Shaffer: Cartoonist tactless, not hateful

The cartoon that brought Kurt Westergaard fame and infamy portrays the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban concealing a bomb. I find the cartoon tasteless and obnoxious. It oversimplifies a complex issue that warrants nuanced thought. It takes aim at and misrepresents somebody not present to defend himself. And it does not treat its object with sufficient respect and decency.

But it’s not so different from other political cartoons, which are designed to provoke thought and are often flippant.

That said, I believe cartoonists should treat the people they portray with respect, especially when that person is Muhammad. He is one of the most influential figures in human history as a source of religious inspiration and an object of reverence for billions of people, including many Elis. Most of us don’t know everything about Muhammad and Islam and, when in doubt, it’s best to operate on a presumption of respect.

So, I’m sympathetic to those for whom Westergaard’s cartoons left a sour taste. But those who compare merely tasteless cartoons to hate speech and those who defame Westergaard as a bigot are themselves dishonest and hateful.

Last Thursday morning, I received an e-mail from Syed Salah Ahmed ’11 encouraging me to “protest hate speech.” It compared Westergaard to “a white supremacist or an anti-Semite who spread hateful ideologies.” He told me that the cartoonist “built his career by propagating hate” and asserted that the cartoon was “widely believed to be an example of inflammatory hate speech.” It offered no evidence for these claims, but simply encouraged recipients to circulate the e-mail as much as possible.

Let’s examine the validity of these claims.

The original cartoon sought to represent a connection between Islam and particular incidents of terrorism. I believe that terrorist violence stems more from political propaganda, resentment and uncomfortable transitions to global capitalism than from religious piety. But a decent and well-informed individual — one who bore no hate against Muslims themselves — might come to a different conclusion that connects religion with violence, especially since reactions to the cartoons left more than 100 people dead. So must the cartoon manifest bigotry or hatred? Absolutely not. Only political opportunists and liars would say so.

How about the comparisons to anti-Semitism? In the 20th century, anti-Semites were responsible for the systematic murder of more than 6 million Jews and continue to murder today; swastika vandalism expresses support for genocidal atrocities. Westergaard drew a tactless cartoon. May I be so bold as to suggest the two are not morally equivalent? As for comparing Westergaard to white supremacists, it was perhaps my naive understanding that Islam is a religion, not a race.

Westergaard has repeatedly clarified that his cartoon did not constitute an attack on all Muslims. He has repeatedly stated what should have been obvious — he intended for the cartoon to draw attention to the threat of violence committed under the pretext of Islamist zeal. It was not to propagate anti-Muslim hatred by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet, protestors lined up outside of Thursday’s Master’s Tea with signs calling Westergaard a bigot and comparing his cartoons to swastikas. In a letter to the News (“Letter: Cartoonist’s invitation contrary to Yale’s religious acceptance,” Oct. 2), University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and Omer Bajwa, the coordinator of Muslim Life for Yale, opined that Westergaard would “undermine the progress” toward religious understanding and divined that his presence would unmake “the campus a place that truly welcomes and embraces those of every religion.” They even thought it necessary to remind us that “Yale is better off because of the contributions of its Muslim students,” as if letting him speak had called that into question.

Accusing individuals of hatred and bigotry, likening them to anti-Semites, or prophesying that they will undermine campus harmony are not accusations to be taken lightly. They can ruin people’s lives, stigmatize them unjustly, and incite violence and attempts at murder (something Westergaard experiences daily). The words hate and bigot are politically useful; they are the surest means to silence disagreement. But they are also slanderous when leveled against the innocent, and dangerous when they give rise to violence.

If you want to know what real hate is, ask Westergaard about his experience. He and his family have faced countless death threats and murder plots. He has been forced, in his words, to “go underground,” constantly hiding, moving discreetly, unable to see family and friends. His wife left her job under threat. The man will never be able to walk down a street or talk to students ever again without fearing for his life. He has faced hatred beyond what any of us — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — can imagine. His cartoon, on the other hand, expressed none. It was, rather, a justified act of political dissent. The protestors who stood outside of Greenberg Conference Center and compared Westergaard — a brave, decent and tortured man — to Nazi sympathizers should be ashamed of their dishonesty. Real opponents of hatred would have offered condemnation to his enemies and sympathy to Westergaard. Not the other way around.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.

Comments

  • preach it brother

    truth.

  • anon

    somebody get this kid a regular column

  • yalie

    i think the point was that one cannot make images of Mohammed, and he did.

  • Hieronymus

    Oh, and in case you think I make this stuff up:

    Obama yesterday, representing the US, joined with his Egyptian counterpart on the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Hisham Badr, to squelch free speech. Said Badr: “[F]reedom of expression… has been sometimes misused,” insisting on limits consistent with the “true nature of this right…”

    The new resolution, championed by the Obama administration, has a number of disturbing elements. It emphasizes that “the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities…” which include taking action against anything meeting the description of “negative racial and religious stereotyping.”

    [ed. note: Seriously: you canNOT make this stuff up!]

    It also purports to “recognize… the moral and social responsibilities of the media” and supports “the media’s elaboration of voluntary codes of professional ethical conduct” in relation to “combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

    BTW: “human rights” (top-down rights of the collective, e.g., food, shelter, health care, education, as defined by the UN) are fast trumping the US Constitution’s “individual rights” (bottom-up rights of the individual which guarantee “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” however an individual may define that happiness).

  • Samuel Bagg

    Thanks, Matt. This needed to be said…

  • yalemom

    well said!

  • William Freeland

    Well done Matt!

  • Y’11

    Amen!

  • grad ’10

    Very well said.

    The sad irony is that the violent and threatening responses to the cartoon reflect perfectly its point–fundamentalism and intolerance find a safe haven in the pretense of religious piety. Inflammatory responses on the part of Yalies do more to fan the flames of hate and resentment than quiet them, and I would suggest far exceed any real harm caused by a flippant, though trenchant, cartoon.

  • BT4real

    outstanding

  • DoodleLover

    This is one of those very rare instances where the intellectual and moral scales tip so heavily in favor of one side that, for all practical purposes, that side can be said to be absolutely right. Thank you for making a cogent and cool-headed argument in conveying this point.

  • Another BCHSer

    One of your best yet. Said what needed to be said.

  • Madas

    Nice job, Matt. Eloquent and succinct.

  • Chaplain Kugler

    HATE SPEECH HATE SPEECH HATE SPEECH HATE SPEECH SOMEBODY EX-COMM THIS KID IMMEDIATELY!!!

  • SAK

    this was not a political issue that can be analogous to political satirical cartoons. likening it to one is not giving enough respect to a religious personality that is revered by 1.5 billion people world wide. as far as the protesters go, there seems to be inconsistency in the writer’s internal logic; if expressing his opinion by drawing a cartoon and then facing the reaction makes Westergaard a “brave (and) decent” man, why are the protesters maligned to be”dishonest and hateful” for expressing their views

  • grad ’10

    ….demanding respect from others for something *you* believe in but they do not is rather gauche, no?

  • @ #15

    The protesters had a right to express their own opinions, but their methods proved to be dishonest in my point of view. It’s hypocritical of them to protest hate speech while they are the ones throwing around libelous terms such as: “white supremacist”, “anti-Semite who spread hateful ideologies”, “someone who built his career by propagating hate”. Instead of supporting these claims, the sender of the email just encouraged people to spread it around. Who’s spreading the hate now?

  • @ SAK

    You’d have a better argument if there were fewer Muslims. In fact, the more people who are offended, the more acceptable it should be, as the offense is not likely to increase marginalization.

    In fact, the reason why the original cartoons were so reactionary and disturbing, was because they were printed in a country in the midst of a conservative political against a small, minority, immigrant community.

    If this cartoon were of Jesus instead, it would be offensive, but less inappropriate and disturbing. (But no, I still wouldn’t invite the author to campus.)

  • @#18

    @#18

    Had the cartoon been Jesus, it is likely that no one would have died.

  • HDT

    @#19-

    I hope you’re not trying to claim that Christians are never terroristic…abortion clinic bombings come to mind.

    Any doctrine can be used as a basis for violence. It just seems that in the world today, the doctrine of Islam is used to such ends more than any other.

    For Muslims to protest (peacefully) those who use an image of Muhammad to express discomfort with this fact is their right, but ultimately rather naive–or even disingenuous.

  • @HDT

    O gimme a break: even YOU don’t believe that “abortion clinic bombings” are the result of some plan, some Christian movement. No one is fooled by moral equivalence any longer.

  • More @HDT

    BTW: could you please point to a recognized Christian authority that condones clinic bombings? Can you point to some that do not *condemn* such actions?

    I can point to many recognized MAINSTREAM Muslim clerics that not only do not condemn (i.e., simply remain silent) but actually condone, praise, and encourage hatred and terrorism to their MAINSTREAM congregants (I mean, other than Obama’s former church…).

  • Perspective

    Part I

    “I hope you’re not trying to claim that Christians are never terrorists…”

    Well: that would be silly! It is likely that some Christian somewhere is a terrorist (indeed, I can imagine some nominal Christian left-winger joining up in sympathy with, say, the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers or some such nonsense).

    First off: abortion terrorists don’t kill over a cartoon–they kill those guilty (in *their* minds) of killing the innocent (50 million embryos since 1972–and counting!).

    But taking your “abortion clinic” meme at face value, let us gather some perspective…

    The most notorious “terrorist” (and he is, indeed, a terrorist) of abortion clinics, Eric Rudolph, is deemed a “white supremacist” first. Like the “horse” in “horseradish,” his group “Christian Identity” ain’t got a whole lotta Christ, but rather uses the bible to cover for its hatred–the group is roundly and loudly denounced by churches/denominations/authorities worldwide.

    But, for chuckles, let us review a few stats (and I take these from Pro-Choice America, http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/assets/files/Abortion-Access-to-Abortion-Violence.pdf i.e., NOT a right-wing group…).

    The US typically sees around 15,000 – 20,000 murders in total per year. Over the past 20 years, how many of these were of abortion providers? (Go ahead: write down your answer…).

    Ready?

    The answer is: on average,

    ZERO.

    Yes: you read that right. Pro-Choice America reports that over the last 20 years the US has experienced a total of 8 murders of abortion providers.

    [The latest victim, George Tiller (2009) was killed by a man with a history of anti-government activities and psychiatric problems. Go figure. The next most recent murder was in 1998, more than TEN YEARS prior.]

    Okay, okay you say, but SURELY there is much OTHER “terrorist” activity. Well, let’s see:

    The National Abortion Federation (again, NOT a right-wing organization) states that since 1977 (that is, over the course of more than THIRTY YEARS) in the United States PLUS Canada, there have been:

    17 attempted murders
    383 death threats
    153 incidents of assault or battery
    3 kidnappings

    Bombings? The NAF reports that over the last 30 years in Canada PLUS the US, there have, indeed, been 41 bombings (although, apparently, death was not a primary goal–not justifying it, just pointing it out).

    Also: Of a total 655 “bio-terror” threats against clinics (of which ALL were hoaxes), 554 came from ONE man in ONE mass-mailing episode (Clayton Wagner is in prison for the crime).

  • Perspective – Part Deux

    Part II
    SooOOOooooo: 8 dead. Mainly by certifiable whackos; all denounced/ostracized/excommunicated (for the Catholics, anyway).

    But which, do you think, is highlighted by US media, hmm?

    The SILENCE (and, sometimes, celebration) of mainstream Muslims with regard to terrorist acts committed in the name of their world-wide religion

    -OR-

    The relatively rare, always denounced terrorist acts committed by a fringe few in the name of *their* religion?

    How many clerics and mosques are publicized–or even criticized–for their overt calls to fight and kill?

    Let’s even be specific and germane: how much campus outrage when Muslim clerics call for the killing of gays?

    So: please: do not go around trying to equate so-called “Christian terrorists” (and their measly success rate) with the killing of thousands upon thousands (and still counting) by similarly labeled “Muslim terrorists.” The numbers just don’t add up.

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