Monday, March 5, 2012

Allah Begat Danish Cartoons
The Original Title: "Allah Bless Cartoons in Danish Ecology" is now being used for a very short related essay.

"... I do sympathize with cultures of various space-time locations, including feudal, military and desert Arab... "

Not so long ago an issue exploded overseas and the echoes will be reverberating for a long time. Last night a drop-in to my toastmasters club held up a copy of The Economist. She said the European magazine showed its bias with its phrase "a liberal society must have freedom of speech." The issue, to her, is whether freedom of speech (in Europe) includes the right to insult Muslims (in the non-European parts of the world). The issue, of course, is some Danish cartoons were published to accompany a prose piece on freedom of speech. (In other words, the prose part came first.) The resulting non-European fatal riots spread to the far side of the world.

Remembering the "classic sin of the censor," I believe the people in North Africa and West Asia are not reading, or even being told about the prose part, and are being told about, but not seeing, the cartoons they would have censored. Of course no Muslims or anyone else over here rioted. Nor in Europe. Obviously we in North America "don't get it" and I doubt Europeans do either.

(Human factor)

Humans often don't get it. If my wife and I fight over the issue of a soggy tea bag left on the counter, then quite often the issue is not really the tea bag but something psychological, something just below the level of our verbalization and our consciousness. I suspect the issues in the minds of Asian Muslims are not actually cartoons. I suspect, too, these secret issues, only half-formed and half admitted, will not and can not be explained on the six o'clock news.

Television, by its very nature, will not help us to understand. My wife might barely be able, in a lengthy long-distance telephone call, to explain her frustration with me to her dear sister, using code words they both understand. But you can't expect my wife to put her anguish into a sound byte for television... So forget the boob tube. Ignore the idiot box. Television, with its love of moving pictures and its aversion to "talking heads" (as in "lengthy" explanations and discussions) is just not the place to explore such issues. No, some things require the thoughtful slowness possible only by using print.

Hence I write essays.

Many wise men and woman are already doing sound bytes on freedom to insult and freedom of speech. I would like to sidestep their focus, draw back from cartoons and, instead, shine a light sideways on certain cultures, certain solitudes, beginning with Europe. At the end I will return to The Economist.

ABCDE Part One

In the English speaking world, one of the oldest pieces of literature is the Canterbury Tales. Back in high school, as I recall, no one worried that Muslim and Protestant fundamentalists might be insulted by the Miller's Tale. (images) I enjoyed studying the classic but, to my regret, we didn't get to the miller's story. Too bad, 'cause other kids told me they relished his tale for being bawdy. Someday I hope to go back and read that one. My class, reading the stories in order, only got a few stories in. I missed out because the Canterbury pilgrims told their tales in order of social rank: the knight, of course, got to tell his story first, and so on, down the feudal pecking order.

Every society, so the scholars tell us, has some sort of ranking. Even in the "worker's paradise" of the Soviet Union there were those of higher rank, such as Communist Party members. Scholars tell us too that every society has to evolve some tales and customs that serve to reinforce the ranking of society. Such evolution is not, of course, a conscious thing. When the Soviets, less than a hundred years ago, first formed the "people's army" they had no saluting of commissioned officers. After all, there had never been saluting of noncommissioned officers such as sergeants. All the army would be equal. Yet by WWII saluting had been brought in. I am sure they couldn't say why saluting would lead to success in battle, any more than they could give a scientific explanation as to why parade ground drill was necessary. Rather, they just knew, beyond words, that saluting officers was important for a military society.

Surely the people of the Canterbury society also "just knew." In the Tales it is written that the pilgrims left the speaking order to random chance. That is to say, they drew straws. No medieval audience was surprised when this resulted in the knight going first and so on. To them it felt right. At church they would have heard the priest say, "Bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations." My guess is the priest was not part of a conspiracy; I think his prayer was part of a semi-conscious collection of "ways" that meshed to maintain feudal society. (In the space age, as a child reading the Wizard of Id syndicated comic strip, I laughed at how the spook was always in the dungeon for the quote crime unquote of shouting, "The king is fink!")

(Red queen)

Another "way" was the old folk saying, "A cat can look at a king." Alice recites this in Wonderland as the cheshire cat looks at the Red Queen. The queen is like an over confident religious leader. She gets angry, he just grins at her. "Off with his head!"... only his head has no body! The folk saying, I believe, was a code to warn that no person could look at the king, meaning: no one could give the king a dirty look. (silent) "Dumb insolence" is to this day an offence in the British army.

The army, of course, remains the last resort of diplomats. Years ago, like many teenagers who had a father in WWII, (many of us got crew cuts like our heroes had worn) I was an amateur historian of the British Commonwealth armies. Back then I read several versions of the allied diplomatic frustration with the Arabs in WWII. Whenever Arab leaders in the Near East or North Africa were asked to joint the fight for freedom against the evil Axis, the reply was always a puzzled look followed by, "So what's wrong with a dictatorship?" I think when we understand Arabs we will understand Muslims, and to understand Arabs we must understand desert Arabs.


In the desert each man has his weapon. He won't literally salute but he may bow or use respect worlds like "my sheik" and "sir." The sheik is like a king, or a general, telling the nomads when to break camp, where to graze next, and whom to attack. Like good soldiers, no one believes in dumb insolence or disrespect, and no one feels permission to think for themselves, at least, not the same permission a citizen feels. The whole society "just knows" this. It feels right. Parents need not tell their children, "Mustn't question a mullah's (priest's) teaching of the scripture, dear." People just know that "insults" are wrong for the social order, for keeping people in their stations.

Bless the squire and his relations,
and keep us in our proper stations
common English prayer

And all of this leads inevitably to an educated Arab community leader saying on television, here in North America, back (1989) when I was in college, something like, "If someone insulted Queen Elizabeth then of course you would kill him, so why can't you understand us killing Rushdie for his his insult?" (Rushdie's insult? He wrote an artistic fantasy novel. He wrote it not as "popular culture," but for the cultured minority who read literature that regular folks never hear of.) And so I watched how this English-speaking Arab, a good and honest product of his culture, knew in his bones the correct thing to say and do... provided he was talking about the days of Queen Elizabeth the first!

I am saying any society is like an ecology where tales and folk sayings and "salutes" mesh together to serve that society. I suppose this all sounds like I am encouraging respect for Muslims. Yes. More accurately I'm trying to encourage respect when crossing ecological-boundaries. To cross over into any Muslim country is to travel not merely in space but in time. From QE II to QE I. When time traveling you must expect that to change one single thing, such as freedom of speech, in an interlocking ecology, is like trying to roll a stone uphill.

A functioning culture reveals itself in many little ways. Take a certain U.S. proverb: "The president puts on his pants one leg at a time, like everybody else." My guess about Arabs is they still can't feel safe saying that about "my president" or "my mullah."


My guess about Europeans is if they are big on telling non-Europeans about freedom of speech then one of the reasons is they want to be Right. Perhaps their ego says that to be Right means they must have full agreement for speech freedom, agreement from everyone in every space-location all over the world. Perhaps they forget they may not be right for non-democratic countries, and not even right for Europe, not if they go to a time-location of more than three hundred years ago.

Today Europe is a continent-sized ecology. It's perfectly OK to have freedom of speech there. It's OK for European Muslims, Atheists, Christians and Royalty to share warm greetings and friendly insults and bad insults and conversations amongst each other. And it's OK to give a European girl a rabbit for a pet. What's not OK is to carry a rabbit from Europe to Australia...

If someone from Saudi Arabia, who watches the idiot box all the time, suddenly takes a jet plane to Denmark, then buys just one newspaper and carries it back to Arabia... I get suspicious. I think he is flying with the devil. But there is still a chance for goodwill. If the better angel of his nature can respect the term "political correctness" then he must ask the Danish, including the Danish Muslims, whether or not he should riot. I read in the newspaper how the mass of Danish Muslims advised the people overseas not to overreact. But foreign Muslims didn't respect Danish Muslims enough to believe them. And so people died.

In any ecology that is pre-democratic, the people are not like citizens, rather, they are like peasants. They will respect leaders among their royalty and their church but will not respect the masses, not in their own land and not in Denmark. Too bad the Muslim religion militates against democracy. Only as democracy arrives will they come to believe, through experience, in the fellow we know as "John Q. Public."

In the meantime one hopes the people of the continents of Europe and non-Europe could come to respect the boundary between them of a "moral ecology." We in North America could assist them by spreading the news about these eco-boundarys. We could encourage people overseas to control their ego and not carry rabbits.

ABCDE Part Two

Here in North America we set a good example. If a Texas criminal kills babies, and if he flees to Canada, then the good Texas rangers won't send a posse across the national boundary to hunt him down and string him up. Although the Texans, proud and loud, believe in a legal death penalty, they respect how Canadians do not believe a death warrant is morally right. The Texans won't extradite the criminal unless they promise not to kill him.

Wouldn't this same principle of respect apply when Rushdie comes to London Ontario? Or to London England? No need to apologize for the "insult" of assigning him police bodyguards. No need to get into a big long argument with a mullah as to whether or not his fatwah (religious death warrant ) is correct. No need to be Right. Nope. Simply, gently, whisper that Rushdie is in a different ecology now.

I do sympathize with cultures of various space-times, including feudal, military and desert Arab. I sympathize as well with modern day Europeans. I think I know why, in their Economist, they say that "a liberal society requires freedom of speech." Biased? Is "liberal society" a biased term? Surely even if Europeans elect Conservative Party leaders like North America's Stephen Harper and George Bush then they will still say they have a "liberal society." Who can blame them?

It's like how here in Canada, although parliament hasn't declared war since before I was born, we don't call this "normal time." We call it "peace time" ever reminding us that war is the horrible alternative. And so all Europeans - be they Muslim, Atheist, Christian or anything else - they all share a cultural memory of the horrible alternative. They knew the Red Queen... They wish never again to have a society where royalty rules, no one may think, and insults... mean death.

Sean Crawford

putting on my pants in front of the cat
winter 2008.8

~ For more on the context of principles see my intro-chit chat essay of January 2012 for Allah Bless Cartoons in Danish Ecology.

~ On the Calgary Herald letters page for August 19, 2009, Vanity Fair and Slate Magazine columnist Christopher Hitchens, explaining the book that the Yale (university) Press is censoring, writes that it "tells the story of the lurid and preplanned compaign of "protest" and boycott that was orchestrated in late 2005... By the time the hysteria had been called off by those who incited it, perhaps as many as 200 people around the world had been pointlessly killed." As I said in my essay, it was not the Danish Muslims who wanted the violence.

~Update: Rex Murphy, on p. 36-38 of Canada writes "Part of the answer, it seems to me an important point to underscore, is that it is not just the original twelve cartoons, but at least three others- all more offensive than any of the originals... were included in a dossier ... the deeper mischief, it may turn out, was not their cartoons but the supplemented dossier...
I am far from convinced that in this "cartoon debate" one faction has not attempted to rig the facts and—in part—achieve political goals under the cover of faith. If that is so, there's a blasphemy all will agree on."

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