Monthly Archives: January 2010

Let a thousand cartoon crises bloom


One of my coworkers is having an issue at his son's elementary school. One of the mothers sent this e-mail to all the other parents:

Kære til alle forældre for (…). Idag kommer min søn hjem fra skole ked af det, fordi nogle, af børnene fra hans klasse legede med at tegnede Profet Muhammad (Guds fred og velsignelse være med ham). Ikke kun det, men de tegnede også gud. Det kan være I hader Islam, uden at I ved hvad Islam egentlig går ud på eller har ingen viden om hvad religionen betyder vores for os, som troende muslimer. Vil I ikke tage en ærlig snak med jeres børn at man tager hensyn til hvad andre tror på og at man ikke krænker hinandens tro. Jeg håber virkelig at I vil snakke med jeres børn.

Straffelovens §266b omtales i daglig tale som racismeparagraffen. Dens ordlyd er:
Den, der offentligt eller med forsæt til udbredelse i en videre kreds fremsætter udtalelse eller anden meddelelse, ved hvilken en gruppe af personer trues, forhånes eller nedværdiges på grund af sin race, hudfarve, nationale eller etniske oprindelse, tro eller seksuelle orientering, straffes med bøde hæfte eller fængsel indtil 2 år.
Stk. 2. Ved straffens udmåling skal det betragtes som en skærpende omstændighed, at forholdet har karakter af propagandavirksomhed.

Straffelovens §140 omtales i daglig tale som blasfemiparagraffen. Dens ordlyd er:
Den, der offentlig driver spot med eller forhåner noget her i landet lovligt bestående religionssamfunds troslærdomme eller gudsdyrkelse, straffes med bøde eller fængsel indtil 4 måneder.

Med venlig hilsen.

English version:

Dear parents,
Today my son came home from school upset because some of the kids in his class played around by drawing the Prophet Mohammad (peace be unto him). They didn't just draw him, they also drew God. It could be that you all hate Islam without knowing what Islam is really all about, or you don't know what the religion means for us Muslims. Could you all please have an honest conversation with your children about showing consideration for what others believe and not violating their beliefs. I really hope that you'll talk to your children.

[text of Danish hate speech law]

Best regards,
[Mother's name]

This strikes me as precisely the kind of conflict that is probably very common in the daily life of Western Europe in 2010, and one for which the politics and media of Western Europe in 2010 are wholly unequipped.

If this made it to the newspapers, it would probably be framed as a symptom of a societal trend leading, in some mysterious yet inevitable way, toward either Germany '39 or Iran '79. The right wing parties, panties firmly bunched, would issue statements that the Muslims have gone too far in asking Christians to bend to their whims. The left wing parties would issue proposals to ban chalkboard-based hate speech.

I told my colleage, look, we really don't know what happened here. Maybe these kids drew Muhammad on the wall specifically because they knew it would upset the Muslim kid. Or maybe they were just doodling a bunch of random shit. We have no idea if this is a phenomenon or an anecdote.

Cases like this are hardly new. Religious and ethnic tolerance in formerly homogeneous societies is a genuine challenge, and we can't will it away by shouting 'racist!' and 'pre-Enlightenment!' at each other.

In a Mobius-strippy way, the current political climate creates both this mother's anger and my colleague's oversensitivity. Islam, whether we agree with it or not, is a Big Political Issue. If this was an overweight kid, or a short kid, who felt hurt and attacked for being different, we would look at what happened and address the case on its own merits. It wouldn't be the tip of an iceberg. 

If a kid is being bullied, the content of the bullying is beside the point, and the bullies should be punished. If these kids accidentally offended the Muslim kid (the only one in their class, according to my colleague), then they should apologize, the same way they would in any other case of misdemeanor youthful shitheadery. The mother's e-mail was a little strong, yes, but it's not going to help the situation to get all how-dare-she about it.  

Cases like this are only going to proliferate in the next few decades. We need a politics, and a discourse, that can actually address the individual complexity of each case. Right now, whenever something like this comes up, we just retreat to our barracks and fetch our megaphones.

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Sing that can’t be sung etc.

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