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The Mohammad Cartoons Then and Now: Defending Satire

July 15, 2008

When a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban in September 2005, the Muslim community around the world erupted in protest. Police fired on crowds, and dozens died. While some Muslim leaders exhorted demonstrators to remain peaceful, others, like Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas, issued death threats related to the cartoons. Despite the tragic deaths of protesters, the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had a right to print them, especially since it had announced its plan from the outset to start a debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship. Furthermore, the cartoons were published on an editorial page, denoting the trafficking of opinions. And they were cartoons, denoting play and satire. The Mohammad cartoons were not sensitive to the piety of Muslims; for that very reason they were a sensational way to jump-start debate with Muslims on how their religion fits into a secular and multicultural society. But Muslims or non-Muslims, offended or not, we all must speak up for the right to offend, especially when it is our own hallowed symbols being “attacked.” Discussions of “taste” or “respect” are insidious code words for censorship.

This week, it’s a secular society’s turn to thump its chest against satire’s right to offend—and not the right wing of the secular society in question, but the left. When The New Yorker published a cover satirizing the very absurd mischaracterizations of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, much of the left jerked into its roundabout calls for self-censorship. The cover image depicts Barack Obama in a turban, bumping fists with his afro’ed, militant wife, Michelle, who slings a machine gun over her shoulder. In the fireplace, the American flag is burning, and on the wall of the Oval Office where they stand is a likeness of Osama bin Laden.

The knee-jerk criticism of the cover included an Obama campaign official condemning the cartoon as “tasteless and offensive.” Here on the Huffington Post, Rachel Sklar, who didn’t outright denounce the piece, wrote, “Anyone who’s tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who’s tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism—well, here’s your image.” Ho hum. Trey Ellis, also on the Huffington Post, indirectly calls for self-censorship (censorship!) by writing in his headline, “NYer, What Were You Thinking?” His piece offers no actual reasons not to have done the piece but, despite his “get[ting] the joke,” he calls it “gross and dumb” and writes inanely that “anything would have been better.” A prominent Obama supporter and ABC commentator called it “as offensive a caricature as any magazine could publish.”

Is this really where we are? It would have been offensive if Obama himself was the target, and if there was a remote amount of truth to any of the depictions. Is an attack on the attacks really too hard to understand?

It seemed lost on most that to say “others might not get it” is not an argument that can be universalized into law or principle or editorial policy; others may not get any number of things, and if we pander to the stupidest hypotheticals or the daftest John Does, we all get stupider. Nor are “This might hurt his chances” or “it plays into the attacks” valid. Whatever their endorsement, The New Yorker is a magazine whose first task is to provoke and sometimes the taboo is a way to do this. (It’s too bad The New Yorker wasn’t so bold in the buildup to the Iraq War.)

For liberals who spent their time attacking the cartoon as tasteless, or likely to hurt the candidate (or on whatever basis they attacked)—without ALSO defending The New Yorker‘s right to offend or provoke—I offer the very simple reminder that freedom still includes the right to offend, during a campaign as much as not during one. Looking simultaneously at the two incidents, from 2005 and now, we should nod our brief assents and huzzahs at those responses, broadly speaking, that work in more than one context. And then move on to something that matters, like when Fox actually called a fist bump between the Obamas a terrorist fist jab.

For Muslims the world over, as well as for liberal Americans scared they’re the only people who get a nuanced joke, how do we register our displeasure without quite rising to the notion that my right not to be offended outweighs a magazine or newspaper’s right to provoke? Take a breath, have a sense of humor; it’s a f&%$ing cartoon.

–Joel Whitney (crossposted on the Huffington Post)

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