[DEBATE] : Ish. Shukri on the cartoons
vallys at epu.wits.ac.za
Fri Feb 10 13:54:43 GMT 2006
I have just received the news that gunmen have seized the French Cultural Centre in Nablus. Here is a link to the story:
I am very dismayed at the news. I have been there. I know the people who work there. My visit there was organised by PARC, the NGO who facilitate my trip to Palestine last August. I went to the centre to speak about developing closer links between Palestine and South Africa, ties which I thought were urgent and essential.
My colleagues, friends and associates in Palestine will already be aware of this news. It was brought to my attention by a fe llow traveller and volunteer on the PARC camp. I am bringing this news to the attention of my colleagues in the UK, South Africa. Following is a piece which I have written about the cartoons. I have submitted it to a South African newspaper for publication this weekend but I am sending it below for the attention of my friends in Palestine, some of whom live in Nablus, because for now, this is all I can do to demonstrate my solidarity.
To the Editors of Jyllands-Posten (Denmark), France Soir (France), Die Welt (Germany), Volkskrant (The Netherlands), El Periodico and Madrid al Mundo (Spain), La Stampa (Italy) and the Weekly Mail & Guardian (South Africa)
On 5th December 2005, I wrote: "As long as the "war on terror" continues, it must be countered a nd of this I am convinced: there is no better force to counter war than culture, counter-culture and open debate. Those bridges must never be burnt." Two months later I watch dismayed as protestors in London declare, "7/7 is on its way," as European embassies are torched in Beirut and Damascus and demonstrators in Afghanistan shot and killed. In the fallout that has followed your publication of 12 derogatory cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, moderate voices have been eclipsed, opinions polarised and the arenas for debate circumscribed; who shouts loudest wins.
In December my context was the race riots in France, my argument that French equality had proved itself drum-hollow and its glass ceiling, ankle high. How comparatively small that national unrest ¾ at the time, the worst in decades ¾ seems now. How careless Europe is with its multi-cultural diversity. How quickly she worsen s her record.
I commented on France because earlier in the year my novel The Silent Minaret had been awarded the inaugural European Union Literary Award, supported by the cultural organisations and diplomatic representatives of your countries in mine, South Africa and presented by Netherlands Ambassador Frans Engering at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg. With the award, a new cross-cultural bridge was spanned between post-apartheid South Africa and the European Union, a bridge, to my mind, made all the more meaningful because it rests on a novel, a piece of literature, which laments Europe's most serious contemporary failings ¾ xenophobia, disaffection, the "war on terror." As a result of the literary award, the title of The Silent Minaret is now prefixed by the title of the European Union and the cover of the novel carries the EU flag. In the year sinc e receiving the award events in Europe have several times led me to interrogate this juxtaposition. When France was burning the question I asked was this: For whom do the stars in the circular constellation of 12 stars, which now adorns my book, shine? My feeling remains that they shine not for us, Europe's ethnic minorities.
I say 'us' because even though I am a citizen of the new South Africa, I am also a black South African living in London. I say 'us' because although I have voted for and participate in the multi-cultural freedoms in South Africa, I live in London where I see those freedoms daily take the strain. I say 'us' because even though I witnessed South Africa's transition to democracy by long and painful negotiation, I watch in disbelief as neo imperialist forces in Britain and the United States torture, pillage and plunder their way through sovereign nation states illegally in t he name of democracy. I say 'us' because even as I write my way to restraint through the "war on terror," when I look to the angry stances of young men and women radicalised by exclusion, racism and war, I see me. That was why when France burnt I also wrote: "while war might topple statues at speed, it brutalises and stereotypes at leisure." My hope then was that out of fifteen nights of flame something new would be nurtured into growth.
I regret that newness has been deferred. I regret that the cultural bridges, which your fellow Europeans have been spanning have been seriously compromised. I regret that at a time of heightened anxiety, with French fires still smouldering and Muslims the most direct and frequent victims of the "war on terror," you still persisted with your cartoons, the nature of which, like the workings of war, brutalise and stereotype. Rogger Koppel of Die Welt appeared o n the BBC and could only manage to patronise still further. "Muslims need to be taught about irony," he declared. Well, let's see what lessons in irony we have learnt. The United States and Britain have led invasions into two Muslim countries to further freedom. In Iraq a secular dictatorship has been replaced by a Shiite-led government, in Iran the reformist President Mohammad Khatami has been succeeded by the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and in Palestine secularists have been dismayed by the stunning electoral victory of the Islamist party, Hamas. If you had paid any attention to developments in the Muslim world in recent years, Mr Keppel, you will have noticed that Muslims endure a surfeit of irony.
Jacques Lefranc of France Soir continues to have, "absolutely no regrets about publishing those cartoons." For him, publication "will raise the issue of how to reconcile the respect due to intimate religious beliefs and the freedom of press and expression in a modern democracy." Mr Lefranc, the answer is in your hypothesis ¾ we respect religious beliefs by respecting them. The Sunday editor Jens Kaiser at Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper which first published the cartoons, knew this 3 years ago when he refused to publish cartoons of Christ on the basis that they would be offensive. And if modernity is your cause, then how in publishing these images have you proved yourself modern? The history of Europe right down to the Middle Ages is littered with derogatory portrayals of Muhammad. In disseminating these images you have not reconciled the apparent ¾ and to my mind non-existent ¾ juxtapositions you pose between religion and modernity, you have only illustrated and perpetuated a twisted history.
And how have your antics extended press freedom, and at what social, political and economic cost? Have your actions extended the freedom you enjoy in Europe to your journalistic counterparts in Egypt, Syria, Iran, South Africa? If that had been your achievement, I might applaud your tactic but I would ask you to consider this: in South Africa's fledgling democracy, the Jamiat-ul Ulama was granted an emergency court interdict late on Friday night effectively banning South African media houses from publishing the cartoons. The editor of the Sunday Times in South Africa has described this as a "huge blow for the media." While I applaud the British media for not having published the cartoons, I regret that in South Africa the Weekly Mail and Guardian has. In South Africa, it would have been preferable for editors to have been allowed the prerogative of their British counterparts ¾ editorial discretion. What they got instead was legal injunction.
I was asked to believe that the "war on terror" was for democracy. You ask me to believe that your cartoons are for freedom. So let me ask you this: which one of you, citizens as you are of a free and wealthy post-war Europe, has ever had your civil freedoms seriously curtailed? We southerners know well the nature and excess of your liberties. Daily we strive for freedom too and that is the issue at hand ¾ for us, freedom, along with everything else, is strife. In the face of this, to insist on your liberty to publish dehumanising cartoons while people who venerate the man you have vilified face brutal occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is no liberty at all, only callous malice.
On 22nd February the second European Union Literary Award will be announced in Johannesburg, t he cultural bridge between my country and yours reinforced. I look forward to the announcement. Yet, of all the images of violence your cartoons have fuelled, one haunts me most. It is of gunmen in Gaza taking aim at the EU flag. In the year since the announcement of the first European Union Literary Award last February, there are plans to launch the EU Literary Award in Palestine. I hope now more than ever that these plans become real. But tell me this, which young Palestinian writer would today stand up to claim the prize? And you claim to speak for freedom of expression. Not in my name. "Cultural bridges must never be burnt." We write on despite you.
6th February 2006
Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of The Silent Minaret (Jacana 2005), which won the first European Union Literary Award in 2005 for best first novel by a new South African writer.
With best wishes
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