If the Danish cartoon controversy has proved one thing is it this: our ability to laugh at ourselves is as endangered as the rainforests.
Were Muslims the world over really and truly offended by something as innocuous as cartoons or—as the conspiracy theorists insist—was the whole thing just a political controversy to divert attention from the Haj stampede/underhand oil deals/devious judicial amendments/and so on?
Whatever the reason, this Scandinavian sense of humour did not go down well at all. There were protests even in Delhi (at least till an off-season water crisis rapidly revised priorities). In the righteous indignation, not to mention brick-throwing, slogan-shouting and bloodshedding, that followed, the reason why the cartoons had come into existence in the first place was conveniently forgotten (or glossed over). The Boston Globe did a very eloquent summary of the situation:
The current uproar over [the] cartoons … illustrates yet again the fascist intolerance that is at the heart of radical Islam. Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest daily, commissioned the cartoons to make a point about freedom of speech. It was protesting the climate of intimidation that had made it impossible for a Danish author to find an illustrator for his children’s book about Mohammed. No artist would agree to illustrate the book for fear of being harmed by Muslim extremists. Appalled by this self-censorship, Jyllands-Posten invited Danish artists to submit drawings of Mohammed, and published the 12 it received.
A few days ago the minister for minority issues and Haj in Uttar Pradesh, India, had the gall to stand up in public and announce a reward of over half a billion rupees and one’s weight in gold for chopping off the head of one of the cartoonists! (Of course, this was immediately followed by another call by another Member of the Legistlative Assembly for seperating M.F. Husain’s hands from the rest of his body for a reward of Rs. 1.1 million!) It is hard to say what is more shocking—that an elected representative of the people can make such a statement, or the fact that UP has a minister for Haj affairs!
The whole issue begs the question as to what the world’s second largest religion, with a 1300-year-old tradition, has to be so insecure about. A joke is a just joke, and once upon a time not so long ago, laughing at ourselves was looked upon a sign of maturity. But tolerance and freedom of expression seem to be out of fashion these days. Witness the David Irving issue in Austria, when a man has been sentenced for having the temerity to deny the Holocaust!
In all honesty, and without malice, the cartoons were funny. Jokes generally are. Anti-Semitic jokes, racist jokes, Sardar jokes, Bong jokes, blonde jokes… As a friend once remarked, “Should I be insulted for having blue eyes?”