Agam's Gecko
Wednesday, February 08, 2006

t a point on a timeline written in the far distant future (located in one of the potential streams of mankind's history), researchers of antiquity discover what they believe may be the key piece of evidence in understanding the mysterious disappearance of a once great civilisation. They still didn't know why the Mayans suddenly deserted their cities a thousand years earlier, but the great mystery of the 21st century seemed now to be solved at last. They had found the straw that "broke the camel's back," as well as the ancient global society which historians had dubbed "Secular Democracia." A prehistoric relic known as a "hard drive" had been unearthed from beneath the desert sands of ancient Eurotopia, and from its rudimentary binary language were extracted 15 images known as "toons" -- or more properly by specialists in the field of SD study, "cartoons." The images had originally been clumsy, hand-drawn affairs, and most of them were clearly done by unskilled prehistoric artists -- although a few could be said to have artistic merit.

This seemingly meagre find was in fact the "holy grail" of ancient SD research (although nobody could remember what "holy grail" meant by that time). One of the field team out in the vast Eurotopian desert exclaimed to his expedition leader, "Habib! There is an ancient saying attributed to this civilisation during its pre-extinction period, which goes something like, 'And it ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.' How appropriate, eh? Allah hu Akbar!" Although he said this in a yet unknown future language. Except for the last bit.

Of course I am mocking the latest global dust-up with that bit of fantasy, and I don't expect that the stream of future history imagined above, will be the one that mankind eventually follows. If we do so, then it will all have just been a great big waste of time then, won't it?

There is so much hypocrisy flowing around in the cartoon wars, that it's hard to know where to begin -- from the left, from the right, from the Islamist fanatics and from moderate, modern Muslims. OK, scratch the last one, we haven't heard much of anything from moderate, modern Muslims yet, besides Ibn Warraq and Fouad Ajami. But if acquiescence to religious fascism among the majority of moderate Muslims can be seen as hypocritical as well, then unscratch it again.

The hypocrisy is thickest of course, in the massed thousands of Islamist men presently going on rampages from Surabaya to Syria, as well as the ones barely restraining themselves from physical rampage in the streets of London. "Behead / Butcher / Slay / Annihilate / Exterminate / Massacre / those who mock Islam"? Isn't it rather like saying, "If you so much as impugn that radical Islamism has violent tendencies, we will kill you..."? Or "Islam is the Religion of Peace, and if you dissent from that universal truth, you must die..."? Dude, like, thanks for making the point.

The world wide riots have now claimed at least 9 lives, and if this keeps up they may surpass the last wave of manufactured rage after Newsweek published a false story about the holy Koran and toilets last year. I would hazard a guess that less than .1% (point one percent) of those angry rock-throwing arsonists in Tehran, Damascus or Beirut have even the foggiest idea of why they are so angry. That is to say, virtually none of them have seen the offensive pictures. They've been whipped into a frenzy by their "religious leaders," and if there's one thing these types are good at, it's following, and taking orders from, their favourite "imam."

While this tiny minority of the world's Muslims prance in front of the TV cameras, screaming and threatening and sometimes burning the wrong flags, "progressive" opinionists make excuses for the "legitimate" rage, citing Arab "disempowerment" and colonialist globalisation. Oh, and Jyllands-Posten is just an obscure, little known right-wing smear sheet somewhere in Scandahoovia (it's actually the largest circulation daily paper in Denmark). The same "progressives" have of course defended the rights of western artists to create Piss Christ, Elephant Poo Mother Mary and a hundred more creative works intended to offend the dreaded Christians; but for far milder satire regarding the intellectual oppression originating from the most fanatic streams of Islam (which everyone usually qualifies by noting the Wahhabist / Salafist stream is a small minority) -- well, the new progressive view is that we should censor ourselves and not upset the downtrodden, oppressed and disempowered radical Islamist minority. And we should expect that if we do so, enraged violence will understandably follow. The soft bigotry of low expectations.

Either that, or the new progressive stance is simply a politically correct sounding excuse for fear. How could the fearless defenders of free speech -- ready to go to the gulag or even make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater cause, against the jackbooted gestapo of George W. "Hitler" -- ever be seen to exhibit fear in the face of an unrepresentative fanatical religious minority? Can't. Christians don't burn embassies and kill artists no matter how many Piss Christs somebody makes. Too obvious. The dreaded "H" word, can't have it. We base our self censorship on sensitivity and understanding of the others.

Ibn Warraq and Fouad Ajami (both linked above - I saw Prof. Ajami on Lehrer yesterday, excellent) have it exactly right. If the Muslim world is to truly be a part of the modern global society, it must learn not to be so thin-skinned and insecure about itself. It needs to internalise the reality of argument, dissent, and even occasionally, getting offended. Self pity doesn't look good on anyone, especially one who flees his country of origin in favour of a liberal democracy, and then is unwilling to be offended by the everyday standards of his new home.

But there is much more to this contrived crisis than the major media is mentioning. Firstly, the call for drawings was made by Jyllands-Posten back in September, in the context of a European debate. Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh had recently been murdered, and others had been threatened with the same treatment -- Islamist punishment for intellectual or artistic expression. Public figures in several countries had gone into hiding, or lived under 24 hour security protection -- some even resorting to protective incarceration. In the wake of this, a Danish author was working on a children's book about the prophet Mohammed, but was unable to find a willing illustrator. This became an issue of debate in Denmark, artistic fear and intimidation, as it had in the Netherlands after Theo van Gogh's murder. Jyllands-Posten called for submissions (no pun intended) of Mohammed drawings in the context of this Danish national debate. More on this background, and a timeline of events from first publication up to the end of December.

But that's not all. Denmark based Muslim radical groups tried to stir up local rage over the affair, but had more luck with Pakistani Muslims instead (Jamaat-e-Islami declared a death sentence for the artists within two weeks). Seeing that there was more hay to be made elsewhere, the angry Denmark-based radicals took their show on the road for a tour of the Middle East. More on their leader, Abu Laban, at the link just above, and also here. Evidently the mortally offended group took along a whole portfolio of evidence (translated portfolio in pdf format) to rally the anger of their Arab brothers, which included 15 cartoons rather than just the 12 which had been published. The provenance of the additional 3 -- the most vulgar of the lot -- was never admitted by Abu Laban. Now, part of the secret has been told. That horrible, grainy image of the Prophet in a pig's snout, was in fact a picture of a French pig squealing contestant (wai Gateway Pundit who has been all over this, investigatively, along with Michelle). And look, here's the original news story on the 2005 French Pig Squealing Champions! Appropriately categorised in their "Peculiar" section, over at MSNBC. How many embassy-burners will eventually realise they lost their cool over a photo of a pig squealing Frenchman? Not many. Even the BBC erroneously attributed the pig-snouted, dog-humped pedophile toons to Jyllands-Posten, which had never even seen them before, much less published them.

Now a major Iranian newspaper is calling for submissions (no pun intended again) of offensive cartoons about the Jewish Holocaust, in a statement that sounded more like something President Ahmadinejad might say, as a means of testing the vaunted Euro-Western love for free expression. Well, thanks for making the point again, dummies! You want to see vile racist caricatures and cartoonish religious hatred, just open almost any Arab newspaper any day of the week. It's so commonplace, it doesn't even have shock value anymore.

Frankly, I think most of the 12 Danish cartoonists were pretty ignorant of what they were doing. Take a look here, where the captions etc. have been translated to English. "Life of a Cartoonist" and "PR Stunt" are exceptions, the latter taking the point to its illogical end. One can draw a stick figure with four strokes, and if it's deemed to depict Mohammed, well you're in deep trouble. Take a recent picture of a deranged French pig-squealer -- if it's deemed to be Mohammed, prepare to die. And it isn't only pictures of that single person which some Muslims object. Any representation of any living thing -- photo, sculpture, movie, painting etc. -- is considered by some to be "un-Islamic." It leads to idolatry, you see. This is the reason given by the Taliban for blowing up the ancient Buddhist monuments in Bamiyan. And who is it again, who needs to learn respect for other religions? If there was ever an understandable cause for violent protest, the wanton destruction of somebody else's ancient and irreplaceable religious objects might have been it. But the world's Buddhists didn't riot or burn Taliban embassies. There were calls for dialogue, imploring pleas to reconsider, and candlelight vigils, but the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed on schedule.

The prohibition on images of Mohammed has not always, or in every place, been as rigid as it's being painted today. At times in history Muslim artists depicted Mohammed openly, though occasionally obscuring his facial features. In some European works on Arabic studies, Mohammed's image was also sometimes rendered -- without any resulting bloodshed. A sword-bearing Mohammed takes his place among the "law givers" depicted on a frieze within the US Supreme Court (along with Moses and Jesus, who are also considered to be prophets by Islam, and supposedly equally forbidden to make into images). Will the next step be to forbid Christians from having portraits and statuary of Nabi Isa (Jesus) in their churches, because it's a desecration of one of Islam's prophets? Don't laugh. If the rules of medieval theocracy can be made to fly in secular Europe, the sky is the limit. Take a trip through history, and some very nice representations of Mohammed (especially some of those Asian and Persian ones - which I bet makes Mr. Ahmadinejad kind of pissed, Iranians being Persians and all).

Finally, all I can say is, don't take the lunatic fringe to represent the Muslim world. The boneheads who stormed the Danish embassy in Jakarta were, exactly as I predicted when I first heard of the incident without the details, members of the notorious Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders' Front). I've written of the FPI before, and I'm sure I will again. Their talents run to busting up pool halls and cafes to celebrate the holy fasting month, terrorising Miss Waria pageants, and dressing up in long shirts and turbans (and waving longswords) so as to make ordinary people to be in awe of their piety. Estimated numbers of FPI thugs that made a show of raising havoc inside the lobby of the building which houses Jakarta's Danish embassy (they didn't get anywhere near the embassy itself): 75 - 150. Number of Muslim adherents living in Jakarta: about 10 million. There were also demonstrations in several other cities, but the vast majority of participants were peaceful, while your news outlet only showed you the rock-throwing flag burners.

But here's a piece of good news: radical London based preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri was found guilty yesterday at the Old Bailey, for having solicited murder and racial hatred by using his sermons to encourage followers to kill non-Muslims. He was sentenced to seven years. Hamza is the famous Imam Hook (for his Captain Hook-like prosthetic hands) of the notorious Finsbury Park Mosque. I saw some clips of some of the video evidence on News Hour this morning, in one of which he exhorted his followers that (rough paraphrasing), "To fight the infidels means to kill them, not just to fight or struggle against them for advantage, but to go all the way. You must fight to kill them." When he gets out (possible after serving half his sentence), he'll be ripe for extradition to the US on further charges.

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