Friday, February 03, 2006

Cartoon Graveyard

The reprinting of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, first published by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last September, has sparked heated protest by Muslims who feel the cartoons are an insult to Islam, both for their inflammatory content, and because they defy the Muslim ban on depicting images of Mohammed in the first place.

I have seen most of the cartoons and find them largely infantile and moronic. But that is beside the point. Nor is the point that these cartoonists violate Muslim law— the cartoonists are not Muslims.

Nor is the point is freedom of speech and Islam’s inability to deal with it. The Book of Daniel was taken off the air in Nashville because of Christian pressure put on the local NBC affiliate. Catholics routinely threaten to boycott movies they find anti-Catholic, and Jews are not hesitant to attack films, such as Munich and The Passion of the Christ they find anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Every religious and ethnic group seeks to defend itself when it feels its honor is under attack.

What troubles me about these images of Mohammed is that they are simply the latest example of the human tendency to dehumanize those labeled “the enemy” in order to promote violence against them.

I am a fan of political cartoons, but there is a difference between caricaturing someone and demonizing him. The best study of this is Bill Jersey’s film, “Faces of the Enemy” featuring social commentator Sam Keen. Using material drawn from World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and Islamic and Christian Fundamentalism, Keen shows how we blame, demonize, and dehumanize our enemies to justify killing them.

In most cases, people have to be primed for war. As the film says, they have to “think each other to death” first. And cartoons such some of those printed in the Jyllands-Posten are part of that process. They are no different than the anti-Semitic cartoons demonizing Jews that are rampant in Islamic countries. As long as “the other” isn’t human, we can excuse almost any action taken against them.

In the film, psychologists Robert Lifton and Steven Kull explain how war and the dehumanizing of enemies provide us with a sense of moral certainty in a time of moral ambiguity. As humanity becomes more global and cultural norms are challenged by those of other peoples, each group seeks to bolster its sense of what’s right and true by dehumanizing and warring against those who hold differing views. We can see this in the violent diatribes against Jews in many Islamic countries, those against homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, Christians, and illegal aliens in this country, and the hate speech that masquerades as radio and television talk shows. Hateful cartoons featuring Mohammed are just more of the same.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell holds out a ray of hope in the film, saying that these cartoons can act as a mirror reflecting our own dark side, and developing compassion for “the other.” We can only hope. In the meantime watch it this film.

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