Of yobbos and raisins

I have the right to fart in a crowded lift, or cultivate halitosis by failing to brush my teeth regularly. And, even if my neighbour is a Hindu, I would be entitled (health regulations permitting) to slaughter and barbecue a cow down by her back fence just to give her the shits. But if I did any of these things I would be unlikely to be labelled a courageous freedom fighter. I’d rightly be dismissed as an odious, ill-mannered slob.

So why do so many otherwise sensible, intelligent people regard as somehow heroic the newspapers and bloggers who have gratuitously published cartoons that they know many Islamic people will find offensive? Of course, the Muslim thugs who have killed, made death threats and torched embassies as a result of those publications are immeasurably worse, but I haven’t actually noticed any blogger for whom I have any respect congratulating them on their actions. The actions of these Muslim hothead thugs do not somehow miraculously convert the cartoon publishers from ignorant yobs into fighters for democratic freedom. Almost no-one in the western world is arguing that the publication of cartoons, however gratuitously offensive to the beliefs of others, should be prohibited.

I could at least partly comprehend such a reaction to publication of the cartoons if they conveyed a powerful or important political message (as opposed to merely setting out successfully to offend the beliefs of a particular group). But the only one of the 12 cartoons containing a coherent, sensible political message is the one showing a group of presumably just-deceased suicide bombers lined up at the Pearly Gates with a St Peter-like figure saying “Stop! Stop! We’ve run out of virgins.” It’s also the only one of the twelve that is actually funny.

Incidentally, that cartoon also reminds me to mention a Guardian article I recently came across that discusses some fairly recent linguistic research throwing doubt on the Koranic translation of the promise of eternal access to 72 virgins for Islamic “martyrs”. It seems that the relevant word (“hur”) might actually be Aramaic for “chilled raisin” rather than Arabic for “virgin”:

As Luxenberg’s work has only recently been published we must await its scholarly assessment before we can pass any judgements. But if his analysis is correct then suicide bombers, or rather prospective martyrs, would do well to abandon their culture of death, and instead concentrate on getting laid 72 times in this world, unless of course they would really prefer chilled or white raisins, according to their taste, in the next.

PS – To head off misunderstanding, I view the creator and exhibitors of the Piss Christ in exactly the same way. Their actions should not have been (and weren’t) illegal, but nor were they in any sense admirable. The work set out merely to shock and offend, and not to convey any coherent political message.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

Ken, this suggests that you roughly agree with my view that people who publish offensive material should be asked what they are trying to achieve, even if they using the trojan horse of “art” to smuggle their bad taste into public venues.
http://www.clubtroppo.com.au/2006/02/05/cartoons-censorship-and-civility/

This episode has raised the problem of tolerance in a particurly acute form. As some logician pointed out, there is a paradox of tolerance in the same way that there is a parodox of freedom. If people are allowed unlimited freedom, what stops the strong from monstering the weak? The usual answer is that there are generally accepted limits to our freedom to interfere with other people (your rights stop where my nose starts): these are partly a matter of community standards and partly a matter of law to be enforced by the police and the courts.

The paradox of tolerance runs along these lines – we are all in favour of tolerance and free speech but if we place no limits then we may find that the intolerant take advantage of our tolerance (by speading lies and propaganda to their children, for example) and if they are a majority (or just sufficiently influential) then tolerance may go down the gurgler. How to promote tolerance without resorting to social engineering policies (like the wrong kind of official multiculturalism and the Victorian legislation on badmouthing religions) that produce the reverse of the effect desired? More research is required.

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Ken, it’s questionable whether or not Serrano sought to convey an artistic message (why would it need to be a political one?) but there’s a case that he did – which is made here. You may or may not dismiss the arguments, but it’s wrong to suggest that the work has no artistic value, and that it was just intended to “shock and offend”.

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Andres Serrano is the artist who created Piss Christ, btw, for those who didn’t follow the link.

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Forgot again to close tags!

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

“But we shouldn’t give governments the imprimatur to ask it and then imagine that they can properly prohibit the material in our names if they don’t like the answer.”

Ken, you could have left out the ‘but’ because we agree on that too! Actually I think we have a rather boring degree of consensus on these issues.

James Dudek
James Dudek
15 years ago

I think you have the narrative wrong here Ken.

The story as I understand it is that the publisher of the Danish newspaper looking to recruit an illustrator for a book about Mohammed. During his search he was suprised to find that a lot of illustrators did not want to take on the job as they were afraid of the reprucussions of drawing Mohammed (eg. look at what happened to Theo Van Geogh).

He thought this fear was a matter of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, so he called for cartoons expressing this view.

The cartoons are themed around the issue of Mohammed intimidating artists with violence from expressing their views. They are not particularly offensive – hardly like slaughtering a cow in front of a Hindu.

Of course when the cartoons were published back in September, Dannish Imams got offended by them. They did a few minor protests in Copenhagen, but on the whole the Danish Muslims couldn’t quite work up the rage necessary to make the news.

So the chief Danish Imam went on a Middle East roadshow to show the real crazies what was going on back in Europe. He recognized that the 12 cartoons were not offensive enough, so he added 3 VERY offensive cartoons (including one of Mohammed with a pig snout).

This of course got the desired reaction from the mob in the Middle East, most of whom hadn’t laid eyes on the offending images. The Middle East Imams tried to intimidate the West by showing that they would be violent toward people who express their opinions.

My personal opinion is that it is entirely appropriate for the media to show solidarity with the original publisher and show that they will not imtimidated by mobs or Imams into deciding what is or is not fit for print.

It’s becoming quite evident that artists in Europe are becoming intimidated by violence toward them. Maybe they don’t want to physically fight back, but at least allow them to mock the people who are trying to make them submit to their will.

Rob
Rob
15 years ago

I think James has got the rights of it.

With respect, Ken, I think you’ve missed an awful lot of the story.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor(@geoff-honnor)
15 years ago

I note that Egyptian newspaper, Al Faqr, published 6 of the cartoons on October 17 with absolutely no violent feedback. It was before it became politically advantageous to whip up a confected frenzy. To the assertion, “conform to our requirement that you constrain liberal democratic freedoms or we’ll burn down your embassy and murder your less than stellar cartoonists” the answer should obviously always be, “get stuffed.”

The cringing acquiescence of western media and governments to the threat of totally unjustified violence has been instructive.

I note that the Taliban – notable defenders of Buddhist freedom of artistic expression – were reported yesterday as offering “gold” (how characteristically medieval) for the heads of the Danish infidels.
I note also that a number of moderate Australian Muslims have made media appearances extolling the virtues of freedom of speech but insisting that there must be “standards” therein to prevent offensiveness and irresponsibility.

But surely freedom of speeech is, inter alia, about the freedom to be offensive and irresponsible in someone elses’s perception?

Evil Pundit
15 years ago

James has conveyed part of the story that you seem to have missed, Ken.

This gap in your knowledge indicates that you may have been relying on incomplete and biased mainstream media as your source of information. You should read more blogs.

Guy
Guy
15 years ago

I agree wholeheartedly with the gist of your post Ken.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

I’d add to James’ narrative that Condi Rice appears to be right in saying that the Iranian and Syrian governments stirred up a lot of the reaction (though she leaves the Saudis off her list, and from what I’ve read around the place, their fingerprints are all over it too).

I agree with Rice and Bush on this, by the way, unlike some right wingers who’ve come out and admitted that it’s not actually about terrorism, it’s about their view of Islam generally and Bush is soft on Islam (see the comments thread as well).

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

James’ background is helpful but I think Ken’s point still stands. Too many people are confusing requests for civility with restrictions on the freedom of speech.

I don’t usually bother pointing out where I agree with Peter Saunders (CIS) but on the civility issue I do agree with a lot of what he’s saying. If you want a society that guarantees things like freedom of speech you need a robust civil society which exerts social pressure on individuals. Individuals and institutions need to self-regulate.

This isn’t a simple issue. Obviously it’s sometimes a good thing to step up and offend people. If nobody did, then how would things like unjust social norms ever change? Rosa Parks probably offended a lot of white people when she refused to give up her seat, but I’d say it was the social norms that were uncivil, not Rosa Parks.

It seems to me that liberalism is about solving disputes in practice that we can’t solve in theory. We’ll never agree about moral principles but maybe what we can agree on is how to deal with our differences. I’m in favour of methods that don’t involve killing people or setting fire to things.

Rob
Rob
15 years ago

“But surely freedom of speeech is, inter alia, about the freedom to be offensive and irresponsible in someone elses’s perception?”

Agree, Geoff, but I’d go further, and say that the issue of freedom of speech doesn’t even arise until offence is given.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor(@geoff-honnor)
15 years ago

“You know that those cartoons were published for the 1st time months ago and we here in the Middle East have tonnes of jokes about Allah, the prophets and the angels that are way more offensive, funny and obscene than those poorly-made cartoons, yet no one ever got shot for telling one of those jokes or at least we had never seen rallies and protests against those infidel joke-tellers.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
15 years ago

I think one key to understanding the Danish cartoons affair is that we need to distinguish between what is *a right* and what is *right*.

A liberal democratic or social democratic polity legally guarantees its citizens certain rights (freedom of expression, of association, etc.). There is no inconsistency between supporting those rights as general principles, and being critical of the wisdom or the morality of particular instances of the exercise of such rights. Thus I would uphold the right of Australian citizens to form and join a Maoist political party which maintained inter alia that the Cultural Revolution was a good thing and that nobody was killed by the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia. However I would also be very critical of the platform of that party and I would question the wisdom and the moral judgement of people who would form and join such a party.

Similarly, in the case of the Danish cartoons, we can defend the general principle that the artists have the right to create such cartoons and the newspapers have the right to publish them, whilst also being critical of the poor quality, poor taste and discourtesy towards Moslems displayed by those artists and publications.

Rob
Rob
15 years ago

I agree motivation is a core issue. But in this case, as I undestand it, the editors called for depictions of Mohommed, not satirical cartoons. That’s why, as many have pointed out, few of them them are funny. A couple are actually satirising the artists themselves. The point made by the Jutland Post was about challenging sel-censorship, not insulting Islam.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Ken – perhaps you should draw a picture of this gorilla, the yobbos and the little girl; and attach labels so we can follow the analogy. Then we could publish it in a newspaper and see what happens.

Wicking
15 years ago

If the intent of the Jutland Post was to challenge self-censorship they’ve achieved exactly the opposite. As a professional cartoonist, the idea of censoring myself hasn’t occurred to me once during almost thirty years in newspapers. As far as anything to do with Islam goes, from here on in it will. Pretty sure it will now cross the minds of a few Australian editors from time to time too. Talk about your dark victory.

Evil Pundit
15 years ago

Ken, you seem to have missed James Dudek’s post and all the posts referring to it. I’ll quote the important bit for you:

The story as I understand it is that the publisher of the Danish newspaper looking to recruit an illustrator for a book about Mohammed. During his search he was suprised to find that a lot of illustrators did not want to take on the job as they were afraid of the reprucussions of drawing Mohammed (eg. look at what happened to Theo Van Geogh).

He thought this fear was a matter of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, so he called for cartoons expressing this view.

The cartoons were not published as a gratuitous attempt to offend Muslims as you claim, but as an exercise in establishing whether or not free speech was being suppressed by fear of violent extremism. This exercise has thoroughly demonstrated that this is indeed the case, and anyone who cares about freedom and democracy should be very concerned indeed.

Your spurious gorilla analogy is nothing more than an attempt to blame the victim.

Evil Pundit
15 years ago

“Spin” and “framing” come after the event, Ken. I’m not talking about excuses made after the publication of the cartoons, but about the reason they were commissioned and published in the first place. There is a very real climate of fear in Europe about doing anything that might offend Muslims, since there have been death threats and actual murders of people who have done so. How you could possibly think that isn’t important is not evident to me.

The images are not inherently offensive to any great degree. If they were as grossly offensive as you claim, why was there no protest when they were published in the Muslim country of Egypt four months ago? Why did the Imams who stirred up the trouble need to pad out their portfolio with fake images?

Clearly, if the newspaper’s intention was to offend Muslims, it wasn’t trying very hard. The reaction has served a very useful purpose, in alerting the world to a real and growing threat — possibly at the cost of the cartoonists’ and editors’ lives. They are heroes of democracy, and deserve to be recognised as such.

marcus
marcus
15 years ago

I know that translation is sometimes the enemy of truth but I am confused about how “72 virgins” can get mixed up with a bunch of “chilled raisins”. Did they have chilled raisins in Mecca or Medina in the 7th Century? Where did they get the Fisher and Paykel frost free fridges?

My guess is that this a desperate attempt by some apologist academics to, in some strange way, extenuate the motivation of a suicide bomber who exterminates the juvenile clientele of a pizza parlour or frags a funeral procession of co-religionists. “Hey it’s cool, he only wanted the raisins not the virgins.”

We are tying ourselves in knots trying to explain why the middle east is such a mess.

James Dudek
James Dudek
15 years ago

Ken,

Have you actually spent anytime looking at the cartoons? Or do you just assume that they are somehow outrageously offensive.

I suggest you take a visit to your old mate Tim Blair’s blog and take another look at them:

http://timblair.net/ee/index.php/weblog/media_told/

In particular I would draw your attention to cartoons 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12.

All of these have political content about how the artists feel that they are being intimidated by Muslim extremists.

In particular look at cartoon 7. It’s of an artist drawing Mohammed. He’s looking over his shoulder with his hat jumping off his head. He’s sweating. He’s obviously afraid of the knock he just heard at the door.

I don’t know how you find that offensive, but I think the message that it is sending is very clear – the artist feels that by drawing the image of Mohammed he is putting his physical safety in jeopardy.

That’s not spin mate.

James Dudek
James Dudek
15 years ago

Ken, I’d like to also add – which of these cartoons do you find offensive?

To me, the one of Mohammed with a bomb for a turban would be offensive. But that too is a political statement about the hijacking of a religion which is now being used to justify violence.

In fact as we’ve seen even the Imams thought that these cartoons were not offensive enough, so they added very offensive cartoons (in particular the one of Mohammed with a pig snout) to the portfolio so they could whip up a frenzy in the middle east.

I’m getting the impression that it’s your belief that merely publishing an image of Mohammed in Cartoon form is considered highly offensive and is analogous to calling Chopper Reid a stinking pedophile to his face.

Please tell me I’m wrong.

James Dudek
James Dudek
15 years ago

This is the perfect resource for the story that is continuing to unfold:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Ken,

72 chilled raisins huh?

No wonder those oil-rich Arab states have such currant account surpluses.

rog
rog
15 years ago

Whilst the publication of the cartoons is being denounced by some how do they justify their lack of protest against the publishing on al Jazeera of decapitation videos?

c8to
c8to
15 years ago

gruen’s punditry sinks to a new low.

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

“That is why , as Rafe and I agree, the motivations of those professing to be exercising their free speech rights become centrally relevant. They weren’t actually setting out to say anything, they were merely setting out to give Muslims the shits and provoke a violent reaction.”

I think our agreement is “in principle”, that it is tacky to go past some (undefined) point in putting shit on other people’s religions.

In this particular instance I don’t think the pictures were published to confront, merely to show a degree of consistency with the common practice of lampooning mainstream western religions (and only two or three were even lampooning). This could be wrong but it is my understanding and I have posted to that effect on the site of a person of Middle-Eastern sounding name who thought that confrontation was the intention.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

“It isn’t fundamentally about freedom of speech if they didn’t have anything substantive to say.”

On the plus side, if we enacted this maxim, we’d never have to hear from Paris Hilton ever again……on the con side we’d have to have an incredibly busy committee to screen for non-substantive material purporting to be free speech. Ileana Ceausescu used to do this all by herself in Romania but she eventually got shot by people who questioned her critical assessment. It’s a dangerous job, Ken.

The fundamental problem remains: in Denmark, it’s not a crime to publish something within legal parameters that might give religious or cultural offence.

James Dudek
James Dudek
15 years ago

1. The cartoons weren’t illegal,
2. The cartoons to a reasonable person were not offensive (hence the adding of the image of the dog butt-raping a praying muslim).
3. The Imams went out of their way to distribute the cartoons and confect outrage.

To use Ken’s metaphor it’s like the Imams followed him into a toilet cubicle and then complained when he farts, or put their nostrils right up into his mouth first thing in the morning (after he’s had a night on the turps) and then complain that his breath smells bad.

Or like a Hindu walking into an abbotoir through the lobby, signing in as a guest vistor, down the stairs past the safety signs warning about what is going on inside, putting on a uniform, donning a hard hat, speaking to the manager about what is going on in there and then being outraged at the slaughter of cows.

Here are some other things that Europeans do that Fundamentalist Muslims find offensive. I’d like to get an understanding on whether they should no longer engage in these activities in order that they stop being ‘provocative’:

1. The Sun newspaper publishing Page 3 Girls
2. Berlin’s love parade
3. Octoberfest
4. Topless sunbathing at Cannes
5. Proscuitto
6. Hairy armpits on French chicks

Actually if the Imams could please start the outrage with 6, I’d be extremely grateful. I’ve found hairy armpits on French chicks extremely offensive for many years but have had no luck in changing the culture there.

If only I had grabbed some gasoline, a French flag and headed down to the embassy maybe things would have changed.