The South Park Affair – yes, the incident has acquired the status of an affair – is of wider import than what many journalists and sundry pundits have made of it.
First, to argue that the episode of South Park showing Muhammad in a bear suit was not really offensive, or even more fatuously that it was not funny, is to miss the point altogether. The artistic merit, or its potential power to offend Muslims, of the animated show is not the issue. The issue is freedom of expression, and free speech in general. In other words, even if the cartoon were offensive, and unfunny, we should still defend the right of the artists to continue with their indispensable vocation.
Second, the cowardice of Comedy Central, and Yale University Press, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their act of self-censorship must, of course, be held up to public scorn, but surely the real blame lies squarely with the failure of successive administrations, including and above all, the present Obama Administration, to stand up for freedom of speech, to reassure the artists – filmmakers, poets, novelists – that the Federal government will not tolerate the curtailment of the liberties of American citizens guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and that the various federal agencies – FBI, police, Homeland Security – will provide all the protection necessary, indefinitely.
Third, the media, intellectuals, artists, and other colleagues have also failed in their duties in not displaying greater solidarity; at least at the height of the Rushdie Affair, fellow writers had had the courage to mount public readings of The Satanic Verses.
In the case of the Danish cartoons, the U.S. State Department and various Western politicians instead of standing firm have become apologists of the Islamists, apologising over and over again to the fanatics for having hurt their tender sensibilities. For example, former President Bill Clinton said during a tour of Qatar, “None of us are totally free of stereotypes about people of different races, different ethnic groups, and different religions ... there was this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark ... these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.”
Kurtis Cooper, of the U.S. State Department, used the classic tactic familiar with, for example, anti-semites using the giveaway "but", “I have nothing against Jews but you must admit. ...” Or in this case, “of course, I believe in freedom of speech but ...”. “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression," he noted, "but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was no better, “I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary. It has been insensitive. It has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.” And the New York Times revealed its cowardice, which it tried to cover up with feeble arguments, “The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words.”
And yet, we must not paint a gratuitously pessimistic scenario. There were a number of defiant gestures by individuals and institutions that did support the Danish cartoonists. Italian Minister Roberto Calderoli appeared on television wearing a T-shirt depicting one of the Danish cartoons. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi demanded his resignation. Calderoli quite rightly declared before resigning that what was “at stake is Western civilization”. By March 2006, 28 American periodicals had published some or all of the cartoons; ten of these were university newspapers. In February 2008, 17 Danish newspapers showed courage and much needed solidarity by reprinting Westergaard's cartoon.
Despite these acts of courage, the overall picture remains bleak as institution after institution crumbles in the face of Islamic terrorism, real or implied. From bookshops refusing to stock Free Inquiry magazine containing the Cartoons, to art galleries removing paintings, or miniatures because they offended Muslims [Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Whitechapel Art Gallery in London], to cutting short artistic productions [Berlin Opera's production of Mozart's Idomeneo], to publishers submitting their manuscripts to Muslims before publication, it is but a litany of abject capitulation. And appeasement followed by apologies: in March 2006, Studi Cattolici published a cartoon s satirizing Italian politicians who give in to Muslim pressure. Even though Muhammad was not portrayed, Italian Muslims were outraged, and the Catholic organization Opus Dei (one of whose members publishes Studi Cattolici) promptly issued an apology. In September, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI apologized to Muslims twice in two days for quoting (in a discussion of reason versus violence) a 14th-century comment by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Perhaps the most disgraceful surrender came from the very institution that was created to defend Freedom of Expression, the journal Index on Censorship, which boasts of being “Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression. With its global profile, its website provides up-to-the-minute news and information on free expression from around the world. Our events and projects put our causes into action. Our award-winning magazine shines a light on these vital issues through original, challenging and intelligent writing.” If only they would live up to their aspirations.
Their reasons for not re-publishing the Danish cartoons in an interview with the author Jytte Klausen can be summed up as: that publication would have put the lives of the staff in danger, and that it was "unnecessary" and, indeed, "gratuitous". As dissenting board member Kenan Malik put it, “As for the suggestion that publication would have been "unnecessary" or "gratuitous", I cannot see what could be less unnecessary or gratuitous than using cartoons to illustrate an interview with the author of a book that was censored by a refusal to publish those very cartoons. Almost every case of pre-emptive censorship, including that of Yale University Press, has been rationalised on the grounds that the censored material was not necessary anyway. Once we accept that it is legitimate to censor that which is "unnecessary" or "gratuitous", then we have effectively lost the argument for free speech.”
Even journalists normally sympathetic to President Obama and his administration have noticed an undemocratic trend in his recent decisions which amount to acts of self-censorship. For instance, the Obama Administration is trying to eliminate certain words and phrases from American policy documents and statements concerning Islam, so that analysts, experts and advisors cannot use expressions such as “radical Islam”, “Islamic extremists”, “Islamists”, and “Islamic terrorists”.
While it is true that such a policy of avoiding terms such as “Islamic terrorism” began under Bush, and in Britain under Tony Blair, they were confined to public statements. Now Obama's policy applies to internal government documents as well, which can only have disastrous consequences for our understanding of political groups and events in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South and South East Asia. As Barry Rubin said in The Rubin Report, 27 April 2010, "Suppose I'm an intelligence analyst in the State Department, Defense Department, armed forces, or CIA, and I'm writing about one of these groups or this ideology. How can one possibly analyze the power and appeal of this ideology, the way that ideas set its strategy and tactics, why it is such a huge menace if any reference to the Islamic religion and its texts or doctrines isn't permitted?”
President Obama is determined to appease Muslims at all costs to the extent of denying the role of Islam, even if we restrict it to Radical Islam or Political Islam, in the wars the United States is at present engaged in. This mind set will not solve problems in the Middle East, and makes him unwilling to take unequivocal stands for freedoms guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. A firm declaration in support of artists in whatever medium would send a clear message to all Islamic, yes Islamic, terrorists, and easily offended Muslims that we are proud of our values, and we will defend them at all costs, and that we shall not be terrorised.
Copyright: Sappho.dk and Human Rights Service, Norway