Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

This short video on Democracy Now is really excellent! Please watch it!

Where are the human images of Arabs and Arab Americans? That’s the topic of a new film called “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.” The book and the film explore the American cinematic landscape to reveal a stark pattern of Arab stereotyping and its disturbing similarity to anti-Semitic and other racist caricatures through history. We play excerpts of the film and speak to acclaimed media critic Jack Shaheen, author of the book it’s based on.

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Racism: The Arab Mind

The “Arab Mind”

“Both U.S. and Israeli elites have always believed that the Arabs need to be kept subordinate. However, once the U.S. solidified its alliance with Israel after June 1967, it began to look at Israelis ­ and Israelis projected themselves ­ as experts on the “Arab mind.” Accordingly, the alliance with Israel has abetted the most truculent U.S. policies, Israelis believing that “Arabs only understand the language of force” and every few years this or that Arab country needs to be smashed up. The spectrum of U.S. policy differences might be narrow, but in terms of impact on the real lives of real people in the Arab world these differences are probably meaningful, the Israeli influence making things worse.” Norman Finkelstein

The above Finkelstein quote makes reference to a book called “the arab mind” the Guardian has an article on this titled “its best use is as a doorstop”

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Appeal for Lebanon refugee rights

Rights group Amnesty International has condemned Lebanon for what it describes as discrimination against generations of Palestinian refugees in the country. Some 300,000 refugees are denied access to work, education, adequate housing and health care, the report says.

It calls on the government to improve conditions in 12 overcrowded camps that have housed refugees since their flight from what is now Israel in 1948-49.

But the “significant cost” that Lebanon has borne is also acknowledged.

The report says more than half registered refugees live in deteriorating camps lacking basic infrastructure on virtually the same land allocated in 1948, despite a fourfold increase in the registered refugee population.

The pain associated with expulsion and decades living in exile is aggravated by the systematic discrimination they suffer in Lebanon

Amnesty International

Obstacles to peace: Refugees

Pictures: Palestinian camp

In some households, as many as 10 people share one room, and homes are often makeshift huts lacking either ventilation or sanitation.

“The pain associated with their expulsion and the decades of living in exile is being aggravated by the systematic discrimination they suffer in Lebanon,” the report says.

Amnesty carried out research in official and unofficial camps across Lebanon, including Nahr al-Bared camp before residents were forced out by fighting between the Lebanese army and a group of mainly-foreign militants.

Banned professions

The 24-page Amnesty report examines restrictions affecting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, 60 years after they or their forebears fled the former Palestine.

Entitled Exiled and Suffering: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, it calls curbs imposed by Lebanon to protect itself from the influx of Palestinians “wholly unjustified” and says they should be lifted at once.

Palestinian children showing Lebanese refugee identity cards

Refugees are denied rights and opportunities afforded to Lebanese

Until recently Lebanon banned Palestinian refugees from employment in 70 professions.

The proscribed list now stands at 20 professions, but the report says the refugees still face obstacles in the job market, leading to high drop-out rates in schools.

A higher proportion of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in abject poverty than any other Palestinian refugee community, a situation exacerbated by restrictions on their access to social services, the report says.

“We recognise that the Lebanese authorities and people have accommodated hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees for almost six decades and the significant cost – economically and in other ways – this has imposed on Lebanon,” Amnesty says.

It adds that additional responsibility lies with Israel and the international community to find a durable solution for the plight of Palestinian refugees “that fully protects their human rights including their right of return”.

However, the report says, the Lebanese government has the obligation to immediately end all forms of discrimination against Palestinian refugees and fully respect their human rights.

The Lebanese government has not responded to Amnesty’s recommendations.

BBC News

Ordinary Racism in Lebanon

Below is a translation of an article which appeared in the Arabic language lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar by Khalid Saghiyyeh. The original title is ‘Deep Rooted Racism in Lebanon’. I decided to translate this article after hearing this evening ordinary Lebanese on most world news channels giving to the press racist remarks about Palestinians. There was even a doctor who volunteered to help the army who answered Radio Canada’s journalist question about what is happening in the camp Nahr El-Bared with this sentence: ”You know they are not Lebanese”, meaning ‘we can kill them because they are lower casts, inferior’. This doctor forgot however that Lebanese kill other Lebanese.

We fought a 15 year civil war but it wasn’t our fault. Our country is in crisis but again it is the Palestinians fault. And while we are always prompt and ready to proclaim ourselves as life lovers and civilised, we are not afraid to appear in front of the international community as savages and racists disrepsectful of human lives when they are Palestinians. The international community who rarely lift a finger at the killing of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians by Israel is jumping on this occasion, Arabs killing other Arabs, to point fingers at Lebanese, clearing its conscience from the burden of not doing so and turning its back to condemnation and truth every other time an Arab was killed by Israelis zionists. Western journalists are even evoking Sabra and Chatila. This time Israel would also point fingers and tell the world ‘See, they did it without us’. On the other side, Lebanese are undergoing a massive denial about the state of their country and their crumbling economy and their crumbling government, with their failed army and their failed leaders, glorifying their unity while killing Palestinians.

There was a time when I was a child when we had to paint our light bulbs in blue in order not to be seen by Israeli planes circling norhtern Lebanon’s sky and dropping tons of bombs on Palestinian refugee camps.
There was a time, when I was a college student studying in the norhtern city of Tripoli, when we used to call Palestinians our brothers. There was a time when after the Friday prayer in Tripoli’s mosques, at a time I usually leave college for a week-end in the northern countryside, when I used to encounter spontaneous demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people, which I joined heartily with other friends for a short walk while shouting slogans like ‘Filasteen biladi’ (Palestine is my country). I remember those years when we did two major fundraising at our college: one was to help starvation victims in Ethiopia and the other was to help Arab countries war effort in the 1973 war against Israel. But that was just before the Lebanese civil war, before Christian militia decided to partition Lebanon and live rich in a Monaco like state free of Palestinian camps and poor Lebanese, before Sabra and Chatila and the ‘Peace in Galilée War’ (a zionist oxymore), before the Christian militia in Lebanon invited Sharon to Beyrouth for a lunch and then a dinner and then a stay, before Sharon, the Sabra and Chatila butcher, became prime minister, before the resuming of Israeli occupation of Paletsinian land and Israeli killing of Palestinians, before the Israeli-Palestinian peace process died before its birth, before Hariri infected the Lebanese political scene and reconstructed Lebanon with his construction companies billing the bankrupt Lebanese state and then borrowing to fill in the accounts and pay his Syrian mentors, before the postwar massive amnesia and lack of accountability in Lebanon, before Bush, before Iraq, before the US sponsored Lebanese political elite and the March 14th movement adopted the culture of martyrdom and then the ‘culture of life’ in a matter of months, before freeing Lebanon’s war criminals from prison and giving them a seat in parliament while killing others in a mafia cleansening operation style, before the nonsensical international UN tribunal for the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister, before the Iraqi nightmare, before the US realised that there are sunnis and shias in Islam, before the US resumed its friendly relations with the Sunni country whose citizens are responsible for 9/11, before the US decided to fight Shias because they were friendly with Iran, before the ‘second lebanese war’ and last summer’s deadly and criminal Israeli agression on Lebanon and Hezbollah’s ‘divine victory’, before the winograd report and the falling of Olmert’s support to rates under the margin of error, before Palestinian civil war in Gaza, before the US decided that maybe the ‘fragile democracy’ in Lebanon wasn’t after all worth Iran’s oilfields and USrael’s neoconish obsession with Iran’s mullahs and that for this matter the US needed to calm things down with Syria, before the election of Sarkozy, the vanishing of the UN tribunal for Hariri, Sanyura’s political weapon against Hezbollah, and the reincarnation of US’s declining neoconism, exactly like ‘Alien Resurrection’, in another time and another place with Sarkozy’s election in France.

The people of Palestine, Lebanon, and the ME, have been fed only despair by their western sponsored corrupted Politicians. I am from this generation who saw only despair whenever I thought of the future of my country, my region and my own future within. Not one ray of hope.

The fact that the Muslim Sunni extremists the Sanyura government is battling were actually armed by Sanyura’s allies in order to create a force capable of facing the Shia Hezbollah, and the present massacre of palestinian civilians under the cover of fighting those same Muslim Sunni extremists, might mean two things: i) the Sanyura government and Lebanon as it is, one small 10000 km2 piece with a mosaic of communities, are both on the brink of collapse and this is their last reaction, their one last stand to drag in the international community to witness their downfall and eventually help them defeat their opponents and finish off Lebanon ‘victorious’, and there are already calls for help from the Lebanese government, and/or ii) the actual showdown is meant to exacerbate sectarian tensions and drag along the international community, and/or Hezbollah into the fight against Sunnis (which amounts also to dragging in the international community who will jump at this chance to tackle by proxy the ‘Iranian’ problem).

One day I was explaining Lebanon and its politics to my European husband and he said:’this is very ugly Politics, how come Lebanese accept it?’ And I replied: ‘ Lebanese live in self denial, they venere conventions and despise truth, nothing bothers them more than a simple truth, the truth about themselves, so they buy into any narrative that embellishes this truth. But the narrative is always the same. It is that other people are repsonsible for their misery and that every time they go down they must call other people for help and blame some others. This is the simple Lebanese truth. Another one is that ordinary racism is accpetable in Lebanon. These people see themselves as superior and therefore despise the poor, other Arabs, the dark skinned, the homosexuals, the leftists, the atheists, the Sri-Lankan maids, they despise everything that is not Lebanese kitsh nurtured for the sake of self denial and self agrandising. This is not a society of individuals, this is a society of sheeps herded by anyone who can flatter their inflated egos and ugly sleves.”

Khalid Saghiyyeh’s article
One day, after a long civil war, Lebanese decided that they were brothers. They saluted each other and pointed their fingers at the Palestinians as the ones who were behind their divisions. They imprisoned them within few Square feets in a camp, they closed the doors and prevented the air from entering. One other day, after a bitter and long political struggle with no end, voices from the government and its opponents converged to put the responsibility again on those small Palestinian camps accused of pushing the country one more time into the abyss. Both parties accusing Palestinians today of putting Lebanon on the brink of civil war don’t lack in racist leaders and ideologies in their dealings with the ‘foreigner’ in general and the Palestinians in particular.
Nothing can lower their enthusiasm in accusing the Palestinians, not even the civilian casualties lying on Nahr El Bared refugee camp’s soil. And the fact that Fatah el-Islam is one extremist organisation among many others, that can be found in Lebanon disseminated outside as inside Palestinian camps, did not even help to calm down some who called for the ‘cleansening of the Palestinian house’. It did not even occur to these callers, whose racist calls are routine for Palestinians, that many reports point to the responsibility of high level Lebanese Politicians in arming and financially supporting the Sunni extremists in and outside Palestinian camps. And none of those who are standing today, united in the discovery of their racial purity, accusing the Palestinians of all ills, can or would expose at lenght the notorious disengagement and the retreat of the state from whole regions in Lebanon which are maintained in a state of total dependancy and subjugation to some Politicians who would use them to their advantage during election time, monitoring them from some far luxurious hotels. In divided societies who cannot agree on anything and who are on the brink of collapse like Lebanese society, chronic and acute political struggles have a high human and social cost. And in countries like Lebanon where social assistance is non existent, savage economic reforms have even a higher if not an exorbitant human and social cost. Those are some indications as to the real causes of the present situation in Lebanon. Fatah El-Islam is not a cause, it is merely a dust on the surface of the volcano.

Lire l’article de Loubnan Ya Loubnan ‘Au Liban le chaos constructif est en marche’. C’est un article qui met au grand jour les multiples ramifications de l’actuelle crise libanaise, ce que vous ne lirez jamais par les canaux d’information ordinaire.


Kill Arabs, cry anti-Semitism

By Norman G. Finkelstein

Download the Word doc original here.

A central thesis of my book Beyond Chutzpah is that whenever Israel faces a public relations debacle its apologists sound the alarm that a “new anti-Semitism” is upon us. So, predictably, just after Israel faced another image problem due to its murderous destruction of Lebanon, a British all-party parliamentary group led by notorious Israel-firster Denis MacShane MP (Labor) released yet another report alleging a resurgence of anti-Semitism (Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Antisemitism, September 2006). To judge by the witnesses (David Cesarani, Lord Janner, Oona King, Emanuele Ottolenghi, Melanie Phillips) and sources (MEMRI, Holocaust Education Trust) cited in the body of the report, much time and money could have been saved had it just been contracted out to the Israel Foreign Ministry.[1]

The single novelty of the report, which mostly rehashes fatuous allegations already disposed of in Beyond Chutzpah, is the new thresholds in idiocy it breaks. Consider the methodology deployed for demonstrating a new anti-Semitism. The report defines an anti-Semitic incident as any occasion “perceived” to be anti-Semitic by the “Jewish community.”[2] This is the school of thought according to which it’s raining even in the absence of any precipitation because I feel it’s raining. It is the dream philosophy of paranoids – especially rational paranoids, for whom alleged victimhood is politically serviceable. The report includes under the rubric of anti-Semitic incidents not just violent acts and incendiary speech but “conversations, discussions, or pronouncements made in public or private, which cross the line of acceptability,” as well as “the mood and tone when Jews are discussed.” The wonder is that it didn’t also tabulate repressed anti-Semitic libidinal fantasies.[3] In the category of inherently anti-Semitic pronouncements the report includes “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” (only comparisons of contemporary Arab policy to that of the Nazis are permissible) and “theories about Jewish or Zionist influence on American foreign policy” (even if Jewish and Zionist organizations boast about this influence).[4]

Much of the evidence of pervasive British anti-Semitism stretches and strains credulity. The lone item listed under the ominous subheading “The Blood Libel” is a Syrian television series “that would be possible for viewers in the UK to see…if they had suitable satellite receiving equipment.”[5] The report also notes the unreferenced “case of a Jewish university lecturer who was subjected to an anti-Semitic tirade from a student in the middle of a lecture and subsequently asked to explain to the university authorities why he had upset the student.”[6] Is it anti-Semitic to wonder whether this is a crock? And then it cites the warning of the London Assembly Conservative Group that “there is a risk that in some political quarters ‘views on international events can, almost subconsciously, lead to subtly different attitudes to, and levels of engagement with, different minority groups.'”[7] The new anti-Semitism business must be going seriously awry when British conservatives start sounding like Lacan. Finally, it is anti-Semitic for student unions to advocate a boycott of Israeli goods because this “would restrict the availability of kosher food on campus.”[8] Maybe Israel can organize a “Berlin airlift” of gefilte fish.

Although claiming that, in the struggle against anti-Semitism, “none of those who gave evidence wished to see the right of free speech eroded,” and “only in extreme circumstances would we advocate legal intervention,”[9] the report recommends that university authorities “take an active interest in combating acts, speeches, literature and events that cause anxiety or alarm among their Jewish students,” and it registers disquiet that “classic and modern anti-Semitic works are freely available for ordering on the website,” and that “the United States in particular has been slow to take action” in closing down “anti-Semitic internet sites.”[10] It is at moments like this that even the least patriotic of souls can take pride in being an American.

* * *

1. The report’s statement that “we received no evidence of the accusation of anti-Semitism being misused by mainstream British Jewish community organizations and leaders” (para. 79) perhaps speaks more to the selection of the witnesses than the reality.

2. Report, para. 3; cf. para. 73.

3. Quoted phrases from Report “Summary.” The police data on an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in itself proves little because, as the report concedes, the spike might be due to more incidents being reported and a coarsening of British life generally, as well as the “spillover” from the Israel-Palestine conflict (Report, paras 28, 29, 59, 64, and Beyond Chutzpah, pp. 81ff.). In addition, there is little evidence of “organized,” “politically motivated” anti-Semitic attacks; there is no evidence that perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks were disproportionately Muslim; and most of the suspects in the incidents were adolescents (Report, paras. 55, 56, 58, 151). For 2005 the report cites a couple incidents that were “potentially” life-threatening (para. 61). It cites no comparative data for other minorities in Britain, although tacitly acknowledging that “the level of prejudice and discrimination by Jews in Britain remains lower,” a considerable understatement (para 17). On a related note, it deplores that “less than one in ten [anti-Semitic] incidents reported to the police resulted in a suspect becoming an accused” (para. 69), but cites no comparative data indicating whether this ratio is aberrant.

4. Report, para. 84, 119; cf. para. 148. On a related note the report expresses worry that “the use of language and imagery of the Holocaust has become increasingly widespread in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (para. 93). Of course, what’s new about such imagery in the West is that it’s no longer only used against Arabs.

5. Report, para. 99.

6. Report, para, 101.

7. Report, para. 104.

8. Report, paras. 203, 204.

9. Report, paras. 74, 75.

10. Report, paras. 183, 189, 220.

Reader letters

Dear Professor Finklestein

There are some truly suspect definitions of anti-semitism and the authors/sponsors of this would have done well to read “Beyond Chutzpah” to ensure this exercise does not go the same route it has across the pond. I will say though that the UK Jewry have seemed to me to be a far more moderate than the bunch that ive been reading about in your books and on your site. I think a Dershowitz or an Abraham Foxman would be given short shrift here; on the whole most UK Jews seem to be more sympathetic towards the Palestinian issue and were more vocal in their opposition to the invasion of Lebanon, with notable exceptions of course. The BBC for example was regularly accused of being anti-Semitic in its reporting on the war which i thought was nonsense.

You have to remember though that the Muslim population in Britain have elements within it that do support violence against Jewish people and have been so brainwashed in their hate that discussion is impossible. There are many who are disenfranchised and others from second generation middle class families looking for meaning in their otherwise miserable lives and finding the wrong answers. I personally do not think these groups are the main source of any increase in what i call real anti-semitism (violence and verbal abuse). These groups have the means and if they wanted to inflict harm they probably would have caused serious damage by now; rather this is directed at the US as we have seen in the recent attempt to blow up transatlantic planes. There is however another group: the rag tag, anti-globalization mob who have, in consort with some British Muslims, high-jacked the ME issue. Although their hearts are, for the most part in the right place, they find it difficult to engage in debate without becoming irrational or violent. And then there is of course the problem of alcohol. Having lived here for 10 years and knowing as I do the propensity of English people (esp in london) for serious drinking, its not hard to imagine someone watching the bombing of Qana, then consuming half of bottle of whisky (not necessarily in that order), walking down the street on a friday eve and thumping the face of the first frumadik he sees. The Orthodox community in Stamford Hill referred to in the report live cheek by jowl with Muslim communities (not far from me and incidentally less than a mile or so from the infamous Finsbury Park Mosque) and relations seem to have been good in the past. But I wont deny they have of late become targets for abuse and Ive seen this myself on the tube one evening when some drunk kids launched into an unpleasant political tirade at a man with his 2 children. Although i agreed with their general sentiment I felt ashamed afterwards that i did not stop them. Its a complicated business being Jewish and angry at Israel’s actions.

I dont think this report is timed to quell critisism of Israel because many of the signatories are openly opposed to Israel’s policies. So totally disagree that its a public relations stunt. In the area or physical and verbal abuse its a response to a real issue but one that I dont think should be blown out of proportion nor used by Zionist groups for their own ends.


Brian Rom

Racist Western attitudes towards Arabs

The following post has a video on hollywoods vilification of arabs, a section by Chomsky on racist attitudes towards Arabs, an essay on the recent headlines about the Muhammad cartoons ending on a section about US foreign policy and “the arab mind” 

Video “Planet of the Arabs”

A trailer-esque montage spectacle of Hollywood’s relentless vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.
Inspired by the book “Reel Bad Arabs” by Dr. Jack Shaheen

Official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2005

Out of 1000 films that have Arab & Muslim characters (from the year 1896 to 2000)
12 were postive depictions, 52 were even handed and the rest of the 90O and so were negative.

09/04/06 Video Runtime 9 Minutes

Excerpted from Chronicles of Dissent, 1992

CHOMSKY: Yes. It’s part of European culture to have racist attitudes toward the Third World, including us[USA], we’re part of Europe in that respect. Naturally the Jewish community shared the attitudes of the rest of Europe, not surprising. There certainly are such things inside Israel. My feeling is they could be overcome in time under a situation of peace. I think they’re real, but I don’t think they’re lethal, through slow integration they could probably be overcome. The one that probably can’t be overcome is the anti-Arab racism, because that requires subjugation of a defeated and conquered people and that leads to racism. If you’re sitting with your boot on somebody’s neck, you’re going to hate him, because that’s the only way that you can justify what you’re doing, so subjugation automatically yields racism, and you can’t overcome that. Furthermore, anti-Arab racism is rampant in the United States and much of the West, there’s no question about that. The only kind of racism that can be openly expressed with outrage is anti-Arab racism. You don’t put caricatures of blacks in the newspapers any more; you do put caricatures of Arabs.

QUESTION: But isn’t it curious that they’re using the old Jewish stereotypes, the money coming out the pockets, the beards, the hooked nose?

CHOMSKY: I’ve often noticed that the cartoons and caricatures are very similar to the ones you’d find in the Nazi press about the Jews, very similar.  

Manufacturing Discontent: The Case of the Danish Cartoons

by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

The publication of offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Jyllands-Posten, a major Danish newspaper last year precipitated a bitter confrontation between Europe and the Islamic world that reached its climax early this year. Events may have overtaken the cartoon war but the fallout from the controversy is going to shape European politics vis-à-vis its immigrant population for years to come. The deluge of articles and opinions in the media for the most part failed to provide context or insight into the issues involved. The common narrative placed “Western secularism” against “Muslim intolerance”; warnings of a “clash of civilizations” were legion. Many took refuge in absolutes and defence of the cherished Western value of “freedom of expression” was deemed paramount. However, if we are to learn anything from this experience and understand the reactions on both sides it is important that myths are dispensed with, and agency and intent are identified.

The story that made the rounds in the European media was that of an intrepid cultural editor of a mainstream Danish newspaper concerned with the stifling political-correctness in Europe who decided to “test the limits of freedom of expression” and challenge the rising self-censorship by publishing caricatures of the most revered figure in Islam. Unaccustomed to such high-minded ideals, the Muslim world reacted in characteristic way – with violence – but only after their sentiments had been sufficiently enflamed by itinerant Imams and rogue regimes months after the publication of the offending cartoons. Newspapers in several European countries published the cartoons simultaneously as a gesture of solidarity and the Islamic world responded with a commercial boycott of all Danish products.

As we shall presently see, there are many problems with this narrative, beginning with the publication itself.

Jyllands-Posten is Denmark’s largest selling newspaper with a notoriously anti-Immigrant editorial line. In 2001 it assisted Anders Rasmussen’s Prime Ministerial bid on an anti-immigration platform by publishing fake stories of asylum fraud by Palestinian refugees days before the election. A 2004 report by European Network Against Racism singled out JP for its excessive and skewed coverage of immigrant issues. Flemming Rose, the cultural editor who commissioned the cartoons, himself is a close associate of notorious Islamophobe and arch-Zionist Daniel Pipes, founder of the McCarthyite Campus-Watch and advocate of WWII style internment of American Muslims and complete ethnic-cleansing of Palestinians. Rose was already testing the waters in 2004, when he published a laudatory article on Pipes with a sample of his extremist views in the format of an interview. In one section Pipes declared he was “amazed that Europe is not more alarmed about the challenge that Islam poses” and questioned the wisdom of leaning back and waiting “for things to happen”. He need not have waited long; things did happen and it was his interlocutor who furnished the trigger. But is this sufficient explanation for the ferocity of the response?

An editorial in the Washington Post touched on the aspect of the story which had been duly ignored in the myriad commentaries on the subject. The paper called the publication of the cartoons a “calculated insult” by a “right-wing newspaper in a country where bigotry toward the minority Muslim population is a major, if frequently unacknowledged, problem”. In The Guardian Jonathan Steele quotes Jytte Klausen, a Danish political scientist as saying: “religious tolerance and respect for human rights have been sorely lacking in Denmark”. Klausen and others cite frequent statements by Brian Mikkelsen, the minister of cultural affairs, regarding cultural “restoration” and the evils of “multiculturalism”, as symptomatic of this intolerance.   In an article in Index on Censorship, George Blecher quotes the independent Danish daily Information as saying that the publication of the cartoons was inspired by Mikkelsen’s speech at a Conservative Party meeting where he called for “a new offensive in the Culture Wars” and deplored Muslim immigrants for their “medieval standards and undemocratic ways of thinking.” The paper went on to say:

Among [Mikkelsen’s] points and examples was that “freedom of expression” was threatened, because a comedian “doesn’t dare piss on the Koran”, and illustrators don’t dare put their names on illustrations that show Mohammed’s face.

Rasmussen’s government relies for support in Parliament on the far-right Dansk Folkeparti with an anti-immigrant agenda and immigrants from Islamic countries are its primary targets. Even Kofi Annan has criticized the government for being “unsure of how to treat its significant Muslim population”. Racially motivated crimes doubled in the country between 2004 and 2005 according to the Danish Institute for Human Rights. Steele writes:

If there is a tolerance spectrum, with resistance to diversity at one end, acceptance of it in the middle and celebration of it at the other end…Denmark is still at the spectrum’s prejudiced end, a traditionally mono-ethnic country that has not yet accepted the new cultures in its midst. Public discourse is stuck where it was in Britain a generation ago, with angry talk about “guests” who ought to conform to the “host country” or go home.

It is a matter of no small significance that Rasmussen remains one of Bush’s very few allies in Europe and has sent troops both to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Danish queen’s exhortation to the citizens to show their “opposition to Islam” did not do much to ease the tension.

The publication of the cartoons within such an environment takes on an altogether different meaning, but does that justify the violent response? More importantly, why did it take four months to materialize?

As a matter of fact, the response to the publication of the cartoons was immediate and peaceful. Appeals from Danish Muslim groups to the Culture Minister Mikkelsen were rebuffed and a request of ambassadors from eleven Muslim countries to take their concerns to the Prime Minister directly was rejected. At this point Danish Muslim organizations lodged a complaint against Jyllands-Posten to the police on the grounds that it had committed an offence under section 140 and 266b of the Danish Criminal Code. Having exhausted all the legal avenues, leaders of the Danish Muslim community finally turned to the Muslim world for support. The Arab League duly issued a condemnation and criticized the Danish government for its inaction. In Denmark the Regional Public Prosecutor of Viborg decided to discontinue investigation into whether the paper had violated the Danish Criminal Code. Several Muslim countries withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark in protest and consumers in the middle-east started a boycott of Danish products. The Organization of the Islamic Conference issued a resolution condemning the publication and lodged a complaint with the UN. Danes were ordered out by militants in the Occupied Palestinian territories, and protests erupted in various Muslim countries. At this point, several newspapers in Europe decided to publish the cartoons simultaneously as “a gesture of solidarity” and the response, which had been hitherto measured, finally turned violent.

The sensational images of flags being torched, mobs burning down embassies and offices of the EU being occupied by gunmen clearly make for more exciting television. But the more significant story of the four months of silent protest was lost in the Drama. A few dozen extremists with offensive placards in London made headlines but the nearly 15 million Muslims of Europe who weathered the storm with dignity were deemed unworthy of coverage. Behaviour of the former was used to characterize the sentiments of the latter. The fact that 97 percent of the youth surveyed by the UN in Muslim countries deplored the violence, wasn’t considered newsworthy. Condoleezza Rice placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Washington’s official enemies: Syria and Iran (even though the campaign started in Saudi Arabia, an official ally). In The Nation, Gary Younge writes: “Muslims were in effect being vilified twice–once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them.” Many in the Muslim world with their own political axes to grind made most of the opportunity and enflamed sentiments further, but that is irrelevant. It is a truism that we are all responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. Given the racist and inflammatory nature of the cartoons it was reasonable to expect a response. It was also reasonable to expect that not all responses were going to be restrained. It is impossible that the JP editors did not take this into consideration. If someone has hijacked the legitimate grievances of more than a billion Muslims and is trying to make political capital out of it, the responsibility still lies with those who have provided this opportunity. Had the paper not published the cartoons, there would be no sentiments for the extremists to whip up.

Could it be that this was precisely the response the publication of the cartoons was meant to generate?

With the news of the first violent protests, Flemming Rose was quick to declare it the long predicted “clash of civilizations” and questioned the compatibility of “religion of Islam with a modern secular society”. Similar sentiments were voiced by his confederate Daniel Pipes invited on CNN to comment on the controversy. Neither one’s neocon connections, nor their links to each other were mentioned. The continuous coverage of the protests was clearly having an impact – a March 9 Washington Post poll revealed that nearly 46 per cent of Americans had a negative view of Islam, a number ten points higher than in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Given the timing and the provenance of the controversy, James Petras and Robin Eastman-Abaya have speculated that this may very well have been an effort to prepare public opinion for the upcoming attack on Iran. This would not be the first time that cartoons are used to provoke a violent response from a minority in order to discredit and demonize a whole racial, ethnic or religious group. The Southern white racists did it, the Nazis did it and so did the FBI. [1]

So, was this about freedom of speech? As the British press revealed, the same publication had already turned down caricatures of Jesus on the grounds that readers will not “enjoy” them and they will “provoke an outcry”. In many European countries holocaust denial is a crime and the British historian David Irving is serving time for a speech made in the ’80s. Mein Kampf cannot be bought or sold in Germany. So freedom of speech is clearly not absolute. But assuming it was absolute; it would merely reflect the existing imbalance in society so long as it was not tempered by associated responsibilities. Otherwise, it gives the dominant sector in any society a license to offend. Younge writes:

The right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. People must have the right to be offended, and those bold enough to knowingly cause offence should be bold enough to weather the consequences, so long as the aggrieved respond within the law.

It is hard to see anything positive coming out of this episode except the principled and dignified stance of the British and American Left. In clear contrast to the French Left during the headscarf debate the Left in US/UK took a commendable position by refusing to let abstract principles distract from reality. They recognized the gratuitously offensive nature of the cartoons and the political motivation behind their publication. They also acknowledged that the “right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive.” The commitment to freedom of speech, and the commitment to fight racism need not be mutually exclusive. Freedom of speech could certainly find better uses than in attacks on the most vulnerable parts of our society.   The decision to print the cartoons was political; it had nothing to do with principles. At the end of the day, the incident failed to put a wedge between Muslims and the US/UK Left as everyone had expected it would.  The whole debate is best summed up by the political cartoonist Martin Rowson who regularly receives hundreds of angry and obscene e-mails when he draws President Bush with blood on his hands, but for him it is an acceptable price since “the purpose of satire is to attack people more powerful than you are.” Flemming Rose, and the Southern white supremacist would clearly disagree.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad teaches Sociology at the University of Strathclyde and is researcher for Spinwatch.

[1]  The Nation’s Ward”, a cartoon by Grant Hamilton, portrayed an American Indian as a savage snake constricting a pioneer family while being fed by Uncle Sam even as the pioneers’ home burned; the Nazis used caricatures of Jews as dirty, unattractive and shabbily dressed men busy undermining the Reich to whip up anti-Semitic sentiments in the population (Philip Rupprecht, the most popular of these, ran in Der Stürmer); The FBI’s COINTELPRO Program used a fake colouring book to discredit the Black Panther Party and advocated “the use of cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters” to ridicule the New Left: “Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use against it.” For a history of the relation between   caricatures of African Americans and racism see:   

The “Arab Mind” 

“Both U.S. and Israeli elites have always believed that the Arabs need to be kept subordinate. However, once the U.S. solidified its alliance with Israel after June 1967, it began to look at Israelis ­ and Israelis projected themselves ­ as experts on the “Arab mind.” Accordingly, the alliance with Israel has abetted the most truculent U.S. policies, Israelis believing that “Arabs only understand the language of force” and every few years this or that Arab country needs to be smashed up. The spectrum of U.S. policy differences might be narrow, but in terms of impact on the real lives of real people in the Arab world these differences are probably meaningful, the Israeli influence making things worse.” Norman Finkelstein

The above Finkelstein quote makes reference to a book called “the arab mind” the Guardian has an article on this titled “its best use is as a doorstop”

The book says, the Arabs who are lazy, sex-obsessed, and apt to turn violent over the slightest little thing.Writing about Arabs, rather than black people, in these terms apparently makes all the difference between a racist smear and an admirable work of scholarship.Hersh was discussing the chain of command that led US troops to torture Iraqi prisoners. Referring specifically to the sexual nature of some of this abuse, he wrote: “The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.“One book that was frequently cited was The Arab Mind … the book includes a 25-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression.”

Hersh continued: “The Patai book, an academic told me, was ‘the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour’. In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged – ‘one, that Arabs only understand force, and two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation’.”

Last week, my own further enquiries about the book revealed something even more alarming. Not only is it the bible of neocon headbangers, but it is also the bible on Arab behaviour for the US military.

More on the author of “the Arab Mind” Raphael Patai