Think again. Whatever your stance on the United States’ current fumbles abroad, it’s time we dropped the pretense that Islam and the West are two equal drinking partners at the culture bar. This week’s spasm of violence relating to the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad is further proof of the danger inherent in assuming we’re facing a rational body of people who just happen to decapitate journalists on videotape.
It should be obvious by now that transplanting true democracy onto the face of Islam will prove as tricky as grafting a unicorn horn on a chipmunk—a naïve fantasy for those unwilling to face hard facts. Only the most devout relativist would argue that this a mere difference of opinion and ideology that’s immune from value judgments.
That said, the cartoons themselves are objectionable on certain grounds. They’re badly drawn and not terribly insightful, for starters—which makes the American media’s reluctance to display them all the more appalling. CNN chose “not to show the cartoons out of respect for Islam,” which is an ironically gentlemanly response to an outbreak of global violence and protest. Gawker recently posted a Flickr link to many of the images, so we can expect a late in the week fatwa against Nick Denton and company, who are obviously part of an international Jewish conspiracy against Islam. The cartoons themselves are self-congratulatory and smug, drawn and propagated with the intent to incite controversy—although perhaps not the sort of “controversy” engendered by petrol bombs tossed through embassy windows.
The Iranian Parliament issued a statement claiming that the idiot Danes “have not learned their lessons from the miserable author of the Satanic Verses.” And apparently the Iranians haven’t learned that shrieking against insubstantial art does nothing but elevate that art to the position of myth made by martyrs. Old sleepy-eyed Rushdie may be ducking a death sentence, but it’s a curse that’s allowed him to schmooze with the Hollywood A-list while churning out fairly paltry magical realism, so maybe not a bad deal after all.
To keep the captivating reality-TV vibe churning, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri is now sponsoring an official contest calling for cartoons depicting the Holocaust—supposedly to find out if “the West extends freedom of expression to the crimes committed by the United States and Israel” or the Nazi genocide itself. The answer to that question is an affirmative “Yes!”—and obviously no one in Iran is keyed into the fact that an entire contingent (if not the majority) of American political cartoonists do nothing but depict the smug idiocy of their own motherland on a weekly basis. As for lighthearted caricatures of Birkenau and Auschwitz? We could expect newspaper boycotts, a round of firings, and a few rowdy demonstrations; suffice it to say that Rudy Giuliani didn’t try to assassinate staff at the Brooklyn Museum when the Virgin Mary was smeared with elephant shit. Perhaps we should send the Iranian government a subscription to VICE magazine and a copy of The Aristocrats on DVD so they’ll understand that part of democracy resides in the ability to—dare we say it—slaughter sacred cows.One happy byproduct of this whole affair might be that it highlights the volatile nature of art in general, and political cartoons specifically—a medium that, in the US, has been fairly neutered for the past 50 years. It hasn’t been since the days of Soviet-era samizdat that art could get you killed this easily, which does add something of a cheap thrill to the creative process.