I may have missed the boat
on this topical controversy, but I've been thinking about it, and here's what I think: the main reason why I am outraged and mildly disgusted by the protests against the cartoons published in Denmark
not long ago, and which are considered offensive by most Muslim
s, is the rank hypocrisy
of it all.
Now, there are all sorts of different arguments one could make, but most of them sink on the unseen reef that is the "clash of civilisations" argument. It's not realistic to preach the American concept of freedom of speech to representatives of a culture most of whose members live under repressive totalitarian regimes - there's just no common ground there (and before you say anything about "when in Rome", remember that in most European countries this concept is not coded in law at all). Neither is it viable to draw attention to the way we ridicule and lampoon our own cultural icons in the press (e.g. the Pope), because it can always be claimed that no Western figure has the exact status that the Prophet has in Islam, and for a narrow definition of "status" that would be correct - argument over, insert coin.
On and on and on - I kept trying to think why the hysterical response of some British Muslims got under my skin so much, and whatever I came up with as the potential reason, I could easily refute it inside my own head. Until yesterday I had the bright idea of running a Google search for cartoon from Muslim publications lampooning the West.
I always knew, in the slightly jingoistic way Israelis know these things, that we get terrible press in the Arab world. But I certainly didn't realise how sophisticated Middle Eastern cartoonists have become in exploiting every available tool of defamation and racist propaganda ever deployed by Christendom, as well as adding a specialist knowledge of Jewish sensibilities which really helps enhance the viciousness of the already, shall we say, unfriendly sentiments expressed.
A few examples off the top of my head:
- A stereotypical Jew (hooked nose, long black coat and black hat, scruffy beard, fat belly, leering expression) is holding a giant snake. Apart from the obvious borrowing from Nazi propaganda to depict the Jews in general as unsavoury, with all the attendant implications of vermin getting fat off the suffering of others, snakes are considered extremely unclean in Judaism. No religious person would handle a snake, and if they did they would have to go through a cleansing ritual. The image provoked strong revulsion in me, and I am not usually sensitive to religious iconography (still I don't want to get into comparative religion by trying to make up possible parallels. Just think of something which is instinctively repellent to you).
- Another stereotypical Jew is stabbing Ariel Sharon in the back with a Menorah (the 7-wick lamp that is said to have lit the Temple). This is an even more sophisticated and multi-layered image; in includes the Nazi archetype, the alleged treacherousness of the Jews (stabbing their own PM in the back), and the visual desecration of on of the few - if not the only - truly sacred physical object in Judaism. This last one is what really bothered me, I must say. The Menorah is one of the very few symbols we have which have survived since before the Diaspora, before the early attempt by the Romans to wipe Judaism off the map. It is depicted on Titus's victory arch in Rome as an unambiguous signifier of Judaism (we know the people carrying it are Jews because it's them carrying it, basically). Every consequent attempt to exterminate the Jews has drawn in some measure on this iconography, on the identification between symbol and people: nothing but the deepest malevolence could be indicated by its depiction as a weapon of craven, duplicitous violence.
- Although the previous two cartoons were the most viscerally shocking to me (out of a 5 minute Google search, so I'm sure I could find worse if I wanted to), the thing that really got my blood pressure up was a series of 'toons depicting America interfering in the internal affairs of Lebanon, organising the Hariri assassination, egging on the demonstrators etc. In every one there was yet another archetypal "jid" sniggering from the safety of America’s shadow. So even when a Syrian newspaper is (very questionably) accusing the US of instigating the anti-Syrian movement in Lebanon, the job just isn't complete without a Nazi little dig at the Jews, complete with not only Hassidic garb but, just in case that wasn't plain enough, a star of David on the coat pocket. Very subtle, guys. This may not have been quite as cleverly cruel as some of the other caricatures out there, but the sheer gratuitous malice of it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. This is how much some people hate me.
These are just cartoons. They're meant to be funny. But the fact that in Syrian schools the textbook maps don't include the state of Israel is not funny. The bill hoardings depicting Ariel Sharon as a blood-sucking monster are not funny. The so called "peace marchers" in London in 2003, carrying placards claiming to depict (through clever use of juxtaposition) Israeli politicians lauding the death of Palestinian babies (baby's corpse helpfully illustrated) or shouting for the massacre of all "Yahood", were not funny. How DARE people who consider such iconography legitimate in use against their enemies threaten (and indeed perpetrate) violence when it is their own symbols that are accosted?
I'm sorry to say that the reaction of European Muslims to this cartoon business has managed to antagonise me in a way that not even 9/11 managed to. An inter-cultural struggle for global supremacy I can understand; but this self-serving double standard, this patently hypocritical, malevolent, fear mongering holier-than-thou attitude, are not a legitimate part of that struggle.