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City of Brass

City of Brass

Free Speech, Consensus, and Bigotry

posted by G. Willow Wilson

This is a guest post by Muslim comics writer and essayist G. Willow Wilson.

One of my literary heroes, Neil Gaiman, is an ardent supporter of free speech. In this entry of his blog, he discusses an issue that has set the comics industry on fire in recent months: the question of whether fictional depictions of child pornography are protected speech. (Child pornography involving live children is not; about that I think we can all vigorously concur.) Gaiman concludes that we must protect all speech, no matter how vile, because the law cannot draw a line between art and smut.

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The debate brought me back to the infamous Danish cartoon scandal of 2005. Like many thinking Muslims, I was forced by the controversy to fight a war on two fronts: against religious violence on one hand, and against hate speech on the other. I condemned the threats of death and violence made by my angry coreligionists, but I also condemned the cartoons.

Among my fellow comics creators, my position was considered reactionary. Why couldn’t I recognize that the man behind the Muhammad cartoons was An Artist, excercising the noblest of ideals, Freedom Of Speech? Was not art inherently worthy? Why did I insist on holding An Artist morally responsible for the ideas his art promoted?

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The answer was–is–quite simple: because an artist is morally responsible for the ideas his art promotes. Free speech does not mean all speech is just or good. When an artist promotes (or worse, invents) ugly stereotypes, he or she is responsible for helping create cultural consensus about the people, ideas or activities s/he stereotypes. And consensus is dangerous.

I recently looked over a gallery of cartoons that appeared in World War II-era Germany. And I found this. (H/T The German Propaganda Archive) He looked oddly familiar. Hadn’t I seen him somewhere before? Ah yes: here. Man, they could be brothers. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the ‘artist’ of the first cartoon was responsible for perpetuating Nazi consensus against the Jews. He may not have fired a single bullet or locked a single gas chamber, but he helped ease the minds and lend confidence to the hearts of those who did. Yet western leftists lined up in solidarity with the ‘artist’ of the second cartoon, which perpetuates a near-identical consensus against Muslims. Right down to the hooked nose, maniacal gaze, and scruffy facial hair. Someone–probably many someones–looked at that cartoon, looked at an Iraqi civilian with his legs blown off, and didn’t care.

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When you defend hate speech, you defend hatred. Whether you like it or not, whether you deal with it or not, whether you admit it or not. I refuse to defend hate speech. I refuse to call it art. There is only one reason I do not call for it to be censored: if we start censoring hate speech, we give the government a precedent to censor anything. Gaiman is right–the law cannot draw fine lines.

So the hate-cartoonists and (fictional!) child-pornographers are free to continue Being Artists. The fashionable are free to worship them, rationalize them, and split hairs for them. And I am free to be a curmudgeon, who continues to insist that art is not merely a right–it is a moral responsibility.

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Saudi Arabia’s Iran Obsession

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

(This is a guest post by my friend and Islamsphere scion Ali Eteraz)

I woke up this morning and found a comprehensive Middle East peace plan being offered by Saudi Arabia in the pages of the Washington Post.

Putting aside whether or not the proposed Arab peace initiative of 2002 is viable or progressive, I couldn’t help but notice the four bullet points that conclude the article. Says the article:

Obama ought to pursue a comprehensive policy that deals with all the hot spots in the Middle East. He should:

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Call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shebaa Farms in Lebanon. This would remove the issue of “national liberation” from the arsenal of Hezbollah’s propaganda and mitigate Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon.

Work with the U.N. Security Council for a resolution guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial integrity. This would dampen Iraqi politicians’ ambitions for dismembering Iraq and force them to negotiate for national reconciliation, putting their interests as Iraqis before their interests as Arabs, Kurds, Shiites or Sunnis. It would also stop any ambitions — economic or territorial — that Iraq’s neighbors may be considering.

Encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace. This would engage Syria and diminish Iranian obstructionism. It would also force Palestinian groups based in Syria to follow the Syrian example.

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Declare America’s intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella and other incentives for countries that sign up and a sanctions regime for those that don’t. This would remove the issue of double standards that the Iranian government uses to raise support among its people for its nuclear policy. It would also resolve the security concerns with which Israel’s leaders justify their possession of nuclear weapons.

Notice something?

Each one contains either a direct or indirect reference to Iran. It is only the second bullet where Iran is not named but even there the “ambitions” of “Iraq’s neighbors” can only refer to one country.

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Number three is interesting because Iran is redefined as the country engaged in “obstructionism.” Four, however, is crucial, because it directly criticizes Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

There has been a debate raging among academics whether it makes sense to understand the middle east in terms of this Saudi-Iranian competition. Vali Nasr, from the Naval Academy, who wrote the book on Shia revival and conflicts within Islam, has argued for this kind of evaluation. Hamid Dabashi, from Columbia university, believes that promoting conflicts within Islam is simply made up. I don’t think my views particularly matter in this debate but if I had to pick I would say that neither is correct since given the autocratic and oligarchic nature of Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, there is no way of knowing what is really happening.

Ali Eteraz is a writer and columnist for The Huffington Post and for The Guardian magazine.

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Happy New Year and…Happy New Year!

This year is rare: the Islamic New Year and the Solar New Year are very close together. The first of Muharram, the Islamic New Year, was December 29. The passing of the New Year is a special time of celebration, when people revel in being alive to see the passing of a New Year.

Yet, it is also a time of reflection: reflection over what we have done over the past year and how we will be different in the coming year. That is the basis of the New Year Resolution, when many people resolve to do something or be someone they were not the year before. It is natural to do such things during a transition, such as one year to the next.

So, let us all – as we toast (with or without alcohol) the New Year – reflect over how we have been in 2008 and resolve to be better people and make the world a better place in 2009.

And, may each and every one of you have a happy, healthy, safe, and prosperous New Year.

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Remember the Holy Land

As the bloodshed continues in the Holy Land, and the Israeli government says that what we have seen so far is the “first stage,” I am reminded of the Prophet Muhammad’s saying: “If you see something evil, try to change it with your hands. If you are unable to do so, then speak out against it. If you are unable to do so, then hate what is happening with your heart. That is the weakest level of faith.”

I am speaking out against the horrific violence that we have witnesses in the Holy Land. I am speaking out against rockets fired on innocent civilians. I am speaking out against bombs and missiles hitting crowded population centers. I am speaking out of the indifference of political leaders and “religious leaders” at the enormous toll of human suffering that the world is witnessing in the Holy Land right now.

I also am praying for the safety, security, of all who are in the Holy Land, and I ask the Precious Beloved to stop the violence. Blood is blood; an Israeli life is as precious as a Palestinian life. The tears of a Palestinian mother sting just as much as that of an Israeli mother.

Why can’t more people see this?

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