Friday, September 07, 2007

Sensational Cartoons no Longer a Burning Issue

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (September 7, 2007)

Al Makin

Unlike last year when Muslims in Indonesia and across the world reacted angrily to 12 controversial cartoons published by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, few protests greeted a sensational cartoon printed by Swedish daily Nerikes Allehanda at the end of last month. The cartoon depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a dog.

I attempt to see the cartoon issue from the cultural point of view. For the sake of argument, the matter is a problem of cultural differences, less political, much less theological ones. It is obvious that Danish and Swedish cartoonists are neither politicians nor theologians by profession. They are simply cartoonists.

The cartoon controversy illustrates the significant differences between Asian cultures, on the one hand, and European or Western ones, on the other. This is with regard to the use of cartoons as satire in the public realm and the standard of politeness in each culture.

Let us take the following example. Almost at the same time as the Swedish cartoon appeared, the Malaysian Tamil-language newspaper Makkal Osai published a picture of Jesus smoking and drinking. Many Christians in Malaysia, as well as people of other faiths, found it offensive. Despite the editor's public apology, the Malaysian government suspended the newspaper for a month.

In view of the Makkal Osai case it is misleading to assume that the satirical cartoons appearing in Denmark and Sweden gave offense merely because of Islamic theology. Nor does this case provide support for the notion of Islam and Muslims as scapegoats, since Malaysian Christians were also affected by the cartoon.

Different cultures interpret freedom of expression differently. In Europe, it is perhaps acceptable to mock certain public figures, but it is hard to do the same in Asian countries. In Asia, people still respect certain boundaries. The Malaysian government, for example, interfered with public freedom. This was not the case in Denmark and Sweden.

In a globalizing world, all cultures find themselves increasingly interlocked. There can be no hope of successfully imposing one's own cultural values simply by ignoring the values of others. Instead, a certain element of compromise and tolerance is required. This is merely a normative rule.

This is what should be and yet it does not describe what has actually happened. The reality is that certain cartoonists insist on living wholly according to their own cultural values and have published works that Muslims have found "insulting".

If the case is to be treated as a cultural problem, it follows that Muslims should not respond to the cartoon seriously, as if dealing with a theological issue. Muslims will only waste energy in doing so. In turn, the situation will become worse. The controversy has already cost us too much in terms of economics, politics, humanity, and the future relations between East and West.

Nobody disagrees that insulting another culture is wrong. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton called the cartoon case "appalling". Prominent Indonesian intellectual, Father Franz Magnis Suseno, would also likely agree with this. In line with this, it is hard to accept that this satirical cartoon was aimed at constructive criticism of the Muslim community, since the best criticism would come from the insider's perspective and with its own cultural values.

Secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, accorded the cartoon case too much importance by addressing it in a recent press release. Condemnation of the cartoon and cartoonist is simply not a matter that merits the high-level attention of the OIC. Let it be a problem among cartoonists. Their work is intended to be humorous. Why must we take it seriously?

To elevate this problem to the level of politics is unrealistic. It seems impossible for the Swedish government to immediately take action against the artist and the publisher, as demanded by the OIC.

It seems Sweden considers the cartoon to be the work of an individual. As such, the government of Sweden is not responsible for it nor does it wish to interfere with the freedom of expression in Sweden. Thus, it becomes a matter of choice whether to elevate a mere cartoon to the level of a political or theological matter. Doing so will only cause further problems.

It is better for us to ignore a provocative cartoon by pretending that we have never seen it, keeping in mind the intended element of humor as well as the fact that a cartoonist is neither a theologian nor politician.

It appears that harsh reactions from Muslims is exactly what cartoonists want to see. Such reaction will motivate similar cartoons in the future.

On the other hand, if the Muslim public ignores offensive religious cartoons -- which may continue to appear from time to time in the media-- the cartoonists will likewise lose interest and turn their attention to other things.

Instead of mocking each other, we might make friendship cartoons, as Indonesian and Australian artists in Bali have recently done.

The writer is a lecturer at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta and PhD candidate at the Seminar fur Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients, Heidelberg University, Germany. He can be reached at


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