Satire is the very essence of free speech. “Free speech,” as a term and as a concept, is devoid of meaning if it does not apply to speech that makes any number of us uncomfortable for any number of reasons. No one challenges speech with which they agree; that’s why the ACLU defends the right of Nazis to march, why Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” resonates so strongly.
Satire — “a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit” — is sacred because it is often the only way to shock people out of their habitual frames of reference, perhaps allowing them to see previously unrecognized “human vice or folly.” Vice and folly must never be shielded from derision under the cloak of religious sensitivities, or all vice and folly will be drawn under that cloak.
Cartoons of which we disapprove should be fought with more cartoons, not with violence, boycotts, and legal action, which is why the call by the Muslim Action Committee for changes to the U.K. Race Relations Act and the Press Complaints Commission code in response to the Danish cartoon controversy is dangerous.
MAC is also staging a protest march in London on February 18, expected to attract 20,000 to 50,000 people.
Shaikh Faiz Saddiqi, who chaired the MAC meeting this week in Birmingham of over 300 Islamic religious leaders from throughout England and Scotland, said the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct should be tightened to prevent publication of any images of Muhammad. Saddiqi said, “That act in itself is deeply offensive, it’s akin to someone standing up in your face and abusing your mum, your sister, your dad, and it’s akin to a deliberate act of provocation.”
“What is being called for is a change of culture,” he continued. “In any civilized society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult me,’ you do not, out of respect for them. Europe has a history of not treating minorities properly. The Holocaust is an example of that. The imagery being used today is the same kind that Hitler used against the Jews. Look where that ended up: in world war.”
Clever, that, though it wasn’t the Jews reacting to offensive depictions that caused world war, if we are to attempt to follow the analogy.
Saddiqi also praised the U.K. media for not publishing the cartoons. Of the major print media in the U.S., only the Philadelphia Inquirer has directly shown any of the cartoons, but this has been a matter of voluntary restraint, not law or even a code. Ready access to the cartoons via the Internet has made that politic restraint a lot easier to justify since the public is no longer dependent upon the mainstream press for presentation of the cartoons-as-information.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the wild west of the Internet has allowed the traditional press to be more timid in some cases?
But apart from the prime directive of keeping satire sacrosanct, what of the substance of Islamic outrage over the unflattering depiction of Muhammad in the Danish cartoons? Muslims are claiming all pictures of Muhammad are considered sacrilegious; but Jonathan Bloom, a historian of Islamic art at Boston College, told the Christian Science Monitor it wasn’t always so. “There were times when images of Muhammad were not forbidden,” he said. “In Iran in the 14th century and during the time of the Ottoman Empire, manuscripts often contained illustrations of him.”
The modern prohibition probably derive from the strict teachings of Wahabi Islam, Bloom indicated.
Amir Taheri agrees, compiling a representative list of said images in the Wall Street Journal: “A miniature by Sultan Muhammad-Nur Bokharai, showing Muhammad riding Buraq, a horse with the face of a beautiful woman, on his way to Jerusalem for his M’eraj or nocturnal journey to Heavens (16th century); a painting showing Archangel Gabriel guiding Muhammad into Medina, the prophet’s capital after he fled from Mecca (16th century); a portrait of Muhammad, his face covered with a mask, on a pulpit in Medina (16th century); an Isfahan miniature depicting the prophet with his favorite kitten, Hurairah (17th century); Kamaleddin Behzad’s miniature showing Muhammad contemplating a rose produced by a drop of sweat that fell from his face (19th century); a painting, ‘Massacre of the Family of the Prophet,’ showing Muhammad watching as his grandson Hussain is put to death by the Umayyads in Karbala (19th century); a painting showing Muhammad and seven of his first followers (18th century); and Kamal ul-Mulk’s portrait of Muhammad showing the prophet holding the Quran in one hand while with the index finger of the other hand he points to the Oneness of God (19th century).”
Taheri also addresses the claim that Islam knoweth not satirical humor. “Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade. Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of ‘laughing at religion’ … those familiar with Islam’s literature know of Ubaid Zakani’s ‘Mush va Gorbeh’ (Mouse and Cat), a match for Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion. Sa’adi’s eloquent soliloquy on behalf of Satan mocks the ‘dry pious ones.’ And Attar portrays a hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard. Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.”
Perhaps those Muslims taking greatest offense at the satirical cartoons are those least knowledgeable of Islamic history.