Friday, February 03, 2006

Where's My Lurpak?

OK, I was trying to keep my head down on the Danish cartoon fiasco. But I cannot ignore it any more, it's too important. This issue will probably go down in history as the week when the West and the Islamic world finally realise that they simply will never understand each other. I don't care to speculate about what might happen hereafter.

I do know this: if a similar act had been perpetrated against a Western target (Christ with a bomb on his head, for example) the response in the West would be a chuckle, a shrug of the shoulders. Doesn't matter. Not much bothered.

One of the basic issues here is that the West is largely secular. Religion is important to some people, but it is nothing like as demanding as being a devout Muslim. Western countries are no longer governed by ancient religious tracts, they are governed by humanism and rationality. To quote Voltaire:

I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

And for every single European, this is something we know in our bones. Going against this, for a European, seems to be the exact equivalent of somebody making a joke about the prophet Mohammed. Don't go there. OK?

Nothing much happened back in September when these cartoons were first published, but the leader of the Danish Muslims wanted to whip up a bit of global attention. He printed a booklet containing reproductions of the published cartoons plus a few others that were far more offensive. One of them showed Mohammed (pbuh) with the face of a pig. You'll agree, even if you live on Mars, that that is pretty fucking offensive, but it was nothing to do with the Nyllens-Posten series. Anyhoo, our mullah goes to see the top boys in Egypt and Saudi and wherever else, and shows 'em the booklet. They're a bit upset, but nothing happens...

...until the Hajj tragedy in Makkah, when suddenly the Saudi Government press machine needed to deflect world attention from their never-ending incompetence, and so they turned their attention on the cartoons.

Now we have a boycott of Danish goods throughout the Arabian Gulf. Not as in individual customers not buying Danish goods, but supermarket chains pulling the stuff off the shelves. 'Excuse me, I want to buy a lot of Lurpak'. 'Sorry sir, it's in the cold store, we are supporting the pointless boycott of Danish products'. Hmmm.

So we now have the ridiculous situation where the Prime Minister of Denmark has offered an apology to the Muslim World. He was totally wrong to do so. Correction: apparently he has not apologised. He would be totally wrong to do so. It is not his responsibility. In a free country, the press can say what the hell they like. If that libels anyone then the libelled party has a proper legal path to seek redress. The Prime Minister is in no way responsible for the actions of individuals in his country.

Back to the Muslims. One of the issues is the so-called prohibition on any kind of image of the Prophet. Shi'a and Sufis don't even believe in that. It's not in the Quran, only a suspect Hadith: Westerners just don't get it, really, is it the end of the world to draw a picture of anybody? Is it?

Of the twelve cartoons, (setting aside the idea that any kind of representation of the Prophet is supposed to be haram) only two of them can really be considered offensive. If you have not seen the cartoons, go here.

I'm really sorry that this has happened. But here's the thing. Westerners can and will say and publish what they want in their own countries. They have full, sovereign, legal authority to do so. They are not required to observe the sensitivities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or even Christians. They are not even beholden to the sensitivities of their own government (who, after all, are only elected short-term representatives) or of any other government. Unfamiliar with the concept? See this...

Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not [if not illegal], and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.
- John Locke (1632 - 1704) Political Philosopher and Genius

As long as you are not directly inciting violence against members of a particular religion or slandering any individual then it's OK. I, as a Westerner, I know this in my bones.

And so I am deeply disappointed by the local reaction to this controversy. It is unreasonable, it is directed at the wrong people (not just an apology is demanded locally, but an OATH from the Danish PM that this would never happen again - as if he could even think of doing such a thing). It just highlights two utterly different ways of looking at the world that can probably not be reconciled.
The west: we can say what we like.
The east: no you can't.

Dammit, it was all going so well. My bones are aching.

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