Danish Caricatures Controversy:
a Muslim-American Political Cartoonist Weighs-In
Cartoon by Khalil Bendib
note: Balancing freedom of speech with the necessity
for cultural sensitivity and the needs of our Middle Eastern music
and dance community is a constant theme in the office of the Editor
of the Gilded Serpent. Difficult questions and issues arise daily
• Do issues of appropriateness in presentations confront performers
• Is a particular song a forthright prayer or patriotic song or
do all understand its intent is as double entendre for a love
• Is a particular song (lyrics and/or history) a reasonable choice
for a performer?
• What are the limitations of what we can express in our dance
and music without public reprisal?
• Should we shy away from politics and religion out of fear and/or
• Is our life’s work/impassioned interest merely entertainment
and a distraction from the problems of the world or a vehicle
for expressing our innermost beliefs?
Khalil, of Berkeley, California, submitted the
following opinion editorial piece to our office unsolicited, but
it could well act as an editorial from Gilded Serpent. We are
grateful that this political cartoon artist has chosen Gilded
Serpent as a vehicle to extend his personal point of view to the
world via our Internet publication. As you read it, we ask you
to consider: Since we all struggle with the boundaries of expression
within our own music and dance community, do we not need to apply
these same principles to the larger world around us?
a Muslim-American political cartoonist who has made his
career out of challenging the conventional wisdom of America’s
Judeo-Christian Euro centric mainstream media, understandably,
I am reluctant to argue in favor of any restrictions on
free speech that might conceivably come back to haunt me.
Therefore, it is not without
some sense of trepidation that I set about explaining why, in
the case of the now infamous publishing of 12 Islam-o-phobic
Danish caricatures that the concept of free speech needs to be
outweighed by sensitivity for the rights of a much-maligned religious
Until recent years,
Moroccan and Turkish Muslim populations that had been previously
absent in the far northern reaches of Europe have now arrived
in Scandinavia and are starting to feel the bitter bite of classic
xenophobic backlash as they become more visible.
Our society generally
accepts, as taught in Journalism 101, that the concept of freedom
of expression in a democratic society must always counter-balance
the no-less-important notion of social responsibility. Even in
the name of free speech, people generally consider that yelling
“Fire!” in a crowded theater is reprehensible – as is yelling
“Contempt!” in a crowded mosque, also.
Try as I may,
while reviewing the infamous Islam-o-phobic Danish caricatures,
I fail to discern in them any clear political statement other
than the questionable assertion that Islam equals terrorism. Such
a message of religious intolerance is, of course, as old and familiar
as the Crusades and the Inquisition in the Christian-European
psyche, but it should be acceptable no longer in post-colonial
Europe, even when couched in terms such as “freedom of
publishing inflammatory caricatures deliberately aimed at
all that is most tender and precious to the hearts of Muslims
worldwide, regardless of their political ideology or ethnic background,
helps neither Europe’s lofty democratic ideals nor Islam’s nagging
feelings of victimization and humiliation at the hands of Western
(such as burning of European embassies and threats of violent
retaliation against Western journalists) are clearly uncalled
for and only serve to reinforce the worst stereotypes about Muslims.
Right-wing European journalism’s gratuitous provocations maliciously
add fuel to the fire of already tense relations between different
At a time when Muslim
Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are all under the crushing boot
of foreign Western occupation, such blatantly hurtful and racist
cartoons can only comfort reactionary Muslim extremist movements.
Adding insult to injury, in the eyes of Muslims, these
crude caricatures are only the latest sign of the West’s utter
contempt for their dearest values and traditions; for the past
five hundred years, the humiliation of non-European people
has been an essential feature of Western colonialism and
Muslims are also rather skeptical when told that, in this case,
“freedom of the press” trumps “freedom from religious persecution,”
- aware as they are of the not-so-subtle double standards concerning
the protections afforded to different religious groups.
For example, take the
impressive strides made in Europe to protect against anti-Semitism;
they have reached the point that it is now against the
law in some European countries to publish or express publicly
any denial or to downplay the horrors of the Jewish holocaust.
Why should the same high standards of sensitivity and respect
not apply to Muslims, who are at least demographically prevalent
as Jews in Europe?
It is reasonable for one
to argue that classifying the offensive Danish caricatures
as “protected free speech,” as many in Europe are vociferously
doing, is akin to calling a spray-painted swastika on a synagogue
Can one’s freedom
of expression – or any freedom for that matter – be absolute?
To be sure, democratic societies must be vigilant always
to protect free speech against the constant temptation of censorship
and intolerance – whether religious or secular. At the
same time, let us remember never to cross, the line into
hateful bigotry in the name of an abstract absolute, if we can
avoid it. In other words, the freedom to swing one’s Islam-o-phobic
fist must stop at my Muslim nose.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
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it’s Personal! by Michelle and Sandra
thought that the misfortunes associated with our previous performance
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Democracy Skips First Amendment! Report
by Lynette, Editor
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What Kind of Snakes are Good for Dancing?
many snakes, so little time.” What is a girl to do? I am
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and Reason Series, Article 9, Can't
We All Get Along? Dancers and Musicians by
Mary Ellen Donald
you don’t have to be afraid of working with live music.