Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Death to Denmark!

Death to Denmark!

Alliteration aside, it is an unlikely political rallying cry. Harkens back to “Down with Canada!” from the Northwest Salmon Wars of a few years back.

It is an odd political moment. The Muslim outrage at the work of Danish political cartoonists has stiffened the European spine like few events in the simmering cross-cultural imbroglio that seems to be defining the new century. Newspapers across the continent quickly rose to the defense of the Danes as threats to the principle of free speech have galvanized European opinion in ways that other recent events have failed to do. Bombings in London and Madrid, and riots in France all engendered public reaction, but still much of it was soul searching questions of “Why here, why us?”

For those who watched the video of the murder of Nicholas Berg, no moment has ever so graphically defined cruelty. Kneeling on the ground facing the camera with hooded men standing behind him, one man, presumably Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, brandished a long knife, pushed Berg over to the side, pressed his head to the floor and as Berg screamed sawed his head off in several swift strokes. He then held the head up to the camera.

All in the name of Allah and the Prophet (Peace Be Unto Him). Can one imagine a greater act of blasphemy? Of pure disgrace to a religion or to a people?

Yes, there was shock and some outrage. But barely a word beyond the usual perfunctory protests from the leadership of the Muslim community. Zarqawi had defined and defiled the faith in an act of pure and barbaric cruelty. Still, no crowds gathered, no Imams called the faithful to protest this defilement of the words the Prophet or spirit of Allah, the compassionate.

But a cartoon. A cartoon that by any measure lacked the viciousness of so many political cartoons over the years. Political cartoons that have caricatured Christians and Jews, religious leaders and gods. Just take a peak at the mainstream Arab press and one can catch a glimpse of vile political cartoons speaking out the editorial voice of those communities. A Jewish Pope labeled with a swastika drinking the blood of a Palestinian baby. Gentle stuff. But not to pick on them, political cartooning has a long and biting history.

Some demonstrators have suggest that the images––such as the Prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb––labeled a whole people as violent extremists, and the Bush administration endorsed this theme when it called the cartoons offensive and criticized the decision to publish them. But––with all due respect to the Jewish Pope noted above––caricature is not the issue at hand and the problem here is not one of tolerance per se. The Koranic injunction is not about caricature or character assassination, but rather it is the very representation of the Prophet, the image itself rather than the subject. The defilement was the act of making a representation, whatever the context, whatever the parody. The violation of Koranic law was the act of drawing.

It is for the drawing itself that the demands for retribution are made. For the act of drawing came the demands to cut off the hands of or murder the artists.

Set aside for a moment why Islamic law should govern the cartoonist in Denmark. Set aside for the moment the question of insult to a Hindu traditionalist of world-wide consumption of beef. Just this question: What of Zarqawi? Is there no Koranic proscription against the raw and cruel murder of one man in the name of the faith, in the name of the Prophet? Thirteen hundred years later cannot the clerics see that debasement of the faith as a more fundamental indictment that a political cartoon. Is Al-Jazeera, who broadcast that video not more complicit in the debasement of Islam than France-Soir.

Each faith is debased by the actions of its adherents and by the voices or silence of its community. The Judeo Christian tradition. The prophetic tradition. Abraham, Issac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Josiah ben Joseph, Muhammad. Jehovah, Yaweh, G-d, Allah. Were they not all defiled when Nicholas Berg’s head was raised up off that floor?

Death to Denmark! The principle of free speech does matter, and if that is what it takes for Europe to find its voice, to feel some outrage, so be it.

No comments: