I didn’t quite know what to make of Draw Muhammed Day on May 20.
True to South Park canon, the source of the problem is a Canadian. Fox News had published her name as the originator of the idea that went viral, even though she has long backed off. The issue dates back to Viacom’s censorship of the 201st episode of South Park. The bi-centennial anniversary was a celebration of South Park’s major characters and plotlines. Yes, even the Super Best Friends who were resurrected to show Buddha snorting cocaine and Jesus using porn. Ironically, Viacom bleeped the show extensively and in particular, Kyle’s teaching point at the end. Allegedly, what Kyle had learnt that day concerned not cowing down to absurd terror. The Canadian was objecting to such censorship.
In the beginning, the banning of Facebook was just one more thing to roll your eyes at Pakistan for. Yet, trawling the pictures people had posted, I saw mainly pure Islamophobia on display. Many drawings depicted the Prophet as a pig. Others invest him with devilish aspects. A common theme was him abusing little girls as a paedophile. Soiling himself was almost a leitmotif. Then there were some that were so ridiculous in their attempt to be offensive that they had genuine artistic merit. Case in point- the I am Muhammed and I have a bread roll in my bum cartoon.
This is not to say that all of the cartoons were designed to be offensive. My favourite had to be the simple stick figure sniffing a flower. Someone had also drawn a rather good portrait of the boxer Cassius Clay. There was even a montage of the long tradition of aesthetic paintings of the Prophet in Shia culture.
When it comes to depicting the Prophet, the issue is more complex than a freedom of expressionversus religious sensitivity debate. This point is best expressed by Karseten Kjar’s documentary Bloody Cartoons. Made as part of a series for BBC entitled Why Democracy?, it peels back layers of the carefully planned protests against Denmark to find it is not much different from the Rushdie fatwa issue. The Satanic Verses controversy is seen by many as a classic wag-the-dog exercise by the Ayatollah. He needed to shore up political support for the war against Iraq, which wasn’t going well. The scene that seals the deal in the documentary is when the filmmaker buys the last poster of Muhammed (depicted in a Disneyish hero iconography) in an Iranian Islamic super-store. The Iranians were going to stop publishing the hero poster to show solidarity with their Sunni Arab brothers (whose guts they ordinarily hate and fought above-mentioned war with).
In many ways this represents how much freedom of expression has shrunk due to that old villain: globalisation. When Super Best Friends was aired in 2001, no one took any notice of it. The Danish cartoons controversy has changed all that. Viacom no longer airs the episode that ran unimpeded for nearly ten years.
The Facebook, er, face-off between offended Muslims and those who are blatantly enjoying the anonymity of the Internet to rile them is very different from traditional conflict. It is not one artist against some fundamentalists. It is thousands of common people versus each other.
I quickly lost any enthusiasm for what had initially seemed a genuine grass-roots reprisal against fear, through social networking. There is a line between challenging the oppression of blasphemy and expressing hate against a people.
Somewhere, cartoons had stopped being funny.
Shubhodeep Shome is a writer and lawyer.