Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I've been watching the cartoon tamasha for several days now, and not blogging about it because I was afraid to.

I was tempted to say a lot of things - to say that this was just the sort of reaction that would confirm the stereotype about the 'Islamic world'... that muslims were already isolated enough as a group - and just look at that term 'Islamic world'! As if muslims occupied another planet. As if this earth, this society wasn't theirs.

To say that, for God's sake, don't be reactionary. Don't stamp around and get worked up so much that your kids go blowing themselves up. Don't go burning embassies, or next thing you know, another country will get invaded. Spare your fellow-muslims the 'fundamentalist' tag.

I was also tempted to not say anything and pretend it had nothing to do with me. Because I do not subscribe to the view that Mohammad, or any other prophet (or God or Goddess, even if they are depicted nude - should not be drawn or painted or sculted or whatever. In fact, if anyone did a brilliant nude sketch of Mohammad, I'd buy it... that my personal faith tells me, even Mohammad would buy it!)

But then, I am not of the view that religion is a given.
Rules can and should change. Books - even if they come fluttering down from the heavens, page after sacred page - can and should change. Islam is not given to me. OR to you. It is ours to keep, to change, to mould, to metaphorose into and out of, to make it personal, to reject what we think is false, as strongly and as unhesitatingly as we reject 'false gods' (whatever they be).

So, I took two long weeks to take a look at the offending cartoons.

I found them... tasteless. Not offensive, no... after all, something can only be offensive if you allow yourself to get offended. But something can be in poor taste.

And I'm not just refering to the moral/social aspect of taste. After all, a cartoon is meant to be funny. A cartoon is meant to raise laughs. What, I ask, is funny, in this? Or this?

A cartoon in a newspaper is meant to be something else too - apart from humour, it is supposed to say something about our world, our times. It can take a dig at the rich, famous, powerful, popular, or anybody who's in the news for the wrong reasons.

I am just very curious about why this editors of the Danish newspaper thought it important to test 'free speech/expression' through Mohammad. He is one religious figure - one of many. But it very very rare for any publication anywhere to depict religious figures as terrorists, even in a mock-serious vein.

I am not about to say idiotic things like 'why didn't they try Jesus or Moses cartoons and we'd see how many people laughed.' ... It makes no sense to say such things, because what's done is done, and it would be disastrous to publish more tasteless - and possibly incendiary - cartoons, just to make things equal.

But I would like to know why the newspapers editors picked Mohammad. What was going on in their heads? Were they trying to prove a point? To whom? To the 'Islamic world'? What did they expect - roses on Valentine's Day?

And if the intent was merely to shake things up a little, shake people up, generate some debate around freedom of speech and expression, why didn't they do a little research and find out how free speech had been throttled in various countries - both east and west, developed and developing? They'd have had many other figures to lampoon, and could at least have saved themselves the ugly tag of 'racist' or 'communal', which is a term the Indian subcontinent is only too familiar with.

To those who're protesting themselves hoarse around the world, I'd like to tell them a little story my mom told me when I was little:

Mohammad was not universally loved when he was alive; not even by the Arabs. Where he lived, he was often abused and threatened. There was one woman, in particular, who hated him and took great joy in insulting him on a daily basis. Whenever he walked past, she would bring the garbage can to the balcony and would empty the contents on Mohammad's head.
Mohammad would say nothing. No shouting. No abuse in kind. AND he continued to take the same route everyday.
One day, the woman did not show up to thrown garbage. Nor the next day. Nor the next.
Mohammad began to worry.
So one day, he climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of the house. Then he asked, 'You didn't throw garbage on my head today, so I thought I'd come and ask if everything was alright... is your health fine?'
As it turned out, the lady had indeed been sick. And as it turned out, again, the lady was won over in a way that no amount of screaming and shouting would have achieved. Needless to add, the garbage-assaults stopped.

I don't know if the story is true. I don't particularly want to know. For me, what is important is that I have been shown a way - an example has been set. You can either do as the prophets did, live as they lived, or you can scream and burn and beat your breasts because somebody else is being stupid.

[This is an interesting article citing the position some journalists in muslim-dominated nations have taken.]


gawker said...

The Danish newspaper (which was a right wing rag) was baiting Muslims and Muslims got baited. And then the political opportunists took over. And no matter how offensive the cartoons were, I still don't understand how people went from holding the newspaper accountable to blaming the Danish government, to blaming Denmark, and then, blaming America and finally blaming George Bush who probably wouldn't even understand the cartoon if they showed it to him.

Anonymous said...

BAG does a good job of probing the cartoons, and the backlash, as well as a follow up.

Pareshaan said...

Very nice take on things, especially liked the Mohammed parable, I wish there was more of such sanity around.

///slash\\\ said...

The west wonders why the muslims
cant take a joke
Whites sure are a funny lot .

Dr. Gonzo said...

You could have taken route A. You could have taken route B. But God, i am just so damn a fan of yours! You always take such an absolutely different route to things that you disarm everyone around!

Love your thoughts much more than your writing, and that is a compliment!

One in the crowd said...

I think we need more such balanced views to come to the fore...I wonder why you held it back for so long...first time here and I am sure it's the first of many times.

Bassam Sebti said...

Although I have never heard of this story of the prophet, but I found the theme in it is very important and to the point. Personally, I was offended by the cartoons but I was more offended by the terrible reaction. Muslims should have been more understanding and peaceful in expressing their anger.

Rajiv said...

Nice post. But you ignore the dirty politics part of it. Its just being used to flame up tensions, encourage the mob mentality for petty gains and making a stand. Just shows how absurd its getting.

Related article.

Suhail said...

Excellent take. I returned after a gap of few days and seeing all this fracas keeps my head spinning all around. I too posted the old-lady story. Btw, it's a true story(even if you don't want to know about it :). Apart from being tasteless and unfunny I do think that some of those cartoons were sure provocative and Islamophobic(turban bomb?). Which is not good news for many Muslims. Atleast not in today's geo-political climate.

Reg'g yr question as to why they chose Mohammed, this is a good place to start. I say start because there is no end. Do read it. They try to make out that their intentions were honest and at first you give them the benefit of doubt, but it all flies in the face of their subsequent execution. And if you dig some more into their history it leaves no room for doubt.

I liked your idea that something can be offensive only if you allow it to be. But every once in a while when such senseless things happen, my sane-self tends to get a bit wavy and it becomes difficult not to take offense and keep it cool. Becomes difficult to pass it off as another routine controversy because it doesn't feel like another routine controversy.

R. said...

I do not want to belittle anyone's faith or anyone's idea of free speech but there are way too many people walking around with a chip on their shoulders. Education and common sense tells us that everyone is equal and that everyone has a right to believe in what they want. But today, someone's faith is someone else's eyesore. Someone's life is someone else's eyesore.

This issue is not of muslims or christians or hindus. The point is of control, for a very long time a lot of people have gained out of unrest in the middle east and asia. The same french company that sells submarines to india also happily sells submarines to pakistan. It's not about the provacatuers but it is us people who become idiotic puppets at the hands of those who want to play us.

Anonymous said...

As always, a brilliantly balanced post.
I always thought that Lajja deserved to be burnt, not because of anything else, but because it was the worst book I've ever read.
These cartoons aren't even that bad. They are simply mediocre.
Agree with Gawker. We do live in a crazy world.
Rabin, I do think that the impact of education is completely over rated. And common sense also means different things for different people.

Annie Zaidi said...

gawker: you're right. but do read that wiki entry suhail has linked to.
anup: saw.
pareshaan: i wish too
prakriti: thanks :)
blahblah: thanks too
baghdadtreasure: muslims and all others.
slash and rajiv: I would point you to another good post on this issue -
suhail: read your post and agree with most of it. but anger doesn't get us anywhere.
rabin: arms dealers sell to buyers. not to nations. whether french or american or even indian.
pawan: thanks, but i don't agree about 'lajja' being burnt. come on, you should know how hard it is to come up with even five good pages of literature.

R. said...

annie, agreed about the arms dealers, the point i was making was that it helps a lot of people to have a conflict in the subcontinent or the middle east. Arms dealers can sell more arms when there is conflict not when there is peace

Innocent Bullet said...

The story you mentioned is true both from Sunni and Shia sources. :-)

There is another one. Once Prophet and his friends were walking down the narrow alley of Madina. They were to reach the mosque to offer the mid-noon prayers. However, an old Jew, ambling slowly, was blocking their way. As usual, one of the holier than thou compatriots shouted at the Jew and asked him to give way. The prophet immediately admonished the friend and said the road belongs to the Jew as much as them. They'd wait for the Jew to clear the alley before overtaking him. A namaaz offered by causing inconvenience to an old man is not worth it. :-)


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