Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The cartoons that shook the world

Shock-waves still reverberating, crowds still demonstrating all over the ME, Danish embassy-embers still smouldering amidst cartoon-refreshed sectarian tensions in Lebanon, NATO-shot demonstrators' corpses piling up in Afghanistan...

So what is/was it really "all about"? Some say it's about the Western "core-value" of freedom of speech vs. Muslim religious fanaticism and obscurantism, others - including me - see it more as a politically-inspired "clash of civilizations" provocation that "succeeded" beyond its promoters' wildest dreams... although somewhat to the detriment of Denmark's balance of trade.

First, is it true that the Danish newspaper that commissioned and published the cartoons did so to assert - in good faith - their belief in the need for an "uncompromising stand" on "preserving" the kind of no-holds-barred attitude to artistic and journalistic freedom of expression that they say is an essential part of European civilisation?

* Ahem *:

Danish paper rejected Jesus cartoons

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today. (...)

In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten. Zieler received an email back from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."

Doesn't look like it, does it?

On the other hand, no doubt that some of the support for the Danish mag. and other publications that have splashed these cartoons on their front pages is due to genuine love of freedom of speech, but here again, there are more disquieting overtones.

For instance, Italy's La Repubblica, in its "latest news" column, says that a minister representing Italy's Northern League in the current govt. wants to offer the France Soir editor fired for publishing the cartoons a job as French correspondent for the League's party newspaper "La Padania"...
both the League and its paper have won themselves a nazi-style reputation for all kinds of abuse - including physical violence - against muslim immigrants:

While the League leadership dismiss charges of racism, there have been instances of speeches, interviews and banners pointing to that. Umberto Bossi himself said that African immigrants, whom he called Bingo-bongos, should not receive popular housing with the same rights of ethnic Italians.[4] Erminio Boso proposed to segregate immigrants in train cars different than for Italians. [5] Umberto Bossi, in an interview, suggested opening fire on the boats of immigrants who would disembark in Italy [6], but after widespread criticism he declared he meant the empty boats. The former mayor of Treviso, Giancarlo Gentilini, talking about those he called immigrant slackers, said that "We should dress them up like hares and bang-bang-bang"[7]. In June 2005, at a festival organised by the League, a banner inciting to "rape Pecoraro", (Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, secretary of the Federation of the Greens and openly bisexual) was exposed; the banner caused outcry, and was condemned by the League's leadership[8].

In 2005, Mario Borghezio, MP for the League at the European Parliament, was found guilty of arson, for having set on fire the belongings of some immigrants sleeping under a bridge in Turin in 2000[9]...


But thankfully, in Italy the Northern League polls only a small percentage of votes (some 5% nationwide, seldom more than 12-15% even in the 2 northern regions where it is strongest).

In Denmark, however, despite the relative smallness of its immigrant population - around 3% - the level of intolerance amongst the population as a whole appears alarmingly high. In a recent article on Denmark's attitude towards immigrants, European Muslim human rights activist Bashy Quraishy makes some interesting points, accompanied by some striking figures:

The press, the politicians and the populations constitute an unholy alliance. In my opinion, the media carry the main responsibility for the fact that Denmark tops the list of the most xenophobic countries in the EU - according to surveys made by the EU itself.

In Aktuelt on 22.12.97 we can read that Denmark is the most racist country in the EU - 43% of the Danes characterize themselves as »rather or very racist« and 40% as »a little racist«. The question of where the negative attitude comes from when as much as 82% of the Danes - according to an inquiry made by Lise Togeby from the University of Aarhus - have never met an immigrant, neither in private or at work.

And in contrast with what one might assume from reading most of the press coverage on this issue, it's simply not true that most "Western" countries set no limits on satirical treatment of religious doctrines and sacred figures. In many places in Europe (UK, Eire, Netherlands, Italy, Greece...) blasphemy - in one form or another - is still on the books as a crime.

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