A Whole Lot of Stupid

Would a children's book be a better response?

Would a children's book be a better response?

(Author’s note: While not intended precisely as a rebuttal to Christopher Orlet’s recent KtB article, his piece struck me as needing broader context. And just for the record, not all Arabs are Muslims.)

I have what seems to me today a rather pleasant childhood memory of my Mennonite grandparents’ home. On the bottom shelf of a built-in bookcase were numerous illustrated children’s books of popular Bible stories. In part because there was little else to do as a youngster in their austere northern Minnesota home, I read them all repeatedly.

Judging by my current church attendance, I have doubts about the books’ religious efficacy, but I remember the pictures. Especially poignant were the depictions of an unconscious Israelite happened upon by the Good Samaritan who rescued him and paid for his convalescence. The Samaritan’s kindness, when contrasted with the three Jews who rushed passed their beaten brethren, has remained indelibly printed in my memory.

It was the impulse of a Danish author to produce a similar kind of book — an illustrated children’s story about the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad — that set off the chain of events culminating in the current international shit storm, the supposed protesting of blasphemous cartoons. Apparently the would-be author was frustrated by the dearth of illustrators willing to draw pictures of Muhammad, a fact rather vaguely attributed to their “fear” of the repercussions for visually representing Muhammad.

The oddity in all of this stems from the fact that the multi-culturally sensitive impulse of the author led to the realization that Islam, in general practice if not Qur’anically dictated nor historically always followed, dissuades visual depiction of the Prophet for fear of idolatry. The anonymous illustrators’ unwillingness to transgress this tradition inspired the editors of the obscure, right-wing newspaper Jyllands-Posten to hold a contest for editorial cartoonists to draw images of the Prophet that would intentionally challenge this taboo. How one event led to the other is only the start of the sad ironies.

riotsUpon publication of the winning cartoons, the outraged leaders of Denmark’s Muslims began an aggressive campaign to receive an audience with and apology from the Prime Minister. When neither audience nor apology was forthcoming, these leaders began petitioning leaders from Muslim countries to exert pressure on the Danish government, circulating a thick dossier of the offense, including cartoons that had not originally been published in the newspaper.

Four months later, the controversy came to a head, the story picked up by newspapers in the Muslim world, and protests were arranged, a wholly organized and antagonized response. As a result, images that had depicted Islam as a religion of violence and irrationality led to violent riots by Muslims, riots that continue still and have resulted in the burning of embassies and Western owned businesses and a number of deaths. Deaths of Muslims. This is the second irony, now more tragic than sad.

I am, unfortunately, not surprised by any of this. If I’m allowed a blasphemous analogy, the newspaper’s contest to produce offensive cartoons is akin to the neighborhood bully throwing rocks at an abused Rottweiler to see if he can get a rise out of it. Forgiving my comparison of Muslim’s to dogs — a comparison, incidentally, not unlike the ubiquitous comparison of Jews to pigs that occurs in some state-sanctioned newspapers from the Muslim world — the publication of the cartoons seems like one more example of the Western world exerting its imperial control over and denigration of its Muslim subjects.

Sadly, this last analogy still holds true. For much of the contemporary Muslim world, Western — and particularly American — support for autocratic and dictatorial regimes is seen as simply an extension of previous political oppression, although now through proxies. The election triumphs of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas can be seen very much in this same light. But the blame, it seems to me, is fairly evenly distributed.

For some, freedom of speech is under attack. For others, common decency and respect have been lost. For others still, there is mystification at the effects of post-modern, sacrilegious humor and repulsion at the violence. Apologists abound on all sides, and it only leads to the shit piling higher. But pushed to the periphery is the robbed and beaten individual: the victims of 9/11, of colonialism, of oppression, of fundamentalism, of stupidity. Rather than making excuses or looking the other way, it seems the world is in need of a few more Good Samaritans. And maybe a few more children’s books, even ones featuring Muhammad. What would be the response to that?

Martyn Oliver is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at Boston University. He has also written about the infamous Muhammad cartoons for KtB.