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Incendiary Images: Blasphemous Cartoons, Cosmopolitan Responsibility, and Critical Engagement

Stephen Eric Bronner


Culture is only true when implicitly critical, and the mind which forgets this revenges itself in the critics it breeds.

---- Theodor W. Adorno


he political cartoon has a long history. Some of it is bright and noble: Goya satirized the Catholic Inquisition with his wonderful cappricios; Daumier held up the mirror by which French society could see itself toward the latter part of the 19th century; George Grosz scandalized “good society” with his portraits of the decadent rich and the despondent victims of World War I; Art Spiegelman dared to use images employed by the Nazi propagandists to depict the lives of Jews amid the Holocaust while his teacher, the late Will Eisner, told the story of the fabrication known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in The Plot.[1] Each of these artists used the cartoon to foster reflection, expose the excesses of the powerful, and build a feeling of humanity denied. The best evidenced a sense of critical engagement and cosmopolitan responsibility. Their work needed the protection accorded by civil liberties because it dared to contest the reigning belief and the arbitrary exercise of power.        

But the tradition of the political cartoon also has another historical tendency. It can be found in the portrait of a lecherous Voltaire sodomizing his niece; the depiction of “little Sambo” and the slaves who love their slavery; the pornographic treatment of Jews in the pages of the Nazi rag, Der Sturmer, edited by the notorious Julius Streicher; or the caricatures of Gandhi and the victims of colonialism who deserve the exploitation they get. Cartoons such as these undermine reflection, toady to the powerful, and rub out any sense of a common humanity. They disfigure what Emmanuel Levinas called “the face of the other” and, when caught in the act, plead that they are “testing the limits” and immediately insist upon their right to free speech. This tradition defines the artistic context for those political cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, and the others with like-minded stereotypic and racist images, which provoked the rage of Muslims during February of 2006.   

Jullands-Poste, a right-wing Danish newspaper, first published the twelve insulting cartoons in September of 2005. Haughtily aware of their civil liberties, ignoring the tensions within a newly multicultural society, and the cultural vulnerabilities of Muslim immigrants, the Danish editors said that they never would have published the cartoons “had they only known” about the violence that they would unleash. Part of the problem does stems from a general lack of knowledge of the “other” that reigns in both the Occident and the Orient. The degree to which such ignorance is strong is the same degree to which any sense of cosmopolitan responsibility will prove weak. Nevertheless, there is something disingenuous about all of this.

When I was ready to send off A Rumor about the Jews: Anti-Semitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion (Oxford University Press: New York, 2000) it occurred to me that few of my readers would actually have read the Protocols. It became a question for me of whether or not to include selections from this bigoted fabrication or not. Including some selections would obviously mean publicizing a work of anti-Semitic rubbish, possibly offending a number of Jews and on top of that, since my book was to appear simultaneously in English and German, perhaps running afoul of the hate speech provisions legislation existing in the Bundesrepublik. Cutting to the chase: I decided that including these offensive selections was necessary for pedagogic purposes. I was willing to deal with the fact that good pedagogic intentions can lead to unfortunate consequences and that one doesn’t always know in advance what kind of impact these selections might have.    

In truth, however, none of this applies to the European editors who published the cartoons. There was no pedagogic intent involved. It does not take genius to figure out that lampooning the Prophet is a particular grievous blasphemy for the adherents of Islam. Any reasonably intelligent person should know that. No less than the Jews, the Muslims consider iconography blasphemous and the depiction of their Prophet an insult. Even if the original publication of the cartoons was driven by pedagogic intent, moreover, it was unnecessary for other editors of other papers to reprint them. They could easily have been described and, for those perversely interested, the initial website could have been noted so that, if members of the audience wished, they could still sneak a peek. It is not free speech that is involved here but the hypocrisy of commercial media seeking a sensation as well as a lack of cosmopolitan responsibility. Islamic demonstrations against the cartoons only broke out, indeed, roughly four months after their initial publication. That was after other conservative and anti-immigrant papers elsewhere in Europe had reprinted the images and mullahs both within and outside Europe decided to turn them into a cause celebre. The cartoons were not used to edify and inform but to sell newspapers and build ratings. It was less the initial publication of the cartoons than their incessant reprinting that fanned the flames and turned the publishing of a few cartoons into a deadly provocation.

The intent behind their publication was evident from the start and the cartoons satirizing the Prophet soon enough gave birth to others and a variety of stunts. A group of Iranian soccer players were depicted as suicide bombers. A right-wing Italian politician, Roberto Calderoli, paraded in front of television cameras with an offensive cartoon emblazoned on his T-shirt thereby sparking deadly demonstrations against the Italian consulate in Libya. A “wall of separation” now exists not only in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The Danish People’s Party has gained support from the controversy unleashed by Jyllands-Posten or that its cultural editor, Flemming Rose, should now view the outrage against the cartoons as a “wake-up call” for the Danes. Little wonder that Rose, an ardent admirer of the neo-conservative and ultra-Zionist writer, Daniel Pipes, should have claimed that “Danish people are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that is 5000 miles away (The New York Times 2/12/06).” The backlash is evident everywhere in Europe, which is now reconsidering bringing Turkey into the European Union, and especially in France where a new piece of legislation proposes making it more difficult for low-income immigrants to bring in relatives. Indeed, those who were most outraged were the same as those who published or supported the cartoons in the first place.[2] 

Since 9/11, there has been a tendency to identify Islam as the enemy in the “war on terror.” Western leaders have, admittedly, sought to draw distinctions between the majority of believers in Islam and its fanatical minority.[3] But this attempt has floundered on the reef of right-wing media demagoguery. The constant saber rattling of western nations in the Middle East, and a general privileging of Israeli interests. Western nations led by the United States are not radically at odds with the bulk of the Islamic community.  All too predictably, however, a small circle of Islamic fanatics pounced on the cartoons to justify their own fanaticism. The breakdown of whatever cosmopolitan sensibility existed in the West was precisely what the Islamic radicals sought to bring about through the violence that they both fostered and manipulated.

The Danish imam, Abu Laban, sought to fan the flames of anger by distributing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed as a pig and a pedophile that had supposedly been “received” by Muslims in Denmark (The Economist 11 February 2006, pg. 25). The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blamed the cartoons on a Zionist “plot” to revenge the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine. Syria played up the cartoons and approved mass demonstrations that deflected other issues like nuclear energy and terrorism. In Pakistan, where numerous villagers were recently killed by an “errant” U.S. missile, the cartoons sparked riots that were directed against the secular government of General Pervez Musharraf and his alliance with the United States. The protests were generated both from the top down and from the bottom up. Many took place in Europe but most, understandably, occurred in states with a Muslim majority or a sizable minority like Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Indonesia, and the Sudan.

Flags were burned, official apologies were demanded (and refused), and protestors set fire to Danish and other western embassies throughout the Middle East. Death threats were made to the editors of papers that carried the cartoons. Nine were killed in Libya, ten in Afghanistan, and more than one hundred in Nigeria where, in the aftermath of Muslim attacks on churches and Catholic shops, Christian mobs revenged themselves on their neighbors. Cries of “Strike, strike, bin Laden” could be heard in Khartoum, Islamabad, and Gaza. Israel and the United States were excoriated, and millions of dollars in property were destroyed. In various places, demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. Dismissed were the majority of demonstrations that were generally peaceful and the voices of reason in the Muslim community – like the Ayatollah Ali Sistani, leader of the Shi’ites in Iraq -- who denounced the violence. It was not simply the number of demonstrators; it was their vehemence that sold the papers.

Reactionaries and enemies of the Enlightenment ethos in the Occident and in the Orient have thus increasingly appeared as mirror images of one another. The mainstream media on both sides of the great divide have been irresponsible in their presentation of the controversy. One, ostensibly “free,” but dependent on the market; the other controlled by authoritarian figures who can only benefit from the displacement of resentment. Each has played down ideological and political distinctions among the supposed enemy of civilization and fanned the flames of a symbolic politics that permits no compromise. What was popularly considered a vindication for the “clash of civilizations” is better understood as a conflict between fanatics ignorant of the “other,” and themselves opposed by cosmopolitan voices within their respective communities, in both the East and the West.  

Highlighting free speech without referring to the ethical sense of responsibility for its exercise  – a cosmopolitan responsibility under conditions of increasing globalization and the growing interface between radically different cultures -- can only render liberal ideals abstract and produce what Herbert Marcuse once termed “repressive tolerance.” There has always been a tension between the imperatives of law and the dictates of morality and it is perverse to discuss one without reference to the other. Maintaining a commitment to free speech does not imply that any given media outlet must accept any piece of news or literature that comes across the desk of an editor. It is also not simply a matter of shouting “fire” in a crowded building. Editors for publishing houses and magazines routinely reject manuscripts and newspapers need not accept advertisements from neo-Nazis. Consensus determines the particularly “legitimate” range of political debate and criticism in the United States. Even sports commentators who once made far more timid racial remarks, or who insulted one specific community or another, were fired from their jobs. Most European nations also have laws against “hate speech:” Britain, in fact, still has a blasphemy law that criminalizes defaming the Christian God, Austria has just imprisoned the Holocaust denier David Irving, while the most famous Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, is facing trial on 14 charges in Germany.[4] The mullahs are surely correct when they note that denying the Holocaust, or inciting anti-Semitism, is usually considered a crime while insulting Islam and its Prophet is viewed as a legitimate expression of free speech.

As with everything else in this preposterous controversy, however, the outraged Muslim fanatics were as cynical as their opponents in exploiting an opportunity and too rarely question their own reliance upon the double standard. They say nothing about government-sponsored publication of works like the Protocols of Zion or the use of vile anti-Semitic textbooks throughout the Middle East. Such activity only further poisons the political atmosphere. The manifest inflammation of anti-immigrant feelings by the right-wing European media does not justify the attempts of Islamic fanatics and bigots to intensify anti-Semitic and anti-Western sentiments. Responding to these hateful anti-Islamic cartoons by placing an $11 million bounty on the head of the Danish cartoonists or creating a contest that would award a prize for the best caricature of the Holocaust shows a dearth of emotional maturity and cosmopolitan responsibility. Such posturing self-indulgence is indefensible and inexcusable: the victim thereby becomes defined by what he should oppose. It is best to recall Gandhi’s statement that responding to a grievance with the claim of “an eye for an eye” will quickly leave the whole world blind.  

Two options present themselves. Either legislation that makes denying the Holocaust or defaming Christianity a crime must be extended to Islam or all such legislation must be wiped off the books. The problem with the first position is that racism would be driven underground and its purveyors might well turn into martyrs. Censoring critics of religious faith could easily enable reactionary religious institutions to insulate themselves from any type of meaningful criticism. What’s more, historically, disastrous forms of “blowback” resulted every time the Left has sought to constrain civil liberties. With respect to the second position, however, expanding free speech in legal terms says little about issues of cosmopolitan responsibility regarding its exercise. There is little concern with abused sensibilities that might produce violence. Adherents of this stance are content to insist with Ronald Dworkin, the important political and legal theorist, that “religion must be tailored to democracy, not the other way around.”[5]

Unfortunately, however, that is not enough. It is necessary to begin with the understanding that the word is not the deed. Commitment to expanding the realm of discourse is a fundamental element of the Enlightenment legacy and the best political traditions. Yet there is no reason why such a commitment cannot be linked with the insistence upon legal sanctions against violent acts of prejudice. Calls for special legislation directed against “hate crimes” also derive from the Enlightenment legacy. Such legislation was passed in the United States in the aftermath of the 1960s and it had a profound impact on organizations and mobs engaged in racist practices directed against people of color, gays, and other “outsiders.”    

It is imperative that progressives move beyond the present discursive impasse. In the aftermath of the cartoon controversy, free speech and civil liberties are seen as now part of the arsenal by which supposedly innocent right-wing editors in Europe can defend provincial and racist provocations while traditionalists and fundamentalist proponents of Islam insist upon protection from satire and criticism for themselves, though not the adherents to other religions, in the name of human dignity. Or, putting it another way, hypocritical beneficiaries of liberalism and equally hypocritical manipulators of religious faith have each gotten their fair share of the ideological profits from this debate. The endless platitudes converge in creating a climate of constraint and, for all the moral posturing, they expose a position that is content to let sleeping dogs lie.

This climate of constraint is insidious. Just recently, in fact, the debut of a play about Rachel Corrie – the young activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect the home of a Palestinian family – was cancelled due to fear of offending the Jewish community. Little time has been spent in this controversy on how religions and ethnic groups can use the outrage expressed by partisans of Islam as a precedent to shield its own dogmatists from criticism. Even less time has been wasted on those brave newspaper editors in Jordan and Yemen whose willingness to publish the cartoons not only genuinely tested the theocratic institutions and moral boundaries of their communities but cost them their jobs, their standing and – ultimately – perhaps even their lives. It is always easy for the powerful and complacent to forget that context counts when talking about the exercise of liberty. Those who really do think differently have – as usual – been abandoned. 

Rational radicals will in the future not only have to confront a new form of repressive tolerance, but the repressive manipulation of “sensitivity” by those seemingly unaware that meaningful free speech has always had a bite. Critical thinkers will, by the same token, ever more surely have to develop criteria for making ethical  -- not simply legal -- judgments about the role, the limits, and the possibilities of free expression. It is not enough simply to let the hand-wringing provincial defenders of the “liberal” state and the provincial upholders of “illiberal” religions continue baiting one another forever. The partisans of radical thinking must break the deadlock by beginning to reconsider the positive aims that critique should serve.

Caught between an imperative not to destroy free speech, and another imperative not to offend anyone by its exercise, the work of genuine radicals will become ever more difficult. They will increasingly have to justify their assault on the status quo in terms different from those employed by the phony rebels -- the “shock jocks” and their ilk --who identify freedom with license. The controversy produced by these incendiary images has made it necessary to provide new social content and cosmopolitan meaning for the notion of liberty. That is a stiff challenge. It is, however, one that each generation of genuine radicals has had to face and it is unavoidable for those who would foster the cause of freedom.    



[1] I had the honor of writing the afterword to this wonderful work by Will Eisner, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).

[2] James J. Zogby, “Press Misses Point in Cartoon Controversy” in http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/021406F.shtml

[3] See the excellent article by Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen, “Experiencing Islam, British Style" in Economic and Political Weekly 4 February 2006

[4] At his trial, surely, “observers are hoping for a mention of his pet theory that the Nazis invented UFOs, and still fly them from a base in Antarctica.” The Economist (25 February, 2006), pg. 57.

[5] Ronald Dworkin, “Even Bigots and Holocaust Deniers Must Have Their Say” in The Guardian 2/14/06


Stephen Eric Bronner is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. The author of Reclaiming the Enlightenment (Columbia,) and Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Rightwing Ambitions and the Erosion of Democracy (Kentucky), he is the Senior Editor of Logos.


Logos 5.1 - winter 2006
© Logosonline 2006