Arab Media’s Cartoons Draw Scrutiny

By Jennifer Siegel

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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As violent clashes over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad continued to flare across the Middle East this week, Jewish and Muslim leaders and organizations traded accusations of hypocrisy.

Jewish communal leaders, both in the United States and abroad, drew attention to the sanctioning and promotion of antisemitic propaganda by some of the same Muslim governments that have protested publication of the Muhammad cartoons — including Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s the pot calling the kettle black,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in an interview with the Forward. “It’s time for these angry countries to also look at themselves in the mirror.”

Meanwhile, Muslim leaders are accusing Western countries of routinely censoring views that are offensive to Jews, while defending attacks on Muslims under the guise of free speech. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who has credited the initial publication of the cartoons in Denmark to an Israeli conspiracy — reportedly argued that “the West condemns any denial of the Jewish Holocaust, but it permits the insult of Islamic sanctities.” Some American Muslims echoed his assertion, albeit in milder terms.

Amid the controversy over the Danish cartoons, Muslims around the globe have responded with drawings that target Jews. On February 4, a Belgian-Dutch Islamic political organization, the Arab European League, posted anti-Jewish cartoons on its Web site — including one that portrayed Anne Frank in bed with Hitler, and one that questioned whether the Holocaust occurred. Newspapers in Middle East countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, also have published inflammatory cartoons, using antisemitic imagery, in response to the crisis.

According to Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the recent Arab cartoons echo the virulently antisemitic images that routinely appear in state-controlled newspapers in Arab and Muslim countries. Jacobson said that the Muslim media often rely on stereotypically negative images of an essentialized “Jew”: hook-nosed, dressed in religious garb and blatantly controlling the world or the United States. Many of the images prominently feature blood, recalling the medieval “blood libel” — the claim that Jews use the blood of non-Jews for the baking of Passover matzo — which helped foment European antisemitism for centuries.

One cartoon that was published last March by the ArabNews, an English-language newspaper sponsored by the Saudi government, depicted rats wearing Stars of David and skullcaps, scurrying through holes in the wall of a building called Palestine House. The imagery used is almost identical to a well-known scene from the 1934 Nazi film “Jude Süss” in which Jews are shown as vermin that must be eradicated.

But even as Jewish leaders used the cartoon controversy to shine a spotlight on what they called the hypocrisy of the Muslim world, some Muslims accused Jews and the West of being the hypocrites.

Last week, the Dearborn, Mich.-based Arab American News, the country’s largest and oldest Arab American newspaper, published a editorial titled “Double Standard in Free Speech.”

“Offend Zionist Jews and the world erupts in indignation,” the editorial declared. “A cartoon that is offensive to Muslims, on the other hand, is depicted as an expression of ‘free speech.’”

The editorial noted that in response to the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, there have been “protests, diplomatic actions and threats of boycotts across the Muslim world,” while “a few extremist Muslims have also reacted violently.”

The AJCommittee’s Harris rejected the notion that “Jews have somehow insulated themselves and created a separate standard.”

“We have our own collection of antisemitic cartoons in the mainstream media in Europe… and our response was the response of mature citizens of a democratic society.”

One particularly notorious controversy erupted in January 2003, when the British newspaper The Independent published a cartoon depicting a naked Ariel Sharon biting off the bloodied head of a Palestinian child as helicopter gunships hovered overhead. Jewish communal leaders, including Harris and Israeli diplomats, objected to the image, which nevertheless went on to be named Cartoon of the Year by the country’s Political Cartoon Society.

In part, Muslim charges of a “double standard” stem from the fact that, unlike the United States, many European countries have laws banning Holocaust denial and hate speech that targets minorities.

According to a background paper prepared by the German Embassy in Washington, its country’s law against Holocaust denial was developed in response to antisemites who asserted that the Jews had invented an “Auschwitz lie” in order “to defame Germans and exploit them financially.” In this context, the German Embassy’s statement asserts, Holocaust denial entails the charge that Jews are liars and constitutes an intended defamation of Jews.

Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, noted that European hate-speech laws have been used to protect not only Jews but also a variety of religious and racial groups, including Arabs and Muslims. In Italy, a leading author, Oriana Fallaci, will stand trial this June over charges that her portrayal of Muslims in her 2004 book “The Strength of Reason” constitutes hate speech.

Stern cautioned that all offensive speech does not qualify as “hate speech,” which he said is generally understood to mean speech intended to undermine minorities’ standings as equal citizens — not merely images or views that one finds offensive.

“Hate speech doesn’t mean speech that’s hateful to me,” Stern said. “It means speech that tends to undermine my standing as an equal citizen. And to the extent that not all Muslims are terrorists, these cartoons don’t do anything to undermine their status as equal citizens.”






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