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As Muslim Outcry Grows, Questions of Rights vs. Responsibilities Come To the Fold

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As protests continue around the world, two analysts say Muslims have been as angered by the cartoons as they have by the hypocrisy behind their publication. [includes rush transcript]

  • Rahul Mahajan, editor of the website EmpireNotes.org and author of the books “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism” and “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond.”
  • Behzad Yaghmaian, Iranian-born author living in the United States. He is the author of the book Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. It is based on two years of traveling in the Middle East and Europe following migrants from Muslim countries. He is also a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Rahul Mahajan, let¹s ask you, these cartoons actually were published in September. This is months later that these protests have erupted around the world. Your reaction, one to the publication here in the United States of a Wyoming newspaper, and also to the protests themselves?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, I think the question of publication now and the question of the original publication are two different things. The problem with the first one was that some of the cartoons, in particular with the one with the Prophet’s turban as a bomb, with allah jdssdjf written on it were not just blasphemous if you¹re a Muslim, which shouldn¹t be of concern to those who are not Muslims, but also are racists in essentially saying that all Muslims are terrorists. Now if you reprint it, it kind of depends on what your point is.

At this point it is a huge story and it is news and people should be seeing it just to see what the controversy is about. Some people are re-printing just to say it is another step in the culture wars, and I think that¹s silly. But certainly even the original publication knows there is freedom of the press and they had the right to do that it was just a really bad idea and really racist thing that should be opposed.

The reason it’s taken so long for the protest to come to a head is that that’s how things always happen. Political processes do not happen overnight. First of all, as was said already, there were many attempts to peacefully address the problem, most of them were rebuffed in Denmark. Then it got out to the attention of all the Muslim countries. Some governments and some groups in those countries decided to stir up protest. And then I think what really started this auto-catalytic chain was the cascade of reprinting of the stories all over the place. So I think that people say, you know, it’s taken so many months, to suggest there is something manufactured about the crisis but no, that’s just how things work politically.

AMY GOODMAN: Behzad Yaghmaian, your response?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: I agree with most of what he said. What I like to add to this is the way the western media has portrayed the Muslim population, especially those living in the west has been very problematic. The reprinting of these cartoons in my opinion, has been a political act; a political act with an intention of demonizing the Muslim population.

That is, it was quite well calculated, it was anticipated that the most fundamentalist section of the Muslin population in the West would react. And then using that reaction as a way of the politics of exclusion to excluding the Muslim migrants. There are fifteen million Muslims living in the west, in Europe now. The Europeans are not happy with that. The aesthetics of the cities have changed. From the beginning they were upset with having that many Muslims in the communities. The way the Muslims, some of them, dress, the way they go out, the way they eat, the way their cultures, all of them, have been troubling to a lot of the Europeans. This has now been used as a way of further excluding the Muslims. And also it’s important to note that those who protested this in Europe are a very small fraction of the fifteen million Muslims who live in Europe.

The majority of the Muslims are not against ideas of western democracy; they embrace that, that is why they are there. But the media actually blames and victimizes the majority because of the action of the minority. So that’s one problem. In the end it’s going to lead to further marginalization of the large section of the Muslim population that wants to be a part of the European community and live there.

But there’s another problem that the media doesn’t address and that’s really a main concern for me, that at the end of the day a very prominent and important victim of this crisis is freedom of press in the Muslim world. That is, Muslim governments like the Islamic Republic of Iran, the governments of Syria, the governments of Saudi Arabia, who have a long history of repressing free press. Iran is the number one country in terms of having prisoners who are journalists. Iran jails journalists, tortures them, kills them.

Now these governments have jumped on the bandwagon in defense of the Prophet Mohammad and Islam. So in the end, anybody in these countries who in the future would defend democracy, would be again cast aside, put in jail n the context of, look, this is what democracy brings about.

JUAN GONZALEZ: D. Reed Eckhardt, what about some of these issues of what’s happening in the European press, really, being not so much a battle over freedom of the press as a reflection of the ethnic and religious and racial conflicts within Europe?

D. REED ECKHARDT: Well, certainly, Europe is a long way away from Cheyenee, Wyoming. We have an 18,000 daily papers here in the American heartland. I think for us, not to steer the conversation in another direction, for us this was simply a matter of public access. We in America say over and over again and again how much we believe in first amendment and the public access. Great newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post argue again and again for access for their readers to information.

Now we have an issue that is particularly inflammatory and everyone shuts up. That makes no sense to me. Are these cartoons racist? Perhaps. At the same time I do think they probably represent a viewpoint of the number of people in the world, and I think my readers here in Cheyenee, Wyoming, need to see that. I’ve certainly seen more inflammatory cartoons in the American press since 2001 than these. We looked at them very carefully before we chose to run them, but I’m not sure that simply labeling them as racists solves the problem. I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I think it’s very important that the papers in this country publish them. As you know the Associated Press, when they wouldn’t distribute them to their member newspapers. That concerns me.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you have published a cartoon that mocked Jews, say Jews with horns or Jesus Christ or that stereotyped African-Americans?

D. REED ECKHARDT: I think under the right circumstances we would. I’ve been an editorial editor for a number of years, for a number of newspapers, and when I lived in the south for 10 years we ran a number of letters that were particularly repugnant. But we did it with the understand, or the hope that our readers would try to get a sense of what the world is like going around them. Certainly if there were embassies being burned or thousands turning out for protests, not to say that’s the heart of this, but a story of this size deserves, I believe, the attention that shows readers what’s going on in the world around them.

AMY GOODMAN: And Iran’s national newspaper has set up a competition for who could come up with the funniest cartoon about the holocaust. Would you print those cartoons?

D. REED ECKHARDT: I think we would consider it. I think it’s real important. Again, what’s the reaction going to be if there are thousands marching and embassies are being burned, and national protest going on, I think we would consider it, certainly.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with D.Reed Eckhardt who has printed these cartoons in his paper in Cheyenee, Wyoming, the vacation home, is that right, of vice president Dick Cheney?

D. REED ECKHARDT: Well, the state certainly is, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And also the Muslim community. You have a small Muslim community in Cheyenee. What has been their response?

D. REED ECKHARDT: So far it has been quiet. We have a mosque here. About fifty members. We’ve not heard from them. I heard from several readers that have expressed concern that we were sort of stirring up trouble. Our intention is to do a story the next day or two and talking to members of that mosque and getting their response to the whole controversy of us publishing those cartoons.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Rahul, what about this whole issue of the impact of this controversy on freedom of the press within the Muslim world? Also, is the coverage that is being given now to the demonstrations itself, in itself helping to create images of less civilized activity within the Muslim world?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, I certainly agree with Behzad. Those governments that he referred to, are always leaping at any opportunity to shut down any kind of dissent. And I must say that those papers in the Muslim world that reprinted those cartoons were taking a very different kind of stance and it was a different sort of action than the European papers doing it. And whether you agree with it or not and really — obviously there is room for criticism of Islam or any other religion or any other belief system, but these cartoons are not a sensible way of doing it. They’re meaningless. But even if they couldn’t find anything better, at least whatever else they said, they were taking a courageous stand. Unlike I think, the European papers.

The question of — it’s very interesting to see how these protests are being seized on and looked at, for example, by the right wing of the United States. They see this as a huge opportunity, much the same as some people saw 9/11 as a huge opportunity, although this time they don’t even have to — there’s no price involved whatsoever. And it’s interesting that one thing that people are constantly referring to, for example, is you bring up this and talk about Muslim anger and they say, well, what about the incredible incidents of anti-Semitic depictions in papers in the Muslim world. And that’s true, it’s deplorable. But what’s interesting is that the same people very often who talk about that and bring that up most are responsible for an incredible number of racist depictions of Arabs.

Mr. Eckhardt has said, for example, by his opinion there has been a lot more racist stuff after 9/11 in this country against Arabs. And that’s true, if you look at right-wing websites. There is one called Littlegreen footballs for example. They get over a hundred thousand viewers a day. It’s a huge online right wing community. They regularly print racist stuff, they regularly refer to all Muslims as “Koranimals.” Extremely racist term. This is very common, and yet they’re castigating Muslims for their anti-Semitism.

AMY GOODMAN: We heard the quote of Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State yesterday, saying Iran and Syria are behind this. Yet we read in The New York Times today that this major meeting took place dealing with the cartoons and other issues in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Of course, Syria and Iran that’s being highlighted are official enemies of the United States. The United States has classified them in that way. Saudi Arabia a very close ally.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: It’s surprising that the Bush administration didn’t try to pin Katrina on Syria and Iran. They’re looking for everything they can to justify any kind of bellicose language or stances towards Syria and Iran. It’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s a lot bigger than that. And I should note that for the most part, Iran’s responses has been deplorable — I am not a fan of mocking the holocaust — has been in the same realm. It’s been trying to get other people to do cartoons, and not primarily in terms of suborting the violence.

In Syria it’s different. Obviously if the Syrian security forces crack down the mobs they wouldn’t have been able to burn the embassies. So clearly there’s some level of complicity. The reason for that, the reason it’s different now than before 9/11 is that the whole Arab and Muslim world more and more see a west united in Bush’s crusade, even if they are not directly in Iraq, which Denmark is, you see them essentially in one way or another, lending tacit support to a crusade that has already destroyed and occupied two Muslim countries.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Behzad Yaghmaian, what does this controversy do in the battle within the Muslim world, between more progressive-oriented and more fundamentalist political directions?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: Well this is a defeat. Actually, a momentary defeat for the more progressive and secular forces within the Muslim world, and that is why I said that democracy and progress in the Muslim world is one of the primary victims of this process. I speak about Iran more because I have a long history of knowing what has been happening with Iran with the question of freedom of press. Now progressive forces that call for secularism, for the the privatization of religion, for the separation of the church and the state are going to be on the defensive. Because there is a momentum against them. There is a momentum to show that Western democracy, freedom of press, will lead to blasphemy, it would lead to the insult to religious views. So this has been very damaging. I also think this cartoon match is silly, it’s damaging and it’s going to just ignite more crisis. I hope it will stop. I hope less and less American and European journalists will join this battle of cartoons.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that the same groups of people are talking about freedom of the press. And that’s very important to protect, and I’m talking about in European countries and the United States, are passing laws against so-called hate speech or speech that is inciting violence, which is particularly targeting these very same communities.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: Precisely, and this is also a sign of hypocrisy that the Muslim world looks at. Another example of this, in the past couple of years there has been debate across the European continent about the headscarf. And the French actually banned the wearing of headscarf. Isn’t that freedom of — I’m opposed to the head scarf from a different point of view but I do not believe that a government can actually mandate body politics. So the Muslims are saying on one hand you have the freedom to do whatever you want in your press free, but on the other hand we don’t have the freedom to wear our headscarf because of our beliefs. And that causes more tension.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that there would be less outcry if Arab voices, Muslim voices, were as much on the front pages being quoted in the daily discourse of politics as they are in the cartoon pages?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: Precisely. It would have diffused the crisis. There are many things to do now that would perhaps help reducing this crisis in the future. One, the Western countries and the press must stop only looking at the Muslims as the source of fundamentalism. Unfortunately, we have fundamentalism in all religions. Fundamentalism has been on the rise. Look at the fire bombings of abortion clinics in the United States. When the last temptation of Christ was shown in Paris, the theater was fire bombed. We have fundamentalists ruling the White House now. That needs to be addressed. Muslims don’t have the monopoly of fundamentalism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Finally, D. Reed Eckhardt, are you calling for editors and newspapers around the country to follow your lead and publish these cartoons?

D. REED ECKHARDT: Yes Juan, I certainly would hope that more of them would. I understand the concerns on the other side, but I think this nation needs a good debate about what is appropriate here. I don’t think it’s quite as easy, and of course we are a long away from what’s going on in Europe, but it disturbs me that only a few handful of newspapers have offered their readers an opportunity to see and have the discussion.

Certainly in the next few days and months, our readers will have a talk on whether what we published was appropriate, whether it’s accurate, whether it’s concerning, whether it’s racist. Without that kind of publication and that kind of debate, where do we go? I think we would agree the founders of this nation certainly understood the need for speech and even for repugnant speech to move this nation forward in many ways. If people can’t see these cartoons, how do they know what they’re really about? I would argue that’s not what this country is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question, and that’s for Rahul Mahajan. Is this a clash of civilizations?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Yes. I think the battle has been joined, there is a clash of civilizations. But it’s because civilizations had to, inevitably to come into a clash and it’s not because of irreconcilable difference. It’s because there are people on both sides, especially from the West, who want the clash of civilizations. It’s here now. It’s real. It’s been building since 9/11, and it’s going to be disastrous for all sides. The worst affect — the biggest victims will be people in the Muslim world, not just the religious minorities, but anyone who believes in freedom in the Muslim world, who are suffering now from their own bigots and from a Western crusade.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul Mahajan, Behzad Yaghmaian and D. Reed Eckhardt in Cheyenne Wyoming, we want to thank you all for being with us.

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