Cartoon storm brewing

The Mohammed caricature\cartoons are causing trouble again, and this one is turning into a highly complex scenario, with all sorts of room for conspiracy theories and spiraling fury. At the moment a major demonstration is planned, and this will likely be a pivotal event, as it has the potential to be a show of widespread support for Muslims offended by this kind of chronic provocation, or it could turn into a real mess. The web sites of Dagbladet and leading tabloid VG were brought down by ‘hackers’ last night, though it is not clear yet whether this is related.

Since this will probably be a big and long-running story, I thought I would just start with the very beginning, and a bit of musing.

This round of unrest was sparked by ailing tabloid Dagbladet’s decision to use a ‘Mohammed drawing’ in connection with a story, and the first stories about offended reaction, dealt with an impromptu work stoppage by Muslim taxi drivers. Cab companies threatened to revoke licenses as they felt such protests should be made during the drivers’ spare time.

Now, I have to confess that I had several, predictable reactions to this story; ‘Not again’, was the first, and the second was a strong desire for the disgruntled to just get used to it – ‘freedom of speech’ is a cost of living in the decadent West, and things would be much better if that was accepted and we could just settle down to the usual routine of not getting so worked up about ‘sacred’ things, and try to learn to take this kind of incident with a pinch of salt, or sense of humor, or whatever it takes.

But then I had several thoughts (as opposed to reflex reactions).

First; it might seem like a repetitive and depressing scenario, but in fact the taxi drivers staged a perfectly peaceful protest where they voiced their opinions. Free speech in other words. Anger, but no violence, no flag burning.

But the whole caricature problem reminded me of something that had been nagging at me since the last time I mentioned the topic in this blog, the Progress Party (FrP) decision to produce their own cartoon for their membership magazine. After a lot of noise, the FrP qualified their position by saying that their illustration was making a political point and was not actually depicting Mohammed per se – interpreting the drawing in that way would be leaping to conclusions.

Now this stunt by Norway’s most right-wing mainstream political party caused no fuss whatsoever. I doubt many people saw it. In fact, this is quite often the case – even in the more provocative printings of the infamous caricatures, this has been done in tiny reproductions of a set, so that one can hardly see them in detail. They also tend to come out in print.

While this used to be synonymous with creating a committed, tangible example, comparable to ‘setting something in stone’, or ‘putting it down in writing’, I would argue, and would expect to win, that this is no longer the way the news media, or the written word works any more. The newspaper gets thrown out. But if you post it online, it is more permanent despite not having tangible form as we knew it. And available to far, far more people.

Due to my reliance on online media, I have never seen more than a small facsimile of the most famous Mohammed drawings. Because I don’t buy newspapers, and I don’t hunt the images down via search engines. I am just interested in seeing how they were actually used, but prefer to do so via the ‘net because those pages are more accessible. Another aspect of this tangibility has to do with the Progress Party argument. How does one go about making a clearly offensive Mohammed caricature\cartoon?

It’s not like Jesus, who has a widely accepted appearance. And surely if you just draw a guy in a turban and a beard, you are more likely to be a racist than clearly targeting Mohammed. You have to go the extra mile, and take the trouble to actually label the caricature. This extra step creates a dimension of added effort in order to hit the target. There can be nothing accidental about it, it has to be pre-meditated.

In any event, Dagbladet has now reproduced, online, in large format, not just a ‘cartoon’, but the most inflammatory of all such images; not a Danish caricature but one depicting the prophet Mohammed as a pig, a drawing that has one of the most violent and divisive histories behind it. Debate, that national sport here, is arguing the repercussions from all angles, including the fascinating one that the paper was duped into using precisely this image – more on that later.

The Muslim community remains largely calm and composed, but the level of offense is arguably higher than it has ever been here. Dialogue remains civilized, though there has been clear disappointment that Dagbladet did not apologize after a meeting was set up between the paper and leading Muslims, brokered by a Muslim politician.

Confusion reigns over  the planned Friday demonstration – the Islamic Council is advising against taking part, the media reports that extremists and radicals may mobilize, and march organizers are aiming for an event with cross-cultural support. The complexion and outcome of the demo will speak volumes.

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