Arab Affairs: A caricature of discourse

The irony is that when Muslims and Arabs express their anger violently, it reinforces the views that many Westerners have of them.

afghan cartoon298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
afghan cartoon298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Last week, following the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish press, Fatah gunmen kidnapped - then released - a German citizen from his hotel in Nablus. In Gaza, Fatah gunmen threatened to target the local churches, whose congregants are Palestinian. They apologized by passing out flowers the next day. This week, university students threw bottles and rocks at the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) headquarters. They, too, were protesting the "defamation" of their prophet. These incidents are minor compared to the protests in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world. In Syria and Lebanon, Muslims burned down the Danish and Norwegian embassies. Clearly, the caricatures profoundly offended many Muslims around the world, but reactions to them, some protesters say, go beyond their adherence to Islam. "This is not a religion issue mostly," one secular Iraqi Muslim wrote to this reporter from Baghdad this week. "We are angry because of identity abuse. We are filled with western bullshit that we can't swallow anymore." Muslims and Arabs, it appears, view the cartoons as proof that the West considers Arabs and Muslims to be terrorists. In Islam, all depiction of the prophet is banned. The Danish cartoons added insult to injury by depicting the prophet as a terrorist and by making fun of Islam: In one cartoon, for example, Muhammad's turban is shaped like a bomb with a burning fuse. "The timing is very bad and both sides take advantage of it," said Emad Hajjaj, a famous Jordanian political cartoonist. "The US and Europe feel Islamophobia and the Muslims feel victimized. You see it in the press: 'The West, the West they are targeting us. They want our wealth and they want to kill us.' This spark raised all this unjustified struggle." Hafez Al-Barghouti, editor-in-chief of the Palestinian daily, al-Hayyat al-Jadeedah, blamed the West's stereotyping of Islam for the demonstrations. "I believe this reaction is exaggerated," said Barghouti. "But it's a result of a policy of Western campaigning against Islam. They [the demonstrators] believe that this is a campaign against Islam. I don't think it is. The cartoonists know nothing about Islam. Unfortunately, the Western media has mixed moderate Islam with radical Islam as if there isn't any difference, and they are accusing Islam of being a terrorist religion." The irony is that when Muslims and Arabs express their anger violently, it reinforces the views that many Westerners have of them. In an e-mail to The Jerusalem Post, Ahmed Ali, a Palestinian living in New York, wrote that the stifling Arab regimes only allow freedom of speech against the West. "[Because of the] lack of freedom, many feel repressed and are afraid of speaking their minds, and so that leaves the stage for only the loud and violent voices," he wrote. Hajjaj, the cartoonist, said that Arab leaders are allowing the violence to take place for their own purposes. "Our dictators - our leaders - are looking for anything for us to relieve our frustration," said Hajjaj. "It's a very old game and the leaders know how to play it every time." Enas Muthaffar, a Muslim Palestinian film director from Jerusalem, angrily condemned the violence, but also blamed the Arab regimes. "These [violent] individuals are just letting off steam because they can't do it against their own governments," he said, adding, "I am so ashamed of these acts. Burning down embassies? What is this? This is an insult to Islam and to Arabs. These people are ruining our name." So deep is the shame and the disbelief over the indiscriminate violence that one Hebronite told the Post that the young men who threw stones at the TIPH offices in his city were "not from Hebron, and maybe not Palestinian." To counter the violent image, Ali and a group of mostly Palestinian friends from around the world started a Web site called "After seeing some of the most horrible reactions in Arab and Muslim countries to the Danish cartoons, we felt deeply worried and disappointed," Ali told the Post. "We felt that we needed to counter these voices with the voices of the majority of Arabs and Muslims, who are unable to make their voices heard." WHILE SOME have resorted to violence, other Muslims prefer to use what is considered in the West a more acceptable means of protest and punishment: boycotting. Yet even this non-violent act demonstrates an "Us Against Them" attitude. The young Iraqi wrote that he opposed the burning of the embassies and the attacks on foreigners, but that he will never buy another Danish product in his life. "The Danish people should pay," he wrote. "They did not protest to their government. Their government did not punish the newspaper. They should make a law against insulting someone's religion." With the help of the Internet, the message to boycott Danish goods is spreading fast. During a random two-hour period, an online petition called "stop the campaign of defamation and distortion against Islam" ( garnered 397 additional signatures. While Westerners see the publishing of the cartoons as the responsibility of the individual - in this case the newspaper - Muslims view it as the responsibility of the people - in this case the Danes. In Arab regimes, after all, the government is the patron of the people - who do not have a public opinion, and are limited in their ability to express their personal ones. Drawing the line at religion While Muslims shout in outrage against the religious insensitivity of the Danish caricatures of Muhammad, Arab and Iranian political cartoonists continue to draw anti-Semitic and anti-Christian cartoons. The Palestinian daily, al-Hayyat al-Jadeedah, regularly publishes such cartoons. One depicts Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian children, for example, in reference to blood libels - a common anti-Semitic accusation. Editor-in-chief Hafez Al-Barghouti insists such cartoons are purely political and have no relation to "blood libels." "The husband of Humaya Juha [the cartoonist] was killed by Israelis in Gaza," he said. "She's a young lady. She doesn't know about these stories. Syrians and Egyptians wrote about that (Jews drinking blood of non-Jews), but that's not my business." Political cartoons in the Arab press began in the 1950s, when the Arab nationalists came to power. "Unfortunately, many of the nationalists studied in Europe where they learned what anti-Semitism was," said well-known Jordanian political cartoonist Emad Hajjaj. "The cartoonists were told what to draw by the leaders." The caricature of the Jew as Shakespeare's Shylock, a favorite among Nazi cartoonists, is commonly used in the Arab press. Hajjaj said that this was originally for anti-Semitic reasons, but today is used because it is familiar. "Most [Arab cartoonists] don't know what it means," said Hajjaj. "They have not been abroad, don't read English newspapers, didn't read Shakespeare, and don't know about the Holocaust." Hajjaj said that Muslims need to pick their fights properly. "The question is: What is our battle here? To show our religious sensitivity," he said. "You can do that without discussing whether they have a right to publish the cartoons or not, and just tell them that 1.5 billion people deserve respect."