Swedish Cartoonist’s Still-Deadly Naiveté

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Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was back in the news this week after it had been discovered that seven arrests had been made in Ireland due to a plot to kill him. In 2007, Vilks’ work depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog was published in the Swedish Nerikes Allehanda newspaper. Vilks’ work had originally been featured in an arts project before it was published by the paper. It caused widespread anger in the Muslim world as well as a bounty of $100,000 to be placed on his head by a group linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq and, as the BBC reports, “a 50% bonus if he was ‘slaughtered like a lamb’ by having his throat cut.”

After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and created the country’s biggest international blowup since World War II, you would have thought basic common sense would have discouraged any similarly-inspired artwork.  But no, Vilks carried on and his work caused such an uproar that Sweden’s embassy in Pakistan had to express regret over his art and the subsequent hurt caused while stating that it could not prevent the publication of the material because it would interfere with the freedom of the press.

Vilks at the time chimed in saying that his work was art and told the Associated Press, “I’m not against Islam. Everybody knows that…”  The Christian Science Monitor quoted Vilks after the $100,000 bounty had been placed on his head: “I suppose this makes my art project a bit more serious. It’s also good to know how much one is worth.”  The same article reports that Vilks created his controversial art “as an editorial comment on self-censorship, freedom of expression, and religion.”

The BBC, in an August 31, 2007 piece, quotes Pakistan’s foreign ministry on “what it described as a growing tendency ‘among some Europeans to mix the freedom of expression with an outright and deliberate insult to 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide… Such acts deeply undermine the efforts of those who seek to promote respect and understanding among religions and civilisations…’ ”

How do you react to such sentiment?  You could go the route of conservative political commentator, Tony Blankley.  After the cartoonist behind the original Danish work, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home by a Somali Muslim, Blankley railed against the fact that “most European journalistic commentary argued that Western writers and artists should, for prudence sake, abstain from such (allegedly blasphemous) expression..”

Said Blankley, “…it is worse than imprudent for Americans (or Europeans) to give up freedoms and ways of life that have been defended for centuries by the martial sacrifice of our ancestors (and current warriors) — and by the intellectual courage of our writers and artists — just because our morally feeble, self-proclaimed ‘educated class’ and elites have lost the will to defend our civilization.”

What Blankley seems to miss is that the problem has very little to do with defending Western civilization and every bit to do with basic intercultural relations.  Just because the free world embraces freedom of speech does not mean that all forms of reason and restraint and respect for cultural and religious differences should be cast to the wind.  Freedom of religion and expression are a basic right in the free world but there are limits; anti-hate speech legislation exist in a number of Western countries that prevent expression of hateful rhetoric based on factors such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

With current anti-Islamic sentiment at record highs, there is little difference between irresponsible (blasphemous, in the eyes of some) art depicting Muhammad, and hateful propaganda.  Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are important rights and should remain so.  But cultural cretins like Vilks should think carefully about the responsibilities that come with such freedoms.

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Bjorn Karlman

28 thoughts on “Swedish Cartoonist’s Still-Deadly Naiveté”

  1. Causing needless offense is not heroic and free speech should certainly be exercised responsibly. Foolish and cretin the cartoonist thus may be. At the same time, I’m wondering if there isn’t a kind of ironic reverse Orientalism at work in Western liberal attempts no less than conservative ones to explain the death threats in terms of deep Muslim piety and cultural values. Perhaps the Dane has transgressed the rules of “basic intercultural relations”. But the extreme reaction of many in the Muslim world is an equally grave offensive to the basic rules of cultural interaction and this needs to also be plainly stated.

    The fatwa on Vilks also raises distressing questions about what notions of individual “fee speech” can possibly mean in societies still ordered in many ways according to theocratic ideals, where “blasphemy” is viewed as a political as well as religious offense that cannot be permitted for the sake of preserving the social order. The scandal over the cartoons should cause us to ask uncomfortable questions not only about the West and its own violent history but also about free speech in much of the Muslim world today. For example, why is it that in Malaysia, one of the most liberal and prosperous Muslim countries in the world, anyone converting another person from Islam to Christianity faces a high risk of being murdered by extrajudicial killing groups tacitly condoned by the government?

  2. This guy has balls. I want Bill Maher to say the same things about Muslims that he says about Christians. Or that retard Seth MacFarlane. They don’t, because they are cowards. They only make fun of people who won’t kill them. By doing that, they give power to terrorism and terrorists. I am a freedom of speech absolutist.

  3. The most annoying thing about this guy is that he seemingly gets off on the fact that he has disrespected so many people and that in his narcissistic defence of ‘free speech’, he quite clearly revels in the controversy. I have heard many people come out and defend freedom of speech; I have heard no one talk of his ‘art’ as anything praiseworthy or of cultural value. Like the British National Party in the UK, he thrives (and consequently requires) an extremist environment in order to succeed.

  4. From what I can see, Bill Maher is from a Christian background.

    Have you ever said to someone, ‘I hate when my Mother/Father/Brother does this, that or the other?’ I doubt you would take the same criticims about your loved ones from anyone outside your family.

    We should be free to criticise our own backgrounds as much as we want. We were raised from it so it’s more than likely going to resonate with audiences. To criticise another man’s religion is hypocritical and more than likely uninformed.

  5. I am in favor of intercultural good will–and practise it. Shortly after September 11, 2001, I made a point of making contact with leading Muslims in Washington. For example I devloped a lasting friendship with Professor Akbar Ahmed–a Pakistani Muslim who heads up the middle east department at American Unviersity. He travels the world trying to develop better intercultural understanding. I have favorably reviewed his books, paticpated in panal discussions of his plays, and generally tried to understand–and publicly discuss– the world through his–and other Muslims’ eyes. I believe in good manners and respect for others. But if someone is threatened with violence to silence them, then, I will support his right to free expression–even as I may disagree with what he said. I believe Voltaire once made that point rather effectively during the Enlightenment.

    Just as a dog can tell whether a man has tripped over him or kicked him, I can tell the difference between good manners and fear to speak what you beleive to be the truth.

    I am against fear,and in favor of good manners: In that order.

    Respectfully,
    tony blankley

  6. Thanks for taking the time to explain your position. I think we agree on some key areas: the need for quality intercultural relationships/understanding; demonstrated respect; and, most importantly, freedom of speech/expression. I find it very interesting, however that you as a conservative and a former press secretary for Newt Gingrich, are claiming to be “against fear”. Why then did you spend much of the article that I quoted you from (http://www.newsmax.com/TonyBlankley/Blankley-radical-islam-europe/2010/01/13/id/346253) stoking the fears of Westerners? The “constant cultural intrusion that will change adversely the very nature of our way of life” is not exactly something that can be averted by defending the likes of Vilks.
    I understand the need to exercise freedom of speech and expression but why rush to the defense of irresponsible cretins that do nothing to build the international security and shared understanding you seek?
    Here’s the fundamental flaw with the logic of the Nordic artists concerned: They seem to think that just because they CAN do something (like offend and hurt millions of Muslims through their “art”) they SHOULD do it. I am absolutely for free speech and enjoyed the Voltaire reference. I myself am Swedish and appreciate Scandinavian candor, freedom and even their irreverence. But the actions of said cartoonists speak of a recklessness that flaunts Western concepts of free speech in the face of devout followers and entirely different (but no less valuable) views of what it means to be human. This behavior is embarrassing, hurtful and unnecessary. Avoiding it is NOT AT ALL silence because of “fear to speak what you believe to be the truth” as you put it. It is intelligent and pragmatic to avoid inflammatory statements, not cowardly.

  7. Bill Maher is not a Christian now, and that is what matters. Do you think the reaction to these cartoons would be any different if they were done by former Muslims? Of course not.

    The fact is that Christianity gets ripped on by all sorts of people all the time…in ways much worse than a stupid cartoon in a newspaper. Yet, for the most part, Maher and his fellow Christian bashers don’t have to fear for their lives.

    The issue with this story is the reaction by the terrorists, not that some guy in the media is saying something that is offensive (big shocker).

    I think the most annoying thing about this whole issue is that, yes, this guy should probably not be saying/doing these inflammatory things. It serves no real purpose. The real question, however, is how is that different from anything else that is offensive? There is no difference, other than that there are enough Neanderthals out there willing to kill people over cartoons of Mohammed and not any other cartoon/offensive words.

  8. I did not choose my words quite caefully enough. I should have said cowardice, rather than fear. There are many things we should be rationally afraid of. Warning of dangers (e.g Winston Churchill warning of the danger of Hitler in the 1930’s)are necessary if we are to avoid the dangerous thing of which we are afraid. It is how we face our rational fears that counts. So, it is cowardice in the face of dange that I abhor most.

    Thanks for the opportunity to chat,
    tony blankley

  9. I can get on board with that. Cowardice in the face of danger is certainly not something I respect. Your Churchill example is appropriate as well. I am definitely not advocating for blind disregard of external threats. What I do advocate for, however, is intelligent diplomacy. Such an approach to foreign policy avoids the cowboyish tendencies of Bush’s presidency for example, as well as the irresponsibility of the Scandinavian artists.

  10. R.O., you are definitely justified in questioning the cross-cultural appropriateness of overblown Muslim reactions to Western provocation. I don’t subscribe to Western liberal thought that attempts to justify beheadings, bombings, etc in the name of religion. As with the violent history of the West that you mention (the Wars of Religion in particular), these excesses are unfortunate. However, I feel a deepened sense of responsibility when it comes to Westerners, and ESPECIALLY my own Swedes that cause offense on the aforementioned scale and therefore voice my concern.

  11. David, I feel the need to question your basic logic. How does making fun of Christians as opposed to Muslims, empower terrorists? What about the reverse? If we make fun of Muslims and not Christians, won’t that exasperate the existing cross-cultural tensions and actually strengthen the moral platform of said terrorists? Freedom of speech absolutist? What about hate speech?

  12. Adam, I would agree in so far as I feel we have a heightened responsibility when it comes to improving our own community/culture through intelligent critique. Although I generally abstain from criticizing the “other”, I do feel that flagrant human rights abuses are fair game for Amnesty International treatment…

  13. David, I think the cartoons would have incited even more anger if they had been created by former Muslims. I agree that blasting Christianity is a lot less dangerous than bashing Islam. However, I do not think that your point about the cartoons being no more offensive than any other inflammatory statement holds true. The West is far more secular and far more desensitized. Even devout practitioners will likely overlook critique of Christianity (even if a few of them may feel the need to blow up the occasional abortion clinic) but fundamentalist jihadists, will not be as lenient with those that insult Islam. And we have our share of extremists too: a lot of the rest of the world may find it crazy that we have Americans willing to blow up labs (and possibly kill people in the process) that test on animals… or crash planes into IRS buildings.

  14. Not being much of an art critic, it’s hard for me to say what motivates Vilks. He did state that the art was his way of highlighting the issue of the importance of free speech. His extremist approach clearly attracts an extremist response.

  15. Fair enough. What you say follows a principle Chomsky also advocates: people have greater responsibility to speak out critically about their own cultures or countries than others since that is where they can make the most difference. Fight the power.

  16. No doubt all of that is true, but we aren’t going stop doing tests on animals or stop taxing people because every once in a while some defect of humanity decides to blow up a bunch of other people.

  17. Well the simple fact is that if I started a Christian terrorist cell that murdered Bill Maher, Seth MacFarlane, and Richard Dawkins (as well as dozens of other innocents) I guarantee all the Christian bashing would stop. None of the Christian bashers have a distinct beef with Christianity (it is almost always about religion as a whole), but they just don’t have the balls to confront a religion filled with terrorists.

    In other words, they are rewarding terrorists by not treating their religion the same as they treat other religions. They are basically saying, as long as you won’t kill me, I will make fun of you. So, in theory, if I really wanted to stop Christian bashing, I would just have to become a terrorist. Therefore, their actions reward terrorism.

    I don’t think any bashing should stop. I just think people should be allowed to say what they want, and their freedom shouldn’t be taken away because a terrorist is opposed to that freedom. Frankly, I would like to see SLIGHTLY more bashing of atheists with their pretty piss poor record on human rights for the last 100 years.

    Hate is part of freedom. Hate begins in your mind. If you don’t have the right to hate and express your hate, you don’t have freedom over your thoughts and/or speech. Not to mention, hate is subjective. Some people call the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman hate. I, of course, would think a person who believed that would have to have to functioning brain cells. It doesn’t matter though because people (apparently) actually believe that.

    So even if people could agree that hate speech/thought should be illegal, the obvious question comes up…who would decide what is hate? I think the current free speech laws in the US are almost perfect. I might make them slightly less restrictive, but I am basically good the way they are.

    All that being said, I understand this didn’t happen in the US so they are subject to a different constitution and different laws…blablabla. I also think its different if you are censored by the company you work for (like the South Park guys). I don’t like it, but they should have the right to do it. I am just against government censorship.

  18. Yeah, you should definitely check them out once you get a better connection and have time. I hate to do this to you (since I really hate it when people cite cartoons or popular media as a source in a political discussion) but its entertaining if nothing else.

  19. Geez, one last thing. This is part of the reason I have come to (slightly) admire Christopher Hitchens. I really fundamentally cannot stand him, but he isn’t like the other religion bashers. He freely acknowledges that if you hate religion and think it is evil and manipulative, then Islam should be the front line of your concern…not Christianity.

    And I am know I am probably coming across as a Muslim hater. I really am not. For me, this is more about the hypocrisy of atheists/religion haters than anything else.

    This guy who made this cartoon is doing what all other bashers of religion should be doing if they had any sort of guts and intellectual integrity…in my opinion.

  20. “to confront a religion filled with terrorists”

    I guess Hindu extremists in India (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article5186703.ece), bombings carried out by the IRA in Northern Ireland (an organisation made up largely of Catholics, by the way), or even extremist bombings of Animal testing facilities – not particularly known to be perpetrated by Muslims – are just small anomolies to your theory there.

    Freedom of speech should not be inhibited and religions most definitely should be open to criticism. But the actions of this person are seemingly solely to inflame opinion and to court controversy. Deliberately offending the sensitivities of over a billion people for personal and professional gain, although not deserving of murder threats, hardly warrants respect.

  21. Right, but what is the motivator in carrying on? Scientific progress may be justified. Blasting a Prophet? Maybe not. We shouldn’t refrain from this kind of offense out of fear. It is just common sense/respect.

  22. Agreed on being against government censorship. The hate crime issue is obviously dicey. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8567727.stm As a Euro, I’ll say they are necessary. It’s kind of like the “just how free are we?” question where some limitations have to be put on freedom in order for it to work
    And yes, if a terrorist group slaughtered Christianity bashers we’d probably hear less of it. But that obviously doesn’t mean that everyone that abstained from Christianity bashing is afraid of terrorists. Some of the restraint may just be diplomacy.

  23. I guess the question is…what percentage of a religion has to be comprised of terrorists and its sympathizers to be accurately labeled as ‘filled with terrorists’.

    Although I don’t have a general favorable view of animal rights people, their terrorists don’t kill people.

    And although I am not a particular fan of the Catholic church, you won’t find any poll anywhere that says any of them support suicide bombings. There have been several polls of Islamic countries where sizable minorities (and even majorities at times) support terrorists and terrorist tactics.

    http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5iWFKT0dviFcq6GD_hJwnZVDB5n_g

    Ironically, it appears that Bush’s wars have really fatigued the Islamic world rather than embolden them in terms of their support for such tactics.

    I just realized, I don’t really know anything about this cartoonist. If he is a religion hater in general, then I respect him. If he just has beef against Islam, I can respect that, but it is a slightly different issue and not quite as bad ass.

    The difference being, if he is ripping on other religions all the time and he is simply giving Islam his due diligence, that is a good thing because he isn’t caving to terrorism.

    As for offending people for personal and professional gain…that’s pretty much the way it is with any form of entertainment. The only difference being that it normally doesn’t end with the offended party leveling death threats and/or attempted murder and/or murder.

  24. As a Christian who constantly has my religion and beliefs lampooned I can’t say I feel sorry for the muslims who are offended here. To me this says more about what is wrong with much of Islam today than what is wrong with a certain Swedish artist. The form of religion that resorts to violence to force it’s own beliefs on others is the worst kind of cultural institution and should always be resisted.

    On the other hand, I see your point about how unwise it is to be intentionally offensive, even if a group, through their behavior is practically asking for it. It really doesn’t solve anything, after all. We would probably do more to help Muslims become more sensitive of our culture if we led by example.

    I think this is a case where both sides are in the wrong (probably the Muslims more so). I understand your being more critical of the West, since it is closer to home; however I think you would do well to balance your critique of your own culture with an acknowledgement of that fact that Vilks was within his natural human rights to do what he did while many Muslims in their reaction are not. As important as it is to be tolerant and understanding of each other’s cultures I think it is also important to respectfully point out when another culture is obviously in the wrong (as we do with our own).

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