Stop Hate 2000 Newsletter – Febrary 28, 2006

"Keep to forgiveness (O Mohammed), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant" (The Koran, Chapter 7, Verse 199).

"'Everything is lawful for me', but not everything is beneficial" (I Corinthians 6, 12; 10, 23).

A lot of recent events have been demonstrating the disasters which can ensue from the day-to-day ways we humans deal with each other. From these two quotations, you may well have guess that we refer to certain cartoons about Mohammed which originally appeared in a Danish newspaper. On several fronts, it has furnished admirable examples as to how we allow hate and violence into this world.

The initial publication in Denmark cannot be said to have been badly intended. In commissioning and publishing certain cartoons, the paper was dealing with the difficulties of producing a book on Mohammed which could be circulated to small children. Books which consist only of text only, and which lack illustrations are usually not well received by young children, but it was found nearly impossible to find illustrators who would take the project on. The newspaper seems to have had the idea of seeing if any illustrations could be entertained for such a publication.

At least in theory, this should not have been objectionable to anybody, and it could even have been laudable in its intent. It was born in an attempt to reach out to the small and very marginalized Islamic community in Denmark by teaching Danish children about the man honored as the greatest of all prophets by Islam. Sadly, the actual course taken by the paper landed it in severe trouble.

The reasons why illustrators were hard to find raises from a very deep tradition within Islamic society. Although artistic portrayals of any of the prophets of Islam is not expressly forbidden by the Koran, and Persian society often did portray them, Mohammed included in past times, the bulk of opinion has been that it is a form of idolatry. And that is when the portrayals were meant to be neutral or favorable.

Nevertheless, had the paper published illustrations which did portray Mohammed in a neutral or favorable way, this would have not led to controversy. Most of them met those demands, although those who have seen them say they also were decidedly unimaginative. Muslims have long also recognized that Christianity (at least) has taken other views on depictions of God or the prophets, and simply let it pass as ignorance or understandable error. And, indeed, at the time during which Mohammed was alive, the issue was an extremely hot one within Christianity: We call it the iconoclastic dispute.

Things began to go wrong, however, with two of the cartoons. The illustrators were engaging in a form of humor which is very common in norther Europe generally, and Scandinavia in particular. Their portraits of Mohammed were meant to be sly digs at certain aspects of behavior by some Muslims. Neither the illustrators nor the newspaper's publishers seem to have understood that the result was grossly insensitive, indeed, insulting to any reasonable Muslim. Error #1.

Still, the newspaper was offensive by result, rather than by intention. The initial response by the Muslim community in Denmark was that it was another put-down of a small and to Danes) unimportant community, whose feelings and sensitivities were ignored as a matter of course. The newspaper seems to have gone on to make the further error of not seeing the issue as one of making that community comfortable as part of Danish society, but rather one of a small part of the community telling the larger community to stop being Danish. It proceeded to ignore the subsequent protests. This was probably Error #2.

The Danish government then inadvertently made the problem worse. The internal protests by Danish Muslims were reinforced by diplomatic protests, many of which demanded closure of the paper. The closing of newspapers is a normal practice in most of these countries after all. The Danish government then committed Error #3. It is possible that it would have saved itself and the Danish people a lot of misery by taking some official note of hurt feelings. It did, eventually, but by then, a small fire became a much larger one, and it was too late then. The official response was the perfectly true one that the Danish government had no legal right to close any newspaper down or tell a newspaper what to do.

Again, the damage was only a result, and not by intention. But the message understood, both within Denmark's Islamic community and some of the diplomatic community was, in effect: "We flatly don't care whether you're part of our society or not. It's our right to be offensive as we wish to be, and if you're offended, tough." It's since been difficult for both the newspaper or the government to try and persuade the offended that this wasn't what they meant to say.

Even at this point, it was a small fire. But, as often happens, an Islamic activist in Denmark added a lot of fuel to the fire. As often happens in these things, the activist in question came to repent of his folly. And, again, he was far too late in his regrets. He was very angry at what he saw as the complete disdain and even contempt being expressed to a small and marginal community which the larger society seemed to feel able to brush off. So he decided to go into a number of Islamic countries with the attempt to force Denmark to take notice by having a boycott of the country. This in itself was going to be inflammatory enough, and perhaps counts as error #4 in itself, but he did something which certainly amounted to a grave, grave mistake. He did not only show the cartoons which had actually been published, but, so to speak, "sexed up" his dossier with several very offensive cartoons which had not been published by anybody. But he gave it out that they were.

There are enough people who make it their business to be outraged about one thing or another, that the activist was well able to find them, and they reacted accordingly. This in itself a behavior well calculated to keep anger and stronger emotions and actions going, so must be counted as error #5. There is little doubt that certain governments found further agitation useful in directing public discontent away from themselves. From our point of view, that's error #7.

And finally, when the uproar spread internationally, a number of other European newspapers quite deliberately republished the cartoons, with there being no question of the material's being offensive, or that they were deliberately provoking offense. The purpose of so doing was stated to be simply that this was necessary to protect free speech. Having seen such defenses of free speech on white supremacist websites, pornographic operations, and various other groups whose interest runs sole as far as it allows them to do as they darned well please, we find ourselves less than convinced. Certainly we consider these actions to have been error #8. Legal it certainly is. Whether it was wise is a very different matter.

We have since been treated to a lot of hate and violence. Both extremes feel justified by the extremists of another to keep the fire going. We will now be treated to cartoons about the Holocaust by any number of Islamic newspapers, as well as a certain amount of burnings and counterburnings of official and unofficial institutions. It takes very little imagination to foresee kidnappings, executions, community riots, suppression of those riots and whatnot.

In all of this all sides can denounce the other side's moderates for their inability to control anything. We no doubt count among them. Anybody who has tired the process of peacemaking or bridge building is altogether too well familiar with the truth that construction is a slower and much less exciting activity than destruction.

Thus we have seen how a well-meaning blunder was made worse by insensitivity, and how insensitivity led to anger, and anger to angry action, and angry reaction to violence, and violence to renewed hatreds. All of which is fed by some who have some vested interest in causing as much trouble as they possibly can. The fire may not be as great as we fear it may become: many others are working to ensure that it doesn't. We must hope so.

Our group are entirely a bunch of Westerners of one kind or another, and for us, the real value of liberty and liberties has its particular concern for us. Liberty and freedoms to have to be guarded and protected and even fought for. It is indeed truly said that "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom". Yet we also reflect that part of that vigilance is using a freedom wisely and well. We can attack and destroy those freedoms by using them foolishly and for the worst of ends. When we do that, we may have accomplished their destruction and discredit, and not their defense.

It is necessarily the case that we will create offense without meaning to, and that some will work hard to find offense. Such is the imperfection of human nature. But when one chooses to be offensive, one must not be too surprised if others are offended. If one deliberately chooses to treat others with disrespect or a lack of acceptance, one will receive that disrespect and lack of acceptance back.

And, sadly, it still seems to be one of those irregular verbs:

I have my opinions which I will express forthrightly. You are occasionally over the top. He or she or they are bigoted, hateful ignoramuses.

That all three persons in this instance may be behaving in exactly the same way is not the most obvious thing to any of us.

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