It all started with a children’s book. Kaare Bluitgen is popular in Denmark, although Amazon never heard of him, and Powell’s only lists one title, A Boot Fell From Heaven, intriguingly summarized with a single sentence: “God meets the boy who found his lost boot.”
Bluitgen wanted to write a kid’s book about Mohammed, and ran up against an important Muslim prohibition against drawing pictures of the prophet. He couldn’t find an illustrator, and this caught the interest of the Jyllands-Posten editors, who intentionally sought controversy by inviting twelve cartoonists to publish pictures of Mohammed in their daily paper.
Author and blogger Laila Lalami criticizes the cartoons but dismisses the insult as typical “ignorance and bigotry” and calls for calm: “Leave the cartoonist alone! He has a right to his stupidity!” I respect Lalami’s article very much, but, interestingly, this jewishguy comes up with a different interpretation than that moorishgirl. In fact my intuitive responses are almost a mirror opposite of hers.
She is being generous in shrugging off the religious offense the Jylland-Posten editors committed in broadcasting visual images of the prophet Mohammed in direct contradiction of a deep spiritual principle. Muslims have avoided drawing Mohammed for over a thousand years, and there’s certainly something admirable and beautiful in this austere tradition. I remember hearing about a new film biography of Mohammed that had been released a few years ago; the entire film avoided showing the subject’s face. Obviously, this is an important tenet of the religion.
Yes, of course, there is free speech in the great land that gave us Prince Hamlet, Soren Kierkegaard and nice fruit-filled pastries with icing. But I’m not impressed by the hooligan-style “Free Speech means they can shove it!” reaction to the Muslim outrage on, for instance, many blogs. In fact, free speech is safe in American and Europe and we don’t need to rub it in the faces of devout Muslims just to make sure.
I think Lalami could have come down harder on the editors and cartoonists for this reason, and at the same time I think she misses an important point when she calls them stupid and ignorant. They may have been obnoxious, disrespectful, blasphemous and many other things, but they set out to cause a stir and their plot succeeded — even, I imagine, beyond their goal. Like the orange in the turban says: it was a publicity stunt. So call these editors and artists manipulative, call them wicked, but don’t call them dumb. They knew what they were doing, and they ain’t dumb.
This last point leads to a larger one, which is that these twelve cartoons express a deep seething anger towards the propaganda and rhetoric of violent Islamic extremism that may be boiling more rapidly around the world than anyone realizes. Speaking just for myself, as an American Jew born in New York City (call me a triple threat), my first reaction to the Muslim outrage about these cartoons is best expressed by this other cartoon, which says a lot.
I pray for better times ahead for all of us ethnic pariahs. We really should talk more.
“God meets the boy who found his lost boot.” Hey God, we’ve got more important things for you to help us with these days.