Will this cartoon madness never end? The casualties mounts every day. The editors of the Daily Illini suspended from their positions for publishing the dreaded cartoons. The Western Standard barred from newsstands across Canada. An American professor fired from her job at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates for showing cartoons to her class. A Canadian professor forced by his university to remove the cartoons from his office door! His office door. The space most sacred to the guild.
Self-censorship only goes so far, then it's time for the real thing. And just in case you haven't gotten the message, here it is in all its subtlety:
We will use every means within the Canadian legal system to stop this intellectual terrorism," Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said yesterday.
"This is yellow journalism. It is not civilized. The people will have to pay the price for what they have done. They have disturbed the peace in our society," he said.
Ponder for a minute the phrase "intellectual terrorism" which evidently equates 12 cartoons with actual death and destruction. Oh the humanity.
The quote also begs the question, what exactly does he mean by "the people will have to pay the price?" And what exactly does he mean by "our society?" And oh yes, did I mention tens of thousands rioting in Pakistan and elsewhere, burning Kentucky Fried Chickens and incidentally, killing real people?
As noted previously in this space, the notables of Middle East Studies have their heads buried deeply in the sand, or in something, and continue to put the blame on the legacy of imperialism, America, or free speech itself. The general approach seems to be captured by a Canadian bookstore owner who refused to stock the Western Standard, "We feel there is nothing to gain on the side of freedom of expression and much to lose on the side of hurting feelings."
But professors continue to engage in deliberate obfuscation. Consider UCLA professor Tom Plate, quoting University of Western Australia professor Samina Yasmeen:
"An [inherently] antagonist relationship between Islam and the West," she asserts, is a myth, unless we in the West make it otherwise. But there are clashes and power struggles within the Islamic civilization, and the relative strengths of the moderate, orthodox conservative and radical Islamic forces is in flux.
Now get this, you European newspaper editors (remember, she wrote this essay months ago): "Some [Muslim] radicals, for instance, could use some event to establish the inherently anti-Islamic nature of the ‘western society' in which they are living. This could convince some Muslims of the validity of the radicals' point of view."
In the current tense climate, the Islamic world in general is very much on edge. She writes: "The moderates have to resort to logic and rationality to stress that Qur'anic texts and Prophetic traditions guide Muslims into living in harmony with the dominant non-Muslim society. [This] is made difficult when the wider context in which they operate provides greater ammunition for the radicals."
This is precisely what those foul newspaper cartoons did. Remember, even in the Wild West of America, the functioning of our constitutionally protected so-called "free press" does come with limits. The classic exception in U.S. law is that one cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire, and when panic and confusion are sure to be sown.
Warning: people on edge. The focus has to be exclusively on Western actions and responsibility. This ‘free speech is too important to risk using it and playing into the hands of radicals' theory has the perverse effect of simultaneously infantilizing Muslims (apparently too weak and insecure to stand up to radical arguments about, uh, cartoons) and exonerates their subsequent violence (the ‘what do you expect?' argument, usually followed by an unstated [from those people] and then a reassuring ‘see, we had it coming'). Or as Plate puts it "Why hand out matches to known arsonists?"
Oh, and Islamic historical antagonism toward the West, jihad, gates of Vienna, all that? Forget about it. Never happened.
Darn it all if resorting to logic and rationality aren't working, but these are Western artifacts so you get what you pay for. Anyway, it is the West's obligation to back off and shut up, and if we don't, well, we've been warned. Curiously, if the same argument was made by someone elsewhere on the political spectrum or in a position of official responsibility it would be denounced as racist, or worse, essentializing. At least the editor of the Boston Phoenix, in the midst of some mushy equivocation about hurt feelings, has the courage to say that he was afraid for his staff's safety if he ran the pieces. Expect the worst? "I guess it's just my morbid personality."
I can't help but keep asking, why the continued evasions from systems presumably dedicated to free inquiry and complex explanations? We can ascribe some of this instinct to the aging hipsterism of the academy, where in the sudden gaze of the media Gramsci and Marcuse fuse with Austin Powers (the frisson of the day or "Right now, we've got freedom AND responsibility. It's a very groovy time" syndrome). There is also an unstated and well-founded fear of being hounded possibly unto death for stating the obvious about this cartoon nonsense – it is about power, pure and simple – the power to control what people see and think about Islam. Better to get with the program than be the nail that sticks up, especially if you want to keep your parking space at, say, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Better to reframe the issue and talk about feelings, not reason.
Cowardice? Fear and loathing? Nihilism? Diffidence? ("I wouldn't make a hasty decision. Nobody can make a snap decision. We've got to consider the pros and cons, make a list, get advice…"). The questions keep piling up.