Of cartoons….and cartoonists

February 13, 2006

It seems to me that it’s now become almost morally necessary to publish, and re-publish, and re-publish the Danish cartoons to remind ourselves of what it’s all about, and what it isn’t — especially now it’s become clear that much of the ‘outrage’ and violence was manufactured and opportunistic, and cynically sponsored by the governments of Iran and Syria.

What it’s all about: one of Jyllands-Posten’s journalists, Per Nyholm (translated by The Brussels Journal):

The cartoons are no longer something Jyllands-Posten can control. They have already been manipulated and misrepresented to the point that few know what is going on and fewer know how to stop it. This affair is artifically being kept buoyant in a sea of lies, suppressions of the truth, misconceptions, lunacy and hypocrisy, for which this newspaper bears no blame. The only thing Jyllands-Posten did was provide a pin-prick which has made a boil of nastiness erupt. This would have happened sooner or later. That it happened more than four months after the publication of the cartoons, raises a question of its own. Are we dealing with random events or with a staged clash of civilizations? One might hope for the former yet be prepared to expect the latter.

That is why I say: Freedom of Speech is Freedom of Speech is Freedom of Speech. There is no but.

Initially I was doubtful of the timeliness of publishing the cartoons. Later events have convinced me that it was both just and useful to do so. That they are consistent with Danish law and Danish custom seem to me less important than this: that we now know that remote, primitive countries deem themselves justified in telling us what to do. Unfortunately we must also note that governments close to us are agreeing with them in the name of expedience. [….]

Perhaps it is time we started mopping up this mess. Perhaps Editor-in-Chief Carsten Juste ought to remove his apology which has gone stale sitting so long on the front page of our internet edition and which does not seem to interest the madmen. Perhaps our government ought to announce to Mona Omar Attia, the strange Ambassador of Egypt, that she is persona non grata.

Perhaps the ambassadors that have been called home to fictitious consultations in the Middle East should be told that they may spare themselves the cost of the return ticket. Insofar as possible, the Lying Imams probably ought to be expelled. And then we ought to make an effort to support those Muslims who in a difficult situation have proven themselves to be true citizens.

What it isn’t: cartoonist Michael Leunig, a couple of days ago in The Age:

The anti-cartoon riot story, as ugly as it is, must surely be the consequence not only of a handful of dull cartoon cliches, but of the accumulated anger resulting from the humiliation, persecution and suffering inflicted on Islam by the West. The cartoons are taunts, probably deliberate, to an aggrieved and traumatised spiritual community who feel at the mercy of the West’s contempt, ignorance and ruthless military might.

Any cartoonist with a heart or a conscience (from whence good cartoons come) would not mock or taunt such a group in this formally transgressive way. I like Manning Clarke’s advice here: look with the eye of pity, which implies mercy and respect, the qualities that redeem a society more than the quality of raw freedom.

I quite like Leunig’s work, though it has declined in recent years. I like his bulbous-nosed runner bean characters and his eye for the moral metaphor. But as a political analyst he makes a great …. cartoonist. Hardly a word of his article withstands the slightest scrutiny. And it’s dangerous, too, and destructive: it takes the paranoid imagining of the Islamists about an oppressed and persecuted Islam, and projects it back on them, re-confirming their own fantasies. As for pity, mercy and respect, the man who lampooned the dying Arik Sharon is hardly in a position to claim the moral high ground.

And finally, just for the fun of it……

Update: Tim Blair has more on Leunig’s moral high ground.



  1. Morally necessary, Rob? I don’t think so. They were highly offensive cartoons to which there was a totally indefensible reaction. They were commissioned for their offensiveness and spread about by the Syrian and Iranian governments on that basis.
    The wrongness of the reaction doesn’t make them right.

  2. Liam, the cartoons are quite remarkably tame. Two or three of them even satirise the Jyllands-Post and the cartoonists themselves. Even the much-maligned Prophet-as-terrorist figure is ironic – notice his bomb has ‘PR’ on it.

    Besides, we know now that:

    — the radical Danish imams toured the ME with a portfolio of the cartoons and other ‘Islamophobic’ material to stir up outrage against the Danish government

    — they added three grossly offensive and fabricated cartoons to the mix, obviously with the intent of inflaming the situation

    — the 12 original cartoons had been published four months earlier by an Egyptian newspaper with no discernable reaction

    — the Syrian and Iranian governments used rent-a-crowd mobs to attack and torch the Danish embassies in Tehran and Beirut. Both governments are under pressure. Iran wants to deflect attention from its nuclear program, and Syria wants people to stop worrying about its role in the assassination of Hariri.

    These things being so, the west should not fold. And when its governments do so, other people should hold the moral line, refuse to be intimidated, and spread the word. This was not a spontaneous outburst of anger from an insulted religion. It was a coldly calculated ploy by Islamists which was seized upon by anti-western governments in the ME for reasons of pure political expedience.

  3. Actually it’s one of the self-satirical cartoons that features a guy in a turban with a bomb in it and ‘PR stunt’ written on the bomb. More critical of JL than of Islam — and more than a little prescient, when you think about it. Apparently the Prophet-as-terrorist cartoon was a caricature of one of the imams that took the whole roadshow to the Middle East.

  4. First off, welcome back, Kotter. I knew you’d be back.

    Second, congratulations on striking a blow for gratuitous offensiveness, and with such an original idea for a post, too.

  5. The cartoons are not gratuitously offensive. They are remarkably innocuous. I think many people are making the claim that they are (gratuitously offensive, that is) to avoid having to grapple with the underlying issue – freedom of speech, as Per Nyhom says. In some ways this parallels the treatment dished out tot Salman Rushdie all those years ago.

  6. Fuck, Rob, you hit the hot buttons there: “freedom of speech” and “Salman Rushdie”. Absolutely nobody is stopping you from posting them (at least outside of totalitarian Victoria), so what point are you making by posting them? Striking a blow for that celebrity martyr, Rushdie?

    They’re crap cartoons that only achieved any kind of interest because of a particularly perverse “marketing” campaign by both sides of a truly fucked-up hate-in. And, being something of a stirrer with a bee in your bonnet about bloody moossies, you can’t resist jumping on the goad-a-moossie-thon because you feel it is “morally necessary”? Spare me.

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