, but while the one offensive to Muslims was never retracted, the creator of the one offensive to Jews (or Zionists?) was punished, because Zionists (or Jews) have that kind of power, even though this can’t openly be said for fear of Jewish/Zionist retribution.
My response would be to note that neither of the caricatures is particularly offensive unless you relate to their contexts; the contexts are very different and it’s instructive to understand the differences; the negative consequences for the Mohammad caricaturist were actually far more severe than for the Nierenstein one; that Ibrahim himself confuses Zionism and Judaism – or that if he doesn’t, then the distinction between anti-first and anti-second really isn’t easy to make; and finally, that it’s meaningless to say that anyone – Zionists or Jews – have the power to halt the torrent of hatred directed at them, unlike the Muslims who do rather well at gagging their critics.
Kurt Westergaard’s “turban” caricature states that there is a connection between Islam and terrorism. It’s only a caricature, and he didn’t analyze the matter in book-length detail and complexity, but as a dry statement of fact it’s unassailable. Unfortunately, at this point of history there really are connections and relationships between Islam and terrorism. Some Islam and the main forms of contemporary terrorism, to be accurate. I’d point out, in passing, that the man wearing the turban is not obviously Mohammad. To me he seems merely a caricature of a generic Muslim type; perhaps the words on his turban say more, but I – and probably 99% of the Western consumers – can’t read them. (Ibrahim is welcome to educate us).
The offensiveness of the caricature, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder: Muslims react strongly to defamations of their religion, partly perhaps because it hasn’t faced the centuries of criticism that (Western) Christianity and Judaism have been living with these past 500 years. That’s their right, of course, but they shouldn’t really expect of the rest of us to treat their religion with the reverence we don’t accord our own, and to shut off our critical capacities just because they do.
The Nierenstein caricature is merely tasteless, and tells more about the level of argumentation that some people stoop to than anything else. I wouldn’t give it a second glance. Still, somebody apparently did take it seriously, probably for two reasons. One, because of the implication of similarity between Ms. Nierenstein and the Fascists, the second because of it’s general imagery. The first mostly shows the ignorance of the caricaturist (and perhaps of Ibrahim), in that it confuses the historical Italian Fascism with today’s voodoo term of Fascism. Italian fascism was a nasty, ugly and destructive movement, which however was not particularly antisemitic most of the time; quite a number of powerful Fascists took concrete action to protect Jews from the Nazi policy of murder, and saved many lives. (To an extent this was true also in Bulgaria, and even in a way in France and Hungary, though these are complex topics beyond our present scope). The voodoo term is merely that: fascism has become the term for whoever we don’t like, sort of a softer version of the term Nazism for whomever we really don’t like. Better to control oneself – or, if one has nothing more serious to say, better to remain silent.
It’s at the second level of the Nierenstein caricature that Ibrahim’s comparison fully breaks down. The caricaturist intended to offend by using ancient images – something the Danish caricaturist couldn’t do because there is no tradition he could tap into. In spite of the fact that the Muslim world and Christian Europe have been warring off and on since the beginning of Islam almost 1,500 years ago, there isn’t any mainstream or well-developed vocabulary or imagery to bash Muslims with; when it comes to Jews, the vocabulary and imagery are immense.
Just for the intellectual fun of it, take Shakespeare’s depiction of an Arab – Othello’s Moor – and his depiction of a Jew. Othello is a bumbling war hero who can be maneuvered out of his senses. Shylock is, well, Shylock. And Shakespeare not only lived centuries before Zionism, he also lived in an England with no Jews. They had been deported centuries earlier, leaving only the hatred of them to fester in their absence.
Once you’ve finished contemplating Shakespeare, note that Ibrahim can’t seem to keep his Zionists and his Jews separate. Which is probably a good thing, because it means we can dispense entirely with that part of the discussion.
Ibrahim’s attempt to turn reality on it’s head and claim that the aftermath of the Nierenstein caricature – here today, gone tomorrow – was somehow harsher than the response to the Muhammad caricature, is not worthy of response. Though I do recommend the (English version of) Wikipedia on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy. This is Wikipedia at its best, with a veritable treasure trove of factual information – and note that it has been blocked and frozen in its present version, because some people kept insisting on trying to re-write the story. I was interested to learn that Kurt Westergaard needed police bodyguards, and may perhaps still need them till this very day, since there have been concrete attempts to kill him, not only calls by politicians for his beheading.
I tend to agree with Ibrahim that the ADL over reacted to the Nierenstein caricature. I can think of various explanations for this, but it wasn’t a good idea. An Italian fool drew a tasteless caricature: what’s the news? The editor should have fired him for being foolish, perhaps, but suspending him because of ADL pressure was the wrong thing to do. Free speech allows for lying, for offensiveness, and it certainly allows for stupidity.
Still, even free speech has its limits, and when it clashes with danger to people’s lives you need to balance basic rights. This is not easy to do, and there is no foolproof objective right or wrong to it. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany but not in the USA, for example, because the danger is greater in the former than in the latter. Given the long and destructive history of hatred of Jews, it’s not easy to know when the fundamental right to free speech needs to be curtailed in the face of the right of the Jews to live safe lives. It seems that in Europe these past few years the right to free speech has at times tilted too far, and that it has contributed to physical harm to Jews, most notably in France. That Italian caricature up at the top of this post is an example: The Jews are about to kill Jesus again? In a respectable newspaper in the 21st century? And this in the name of legitimate criticism of Israeli actions? Huh?
All one needs to do is a spot of simple googling to find mountains of such hate that has been spewed over the past few years all over Europe, without the ADL, or the Zionists, or the Elders of Zion or any of their henchman being able to stop it. (Here’s a collection from the West, and here’s a collection from the Arab world). This one even got a prize:
Yehuda Bauer used to sum up his classes on the “all-powerful Jews” version of antisemitism with the wry quip that “Alas, the Jews never remotely approached having the power their enemies hated them for having”.