Friday, February 10, 2006

Thoughts on those Danish Cartoons

You may find this post quite rambling because I find myself struggling with what to say about the Danish cartoons and the violence they've incited in parts of the Muslim world. Even though I am often a critic of his, I appreciate the situation President Bush is in at the moment as he attempts to walk a tightrope between supporting freedom of the press and encouraging the press to be responsible and considerate of others. Of course, these riots have taken on a life of their own. As time passes, the riots have less to do with the cartoons, in my opinion, but that's not my subject today. I want to consider the role of humor and its impact.

One of my favorite cartoonists, Doug Marlette, got in hot water a few years back. It was after the "What Would Jesus Do" campaign changed into the "What Would Jesus Drive." Some religious leaders encouraged their followers to consider their impact on the environment. Their idea was that Jesus would drive something that conserved gas and polluted less. Marlette created a strip asking "What would Mohammed drive, showing a rental truck with explosives. I don’t think he actually depicted Mohammed in the drawing, but nonetheless, found himself in hot-water with his publisher and others. I didn’t have problems with it because I saw the strip from so many different angles. Marlette was poking fun at those asking, "What would Jesus drive?" (he’s often been a critic of the church—especially folks like Pat Robertson). But in this strip, he also called terrorist like the first World Trade Center bombers into question. Would their prophet do this? If not, then why should they try to blow up a building with a rental truck? Of course, many refused to see it either way and thought he was making fun of Islam’s prophet.

I struggle with how to respond to these comic strips as a Christian—a follower of a man who teaches us to live gently and humbly and to turn the other cheek. It seems that if I am to be true to my faith, I have to be willing to stand up with those who are marginalized and to be willing to "go the extra mile" on their behalf. When the riots first broke out, President Bush challenged both the drawings as well as calling those in the Muslim world to refrain from their use of offensive comics about Jews and Christians. It seems this was an appropriate response, calling both sides to a higher moral plane.

I also struggle over the use of humor and satire, as I’ve acknowledged before. True satire pokes fun in a way that calls out the best in people. If we are able to laugh at ourselves, or see the absurdity of our position, we have a chance to become a better person (or society). However, there’s a thin line between calling out the best in others and belittling them. Furthermore, humor often fails to translate across languages and cultures—which is going to be an increasing problem in our instant world. A hundred years ago, a comic strip in Denmark would not have had a global impact.

I worry when political cartoonists have to tread carefully out of fear of safety for themselves and their families. Several years ago Mark Pinskey (who is Jewish) wrote a book titled : The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family. Pinskey noted that the producers of the Simpson’s (at least up to that time) had made fun of the Christian, Jewish and Hindi faiths, but not Islam. When asking the writers about why they had steered away from Islam, from what I recall, he received several comments. One of which, they acknowledged, is that the writing team consists of those from Jewish, Christian and Hindi backgrounds, but none from an Islamic background. I like this reason. Jokes are always a lot better when the blunt of the joke is directed at the comedian rather than at others. Perhaps this is why the Danish cartoons are so offensives.

What do you think? How can we both support freedom of speech and be civil to one another? Is there a way this "crisis" can be used to call both sides to be more respectful (fewer depictions of Jews and Christians from the Islamic press as well as better treatment of the their faith in ours)?


  1. It's very difficult to know what is best as it's without doubt a very sensitive subject both in terms of what the Islamic community think about depictions of their religion and in terms of what western societies think about the threat to freedom of speech.

    I am an advocate of free speech wherever possible and whilst I think that currently Islam is its own worst enemy, it is understandable why some Muslims are upset about the cartoons. What is absolutely not alright or understandable is the protests that have seen people dressed as suicide bombers (though I am pleased to see that the person concerned has apologised) or threatening violence to the cartoonists and publishers.

    Their can be only one answer to the growing gap of understanding between the middle east and the west and that is for both sides to make much greater efforts to see the others point of view and to do that in a civilised, peaceful manner.

    Here from Michele's by the way.

  2. I love good humor taken in the proper context. Honestly, I don't think that the rioting is representative of Islam's just the "extremists" of that faith furthering their agenda of creating chaos and brain washing. Angry people can be found in most any religious group, Christianity included. All it takes is turning away from the hatred and toward the light.

  3. As long as those among us are driven by hatred, it will be difficult to avoid similar events like this from recurring.

    The previous commenter is right: we need to turn away from anger.

    I'm a journalist, so I'm naturally cynical. I don't think it'll happen in our lifetime. But there's nothing stopping us from planting a few seeds here and there.

  4. A good post, Sage. I think we can be mindful of our freedom to say what we want - and be respectful of each other's spiritual teachings too. One has to practice the golden rule - or at least imagine how it would feel to be the brunt of some jab at one's religion.

  5. Half the problem is being more respectful, but the other half of the problem is realizing that individuals have their own opinion and whether you like it or not, their opinions can be offensive and can also get published. I see stuff all the time that is offensive to me, but it does not make me want to start a riot. Crazy people have crazy opinions. That's life and it goes both ways.

  6. There is no doubt that the latest protests and riots were fuelled by groups keen on furthering their political agenda.

    It is a shame that emotions were so inflamed and out of control when other means could have been employed to more effect such as lobbying against further discrimination or suing the paper that commissioned and published the offending cartoons. There is no complaint against peaceful protests and personal boycotts; we should all be able to express ourselves freely and not have to accept any trespasses against our beliefs or values.

    Having said that, I seriously question the motive behind running those cartoons knowing the sensitivities of many Muslims; it seems it was an intended and direct attack on a religious group.

    Perhaps this should be a lesson for all sides: for Western culture to try and understand the sensitivities of other cultures in this day of rapid communication and information sharing; and for Muslim people to think for themselves logically rather than be swayed by feverish politically motivated incitations.

  7. I think Jewaira hit it with her last paragraph. I think it's less an Islamic/Christian issue, and more a cultural issue.

    After all, you don't see Muslims in America up in arms, demonstrating in the streets, or burning embassies.

    Is the faith of the American Muslim any less genuine than Muslims in the middle east?

    I think Muslim American's find offense in depictions of Muhammed just as their brethern overseas do. But in America (and Europe - "western civilization" if you will), there is a cultural history of tolerance and freedom of speech, and respect for law and order, which simply does not exist in traditional middle-eastern cultures.

    Many Arab/Muslim nations/cultures have a cultural history of violent and angry protest, and mob-power that demands attention in the streets that is respected. If a certain faction doesn't get it's way, violence and intimidation is the next step, not reason and logic.

    This will blow over, in my opinion, but not unless European nations stand strong on their laws and their ideals, and not cow-tow to angry mobs.

    After all, if Allah is supreme, and Mohammed is above reproach, what does a Muslim or Allah have to fear from some cartoons? Allah will smite those he will smite, right?

    I think that's why Christians don't usually get quite so upset at similarly spirited depictions of Christ. I believe Jesus is God, God is supreme, and there's nothing in heaven or on earth that can change that.

    Least of all an idea conveyed on a few cents worth of ink and paper.

  8. You have to consider that for the Muslims, there is no sepaeration of the "church and state" if you will.They also consider dialogue a weakness. If you are not muslim you are an infidel and it is thier n"duty" to convert you, inslave you, or kill you. There is no room there for dialogue. Thia is true for all the "fundimental" sects. However, an additional item is Muslims are not supposed to make likenesses of Muhammed.

    I like peace as much as the next person, but when someone tells their followers to kill me, all my family, and countrymen, I don't have much to say to them in the form of words.

  9. Thanks to all your comments and welcome to Dave, Jude, Mike and Devildog (I think you're all first-timers here). The modern world, where communication is instant, challenges our ability to get along with one another who have different cultural outlooks and religious beliefs.

    Mike said: "I think that's why Christians don't usually get quite so upset at similarly spirited depictions of Christ. I believe Jesus is God, God is supreme, and there's nothing in heaven or on earth that can change that."

    I agree--it would be nice if everyone believed this way (both CHristians as well as others who of a different face).

    For the record: I made a correction in the above post--I said that as a follower of Chirst we're called to stand against those marginalized--that should have been "stand with those." The post has been corrected.

  10. Interesting post. I think we should all just respect each others religion. With this, the world will be a better place to live in.

    Here via Michele's. Happy weekend!