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February 19, 2006

Cartoonist Mikhaela Reid on Muhammad cartoon controversy

NewStandard collective member Catherine Komp recently interviewed cartoonist Mikhaela Reid for the TNS Weekend edition we send to all Premium Members each Sunday. Her answer to a question regarding the escalating conflict over offensive cartoons was too long for the weekly e-mail but too good to throw away. The rest of the interview is terrific, but it's available only to Premium Members.

TNS: What do you think about the Muhammad cartoon controversy?

Mikhaela Reid: I think it's a goddamn mess on both sides. Back in September a right-wing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Danish newspaper editor thought it'd be super fun to commission a bunch of racist cartoons to deliberately offend Muslims, who are a minority group in Denmark and often the victim of racism. In fact, some of the cartoonists actually commented on that--instead of depicting the prophet Mohammed, one drew a cartoon calling the Danish paper a bunch of "reactionary provocateurs."

It might have ended there. But hardline fundamentalist Muslim clerics saw a great opportunity for their own brand of hate, threw in a few extra even more offensive cartoons depicting Mohammed as a pedophile and a pig, and took the package on a little road show throughout the Muslim world. And a few months later, right-wing newspapers (and some left-wing papers as well) in Europe fanned the flames by reprinting the cartoons in a "defiant" show of free speech. Then the protests and burnings began.

Were the cartoons offensive? Of course. They were designed to be offensive. But did the papers have a right to print them, as poor as that judgment might have been? Of course. I believe in free speech, even though I think that paper is a bunch of right-wing jerks who exercised terrible judgment.

Do Muslims have a right to be offended? Of course they do. You can't draw something with the intention of offending and then be totally shocked when someone gets offended. There is nothing wrong with peaceful protests or boycotts, and most of the Muslims who are upset are protesting peacefully. But violence, calling for beheading cartoonists, burning down embassies, that's something else altogether. And this idea that the government should regulate the speech of journalists, that's scary.

Large numbers of Muslims were deeply offended by what they saw as an all-too-typical assault by the West. There's a history behind this—until recently, much of the Muslim world was heavily colonized by Europe; Muslim immigrants in Europe are constant targets of racism, and then there's the U.S. bombing and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So I'm sure some of this is spontaneous, but I doubt it's just about the cartoons. And a lot of these protests, the things being burned, seem to be less about the cartoons themselves than about local issues – the cartoons almost seem to be a catalyst or an excuse for protests against local governments, or rallies for radical groups. Also, a lot of these protests seem to have been carefully engineered, they were calculated by various Muslim groups and government leaders, both secular and non-, to gain political capital. In Egypt, you have a fairly secular government denouncing these cartoons to gain political capital with more religious Egyptians.

So what do we have as a result? On the one hand, we have Muslim clerics offering a $1 million reward for the murder of Danish cartoonists, we having burning buildings and riots and dozens dead at this point, and many Muslims who hate Europe and America even more than previously.

On the other, we have a bunch of Europeans and Americans convinced that all this just proves that their racist stereotypes about Muslims were right all along, that all Muslims are crazy and violent and against freedom of speech. Right-wing pundits like Michelle Malkin are in heaven; all of a sudden they are crusaders for free speech, but they've forgotten their own attempts to get Ted Rall fired for drawing cartoons they didn't like.

They're not paying attention to the moderate Muslims speaking out against the violence, or to peaceful protests, and most won't admit that these cartoons were offensive. I look at mainstream editorial cartoonists and they are all drawing giant hook-nosed Arab Muslim caricatures with scimitars and turbans chopping off cartoonists' heads and hands. Way to go for raising the level of debate.

Even when they admit that Christians and other religious groups are also inclined to vigorously protest when they feel offended, they insist that only Muslims do so violently, and only Muslims insist the rest of the world must live by their beliefs.

Muslim fundamentalists have no monopoly on violence or imposing religious beliefs on others or the suppression of free speech. What do you call invading Iraq and killing 100,000 innocent civilians? I'd call that violence. Hell, Bush is so under the spell of the American Christian Right that we've got a "global gag rule" blocking desperately needed funding for global family planning programs for fear they might mention abortion or support condom use. That's not imposing religious values on other people?

As for freedom of speech, at the same time as the Danish cartoon controversy took off, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff condemned Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles for drawing an "obscene" cartoon that criticized Rumsfeld. And then there was the whole business with the U.S. Military in Iraq killing Al Jazeera journalists (supposedly by accident) and placing fake news reports on how well the war was going in the Iraqi press.

But that doesn't make any of the fundamentalist Muslim violence right. I don't know what the answer is here – I wish I did. This is all so scary. Already other cartoonists tell me their editors have become more skittish and fearful about what cartoons they might run. Maybe I'm in the wrong damn profession.


Milan Rai: Cartoonist Mikhaela Reid on Muhammad cartoon controversy

Excellent comments.

The point of publishing (and re-publishing) the cartoons was to demonstrate that 'Islam', seen as a monolithic and hostile Other, is incompatible with 'the West', seen as a free speech paradise.

Somehow the rest of us have got to find ways to demonstrate that Islam is neither monolithic nor entirely hostile, that the West is not a free speech paradise, and that increasing non-Muslim's fear and hatred of Muslims is totally unacceptable.

The popular protests against the cartoons - and the protests are not just about the cartoons, to be sure - do not seem to be centrally a demand for the imposition of Muslim 'laws' on non-Muslim societies, but a refusal to accept Islamophobic imagery, something quite different.

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