Public Comment

Commentary: Free Speech and Cartoons, With a Side of Rock and Chicks By Mansura Khanam

Friday February 17, 2006

I haven’t seen the cartoons myself and frankly don’t care to (much in the same way if I hear that there is a porno picture that is being passed around, I probably wouldn’t want to see it; I rather personally dislike trashy things.) What I know is that they were printed in September and there were protests and outcries. Nothing was done. No apologies. Then, they were reprinted another time. And then the clerics caught on to it. And massive protests were organized and many people were genuinely outraged. I have to say, the stupidity of both sides astounds me and really shows some murky truths that further sadden me. First, how uncouth, how disrespectful, how racist, muslim-phobic do you have to be to mock another religion at its core of symbolism? All religions depend on symbolism. There is no imagery of the Prophet Muhammad because of a deep belief that no person should become a source of worship. Worship should be of God also left formless to take form in the individual. 

This past Christmas, I heard that hundreds people called into television stations because on “Everybody Hates Chris” they “revealed” that there was no Santa Claus along with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. The younger Chris Rock said to his little sister, “Look we don’t even have a fireplace, we have a radiator.” This clinched it for her and she ran away in a burst of tears. Hundreds of outraged letters and phone calls, and peppered in those were even some threats. I think the outrage stemmed from people feeling like their choice to allow their children to believe in something unreal was taken away from them. A few years back the Dixie Chicks, former musical darlings of the Bible belt who broke through to mainstream, were at a concert in London and before the concert, the lead vocalist said she was ashamed what Bush was doing with Blair. Thousands of people were in the streets of America. Open bonfires of all their materials, album, pictures, etc. Radio stations were forced by violent listeners to stop playing the Dixie Chicks. The Dixie Chicks who are sisters got death threats (hmmm, fatwas) on them and their children! They finally went on air, told their story in an interview and apologized through sobs just so the terrorizing would stop. And this, just because she voiced an opinion about what her president was about to do in another country. Personally, if people didn’t like it, I think a few “boos” and walkouts from the concert, maybe even a few demanding their money back would have sufficed. 

Dumb. Very dumb of the Danish newspaper to reprint the cartoons a second time. Even dumber that they would print this and refuse at the same time to print some material that would disgrace Jesus. What’s that all about? Also, there is a pervasive problem that Muslim minorities in European countries are treated like third class citizens. Like any minority group that is discriminated against, this is another blow. Can you imagine if a white actor/actress decided to put on black-face and did a fumbling routine and said it was just supposed to be funny, just free speech? Or, a cartoon of Hitler smelling flowers growing out of gas chambers, or something like that- that’s not free speech, it’s purposely offensive and that’s what I think these cartoons are. And yet, still, every so often an offensive thing does get printed, a quack professor tries to espouse the scientific basis for the racial superiority of “Caucasians” over “Negroids.” No one bands with this quack. Everyone draws in a collective breath of surprise and disgust (some only because he got caught openly saying it.) Everyone distances himself or herself from this professor. Statements of apology are put forth and they fire this professor. They do not stand in solidarity with this professor (like some Europeans are doing with the Danish paper.) There should be protests and a call for an apology and maybe even “fire the editor.” 

But violent protests and fatwas, come on! Some intelligent responses, please!! This sort of thing only feeds the frenzy. I wish this kind of mass protest would occur over lack of access to food or health-care or decent living in Muslim countries. There’s something to scream in the streets about or burn down flags about. I wish it would occur over lack of education and liberalization, global supply chains that only benefit the rich, rampant consumerism and environmental degradation, human trafficking and abuse of all kinds. But sadly it doesn’t or it isn’t covered when it does.  

I fear in many Muslim countries, right wing extremists who also happen to have thick wallets have squelched moderate voices. But so has the media. It seems that the more frenzied, violent episodes always get the coverage. The moderate voices as well as the varied voices are not given space. Coverage is simplistic and dumbed-down playing on and into stereotypes. Never mind, the imbalanced access to and coverage by the media megalomaniacs. I think money and mega-media has done much to hurt free speech.  

And what about all the violence that is hurtled at us all day in practically every form of the media? Is that free speech or simply taking away my freedom or my children’s freedom not to be exposed to certain things? That is offensive. But who is to play God and decide what is permissible under free speech and what is limiting free speech? I do feel the world is slowly going crazy, and the pace has quickened these past years.  


Mansura Khanam, who happens to be a female Bangladeshi American returning student, just recently moved to San Francisco.