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TAKING GOD SERIOUSLY
- Journalism versus propagandist politics

I see a perverse saving grace in an Iranian newspaper's tit-for-tat promise of a contest of Holocaust cartoons. Of course, Israel and international Jewry will scream blue murder at anything that looks like trivializing Hitler's evil. But the gesture indicates a sense of humour, pays the West back in its own coin, and highlights the complexities of a confrontation that cannot be reduced to simplistic 'them' and 'us' terms.

This country's new temper makes the reminder necessary. I can imagine ardent nationalists seizing on the storm as further confirmation of Muslim intolerance and intransigence. This newspaper has published several such letters. The argument feeds fears of regional threats and domestic challenges faced by a nation that has reason to feel it is under siege. Not surprisingly, many Indians find comfort in making common cause with others who may be in the same plight. But before discussing reactions ' especially India's ' the provocation must be examined.

It was no accident. Every professional journalist knows how easy it is to tread on toes without meaning to. We have all at some time or other cracked a joke that has misfired. Neither explanation fits this case. The Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten, deliberately published 12 unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (one depicting him as a terrorist) on September 30 last year because it wanted to push the frontiers of acceptability. Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, thinks the exercise was justified. So does George W. Bush who has promised Rasmussen 'support and solidarity'. They see the cartoons not as another newspaper prank like Britain's Daily Mirror smuggling a reporter into Buckingham Palace but as a salvo in a civilizational war to uphold certain norms and values against the adversary.

The speed with which more than 20 newspapers from Philadelphia to Wellington reproduced the pictures suggests international coordination. They joined the Muslim-baiting to probe the extent of free speech, titillate readers or to uphold the Bush-Rasmussen thesis. Was it coincidence that papers in two Muslim countries allied to the West ' Jordan and Malaysia ' followed suit' Other mysteries remain. Though Denmark's criminal code regards publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogma of worship a criminal offence, and forbids threats, insults or the degradation of any religious community, the police refused to act against Jyllands-Posten after initially taking up complaints against the paper. A French court rejected a petition to stop a satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, from publishing material that Muslims would find offensive and which could cause a breach of the peace.

Battle was joined as early as September 2004 when Dutch TV screened Submission, a ten-minute documentary on abuses against women in Islam. A Muslim Somalia-born woman member of the Dutch parliament wrote the script; but it was the film's maker, Theo van Gogh, whom a Morocco-born Islamist gunned down two months later. It must be explained that the documentary did not only indict Muslim men. It did so with imaginative symbolism by draping the women in transparent robes that showed their bodies painted with insulting Quranic sutras. Van Gogh was making a series of such films.

A Copenhagen university lecturer was assaulted for reading the Quran to non-Muslims. Third, a Danish writer, Kare Bluitgen, just could not persuade any cartoonist to illustrate a children's book, The Quran and the Prophet Mohammed's Life, he was writing. Apparently, everyone he approached was afraid of incurring Muslim wrath. A Danish comedian declared that he did not dare satirize the Quran on television, while, fearing a violent reaction, the translators of an anthology of essays critical of Islam wished to remain anonymous.

An influential Danish newspaper, Politiken, discussed Bluitgen's problems and self-censorship induced by fears of Islamic retaliation in an article titled 'Deep fear of criticism of Islam' published on September 17 last year. The revelations apparently inspired Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor, to break the taboo by commissioning a number of artists to portray Mohammed as they saw him. 'The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims,' Rose argues. 'They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with temporal democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always equally attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is less important in this context...we are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end.'

Whatever one might think of democracy being synonymous with 'insults, mockery and ridicule', two journalists rushed to Rose's defence. Robert Menard, president of Reporters Without Borders, says that having taught the world something about free speech, Jyllands-Posten has no reason to apologize. And the editor of France Soir reproduced the caricatures with one of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Jewish gods all sitting on a cloud, proclaiming on the front page, 'Oui, on a le droit de caricaturer Dieu' (Yes, one has the right to caricature God). It is neither here nor there that he was sacked next day, for his boss was Egyptian. But it is relevant that Carsten Juste, editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, posted a letter to the 'Arab world' on the paper's website, saying, 'These cartoons were not in violation of the Danish law but have irrefutably offended many Muslims, and for that we apologize.' He also sent a copy to Jordan's Petra news agency.

Muslims are affronted on two counts. First, any pictorial representation of their prophet is blasphemous. Second, this representation stereotyped them as terrorists. Neither exonerates Danish Islamic leaders of the charge of falsifying and exaggerating the offence to inflame Muslim opinion with truly repulsive cartoons that no newspaper ever published. Iran and Syria, both estranged from America, may be similarly whipping up anger to mobilize support. The French response is obviously influenced by the five million truculent Muslims in their midst. Bush sees it as another round in his war on terror.

Indian diplomats will base their stand on whether they regard the Iran pipeline as more or less important than American nuclear support. Politicians will think in terms of agendas, vote-banks, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Islamic bombs. Sadly, the media, too, tend to take sides on these lines rather than journalistic principle. But as a lifelong practitioner concerned with the ethics and practice of my trade, I cannot forget Aristides Katoppo, editor of Jakarta's Suara Pembaruan, saying at a Hongkong conference that when a bus collides with a bicycle in Indonesia, the reporter cannot say the driver is Chinese and the cyclist Javanese. We have to observe similar restraint in India and for the same reason.

A second argument concerns cultural differences between Europe and Asia. I recall a conservative colleague's shock at a New Statesman drawing of the royal coat of arms with the lion and unicorn struggling to prevent the crown from toppling over at a time when Britain's monarchy was under fire. He thought it sacrilege to mock the national emblem. Permissiveness is narrowing the gap, but, for good or bad, Asia still has a higher threshold of acceptance.

The extreme reaction to the cartoons is deplorable. Nothing can justify so much violence and destruction, the loss of so many lives. But I blame the provocation even more for its only purpose was to needle. Bush and Rasmussen added insult to injury by demanding 'dialogue and tolerance' from victims: it's expecting a man who has been knocked down to debate the rights and wrongs of the assault instead of hitting back. Freedom of speech is something genuine journalists exercise in defiance of authority to expose abuses. It can never excuse an inspired campaign against a perceived national adversary. That is propagandist politics, not journalism.

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