Gilded Serpent presents...
The Danish Caricatures Controversy:
a Muslim-American Political Cartoonist Weighs-In

Essay and Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Editor’s 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 such as:
• Do issues of appropriateness in presentations confront performers often?
• Is a particular song a forthright prayer or patriotic song or do all understand its intent is as double entendre for a love theme?
• 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 respect?
• 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?

Khalil BendibAs 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 community.

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 expression.”

Unfortunately, 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 media.

Regrettable over-reactions (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 monotheistic faiths.

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 enslavement.

Many 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 “public art.”

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.

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