Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tale of two cartoons

Quiz: spot the difference between the following two images.

Admittedly, the two cartoons don't look much alike.

The first, of course, is one of the famous Danish cartoons, and depicts prophet Muhammad, of the Islamic religion, wearing a bomb as a turban. It was published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and successively reprinted by more than 150 publications around the world.

The second is nowhere as well-known. It depicts stridently pro-Zionist Italian politician and journalist Fiamma Nirensztejn, a.k.a. Nirenstein, who successfully ran for Parliament in the recent Italian elections as a candidate for Silvio Berlusconi's rightwing Partito delle Libertà (PdL). Under the caption "Electoral monsters," Fiamma is renamed Frankenstein, and is shown wearing a ragged dress to which both the Fascio Littorale (the Fascist emblem) and a Star of David have been stitched. It was published in the Italian leftwing daily Il Manifesto by cartoonist Vauro.

Of course, both cartoons can be perceived as offensive by members of, respectively, the Muslim and Jewish communities. The first can be interpreted as a suggestion that Muslims are inherently prone to blow themselves up. The second can be thought of as a denunciation of the candidate's Jewishness, as though there were something wrong with this; or as an effort to link Judaism to Fascism.

A difference arises when one tries to look for other possible meanings of the cartoons. In the case of Vauro's, the alternative interpretation is quite straightforward: Fiamma was depicted wearing both the Fascio and the Star of David to illustrate the contradiction between her taking pride in her Jewish heritage and her going on a ticket that also featured avowed fascists, such as Giuseppe Ciarrapico and Alessandra Mussolini, the Duce's granddaughter (not that having family ties to a totalitarian person will automatically make you one, but Alessandra has been consistent in her racist remarks, such as her calling all Romanians thieves -- which, by the way, cost her her alliance with Romania's own fascists). A contradiction that seems to be in line with a disturbing pattern of Israel receiving support from some of the world's nastiest parties and politicians, the same ones who the day before yesterday were spewing antisemitism.

Now there doesn't seem to be any similar alternative explanation for the Danish cartoons, other than sheer provocation. The cartoons didn't focus on Hizbullah leader Nasrallah or any other current terrorist leader; they focused on prophet Muhammad. Of course, one could argue that Muhammad was a fanatic, which would be true, but fanaticism is a feature of all religions, as illustrated by Judaism's and Christianity's attitude towards gays. A clumsy explanation was given that the cartoons' intent was not to offend anyone, but to make a point about freedom of expression; but no one can claim with a straight face that he wasn't aware of the potentially offensive efect. To put it mildly, the Danish cartoons are much more gratuitous and unwarranted than Vauro's, which centered on a politician whose commitment to Judaism and Israel is part and parcel of her worldview, not on Jews in general or on any person representative of the whole ethnic group.

The aftermath

But the truly interesting aspect of the cartoons is the reactions they elicited, with diametrically different consequences in each case.

Predictably, the whole Muslim world was enraged by the Danish cartoons. Calls were made by ambassadors from Muslim countries on the Danish government to declare that it didn't share the cartoons' spirit. To no avail; the government refused to meddle with the press, which it must be commended for.

Next, the newspaper itself was asked to retract the cartoons. It didn't, but instead claimed that the drawings had been incorrectly interpreted, and it apologized for the wrong interpretations, not for having printed something so difficult to interpret as a picture of Muhammad carrying a bomb on his head. The Danish cartoonists, meanwhile, were universally praised for various reasons, ranging from their strong commitment to freedom of expression to their courageous denunciation of Muslim terrorism.

In the Italian case, the cartoon was protested by the Anti Defamation League, a Zionist organization that specializes in seeing antisemitism in all events, be it a Nazi desecrating a Jewish cemetery or a hen laying an egg. It called on the editors of Il Manifesto to apologize in the following terms:

"We are outraged that il manifesto published an indisputably anti-Semitic cartoon," said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. "Whether intentional or not, the clear effect of the cartoon was to associate Jews with the Fascists who persecuted them, denigrate the PdL by associating it with Jews, and highlight the presence of an Italian Jew on the PdL electoral list.
"In any case, the result is the same: anti-Semitism."

Missing from the ADL's analysis was any reference to the fact that the depicted Jew had "indisputably" associated herself voluntarily with Fascists. The fact that the cartoon was more or less telling the truth did not make it less antisemitic, in the ADL's view.

What happened next? As the Jerusalem Post reports:

After being condemned by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups, the Italian press association suspended the membership of the cartoonist for three months.

It is difficult to imagine that this shameful reaction from the Italian press association, which bordered on witch hunt and punished free speech, would have taken place if it had been a Colombian association complaining of a supposedly anti-Colombian cartoon. Or a Norwegian society protesting a perceivedly anti-Norwegian drawing. Or the Arab Anti-Defamation Committee denouncing an Islamophobic picture.

To summarize: dozens of ambassadors from Muslim countries failed to censor the Danish cartoonists, which is an encouraging event. On the other hand, the intervention of a single non-governmental Zionist organization brought about the punishment of the Italian cartoonist, whose artwork was arguably much less offensive and unwarranted than the Danes'. While the Danish cartoons were described as an instance of free speech, the Italian one was considered an example of hate speech. Talk about double standards.


One is tempted to think that while all people try to censor what they don't like, Zionists seem to have the means to succeed more often than other people. It happened with Norman Finkelstein's tenure denial at DePaul; it happened again with the withholding of over $5 M in donations following Jimmy Carter's visit to Brandeis; and it has happened yet again with the Italian cartoonist Vauro. This would suggest that, as irrationals and judeophobes alike use to point out, there does exist a certain degree of Zionist, or, more generally, (gulp!) Jewish control of both the press and the academia; a control that other groups, such as Arabs or Muslims, do not enjoy (you see: no money refused to universities where Alan Dershowitz talks; no punishment meted out to the Danish cartoonists who publish truly outrageous caricatures of Muhammad).

One is tempted to think all of that, but of course one doesn't think it; because thinking it, let alone saying it, would be antisemitic.


Kai said...


you forgot to mention that the "outrage on Arab streets" over the Danish cartoon cost several lives. That Salman Rushdie has had to hide for years due to the Fatwa.

Nothing like that connected to any protest over antisemitic cartoons.

By the way: The ADL is a Jewish, not a Zionist organization. I guess this distinction might be worthwile.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ibn Yusuf says about the Danish cartoon that "[it] can be interpreted as a suggestion that Muslims are inherently prone to blow themselves up." About the second cartoon he says that "[it] can be thought of as ... an effort to link Judaism to Fascism."
But he adds that there is also an alternative interpretation of the second cartoon, namely, it was meant to illustrate the contradiction between Jewish heritage and associating with avowed fascists. Why isn't this type of alternative interpretation applicable to the Danish cartoon? Doesn't Mr. Ibn Yusuf think that there is an inherent contradiction between the teaching of the prophet Muhammad and the glorification of suicide bombers?

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize that a 'Nazi desecrating a Jewish cemetery' is the equivalent to 'a hen laying an egg.' Thanks for the clarification. [This is a satirical observation, just so you all know how to interpret it.

And as for the assertion that the Danish cartoon was a provocation, I'm not familiar with any international laws or regulations that require Muslims or Jews, or Rosicrucians, for that matter, to vet everything that is published throughout the world.

Perhaps a cartoon of the Prophet piloting an airplane into office buildings and killing thousands of people indiscriminately would have been more a propos?

I'd like to remain anonymous so that Muslim death squads don't go after me for writing this without going through the Caliph first for his ok.

Lawrence said...

To build on what Kai noted above, the fame of the Muhammed cartoons is owed not to the Muslim world's failure to suppress them, but rather to the childish and often violent reaction the cartoons received several months after publication. A rough parallel can be seen in the American screening of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which gained infamy long before its release because of the ADL's poorly thought out condemnation.

To contrast the Muhammed cartoon fiasco with something far closer, note that not a single Iranian embassy or consulate was attacked as a result of Ahmedinejad's Holocaust cartoon contest.

The difference between these two reactions, and the cultural perceptions thereof, cannot be underestimated. The Western world looks down upon violent reactions to verbal incitement; it is the sort of behavior that is discouraged in children as soon as they are able to understand that there are alternatives. Whatever Muslim leaders may have intended by threats — and even acts — of violence in response to the cartoons, what the Western world saw was a society with the collective emotional maturity of a three year old. This, and not the cartoons themselves, is what will be remembered.

Incidentally, Ibrahim, your characterization of Christian and Jewish reactions to homosexuality is perplexing for two reasons. Firstly, it is my understanding that homosexuality is considered a sin in orthodox Islam. Secondly, to paint the other two Abrahamic faiths as monolithic regarding this issue is disingenuous in the extreme. There are religious groups both Christian and Jewish that welcome homosexual members and harbor no stigma toward homosexuality.