Jan 2, 2010

Artists Threatened


This is a new category on the Magnum Arts blog dedicated to cultural and artistic freedom.

I avoid like the plague introducing politics in my cartooning classes, which is not the appropriate place for such discussions. So, I was on the fence about whether or not to create a post about this subject, but in the end, with recent developments, I decided that this situation involves things that are very important to cartoonists, artists and citizens alike: censorship and freedom. This is a case where a cartoonists' work has literally put a death sentence over his head, and it's important to know why.

What Happened
Kurt Westergaard, A 74 year old Danish cartoonist, is living under 24-hour police protection in Denmark, all because of several cartoons he drew which ignited a firestorm of protest among militant Islam religious practitioners. In Islam, the drawing of the prophet Mohamed, even in a good light, is considered
blasphemy, because it encourages idolatry.

In the United States, artists are generally free to create whatever kind of art they like. Some people may not like it, but it's acknowledged that we have the right to create it. In Europe and the Middle East, however, the migration of Islam into western countries has led to clashes between their beliefs, and the beliefs of non-Muslims. This conflict led to an explosion of violence over a few simple cartoons, and an Islam-inspired death sentence for one artist who stood up for creative freedom, refusing to be bullied into silence.

Muslims forbid any drawing, sculpture or depiction of the prophet Mohamed, unlike the depiction of Jesus, which is very common in Christianity. Defying this ban can lead to harsh penalties, even death. This is a central tenet of Islam and is not for non-Muslims to judge. These beliefs are very important to Muslims, and regardless of whether or not you agree, it is important to respect those beliefs.

The problem arises when a small percent (not all, mind you) of Muslims try to force their religious restrictions upon others who do not practice Islam, which is exactly what happened in this case, with very unpleasant results.

Standing Up For Freedom Of Expression
Kurt Westergaard, and other artists, publishers and writers, began seeing an increase in self-censorship among the creative community; artists and writers deliberately censoring and restricting their work, thus limiting their creativity, in order to avoid angering Muslims worldwide. The catalyst for this increase in artists censoring themselves was the Salman Rushdie controversy, which you can read about HERE. Rushie was given a death sentence by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, ordering Muslims worldwide to kill him for blasphemy.

Westergaard, and the newspaper he worked for, felt it was wrong for artists and writers to be bullied into following Islam rules when they are not Muslim. Denmark has a strong culture of freedom of expression, much like we do here in the United States, and in 2006, the Danish newspaper he worked for published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed in various settings, poking fun at militant Muslims' tendency toward violence. One depicted Mohamed having a bomb in a turban. Offensive? Absolutely. Protected by free speech by the laws of Denmark? Yes.

The Consequences Of Freedom Of Expression

The result was violent protests in a number of countries, as Muslims reacted with fury and demanded the cartoons be withdrawn and the newspaper, and Denmark, apologize. Both expressed regret for the violence, but refused, citing Denmark's freedom of speech rules.

This blog post was motivated by the news that a man from Somalia who practiced Islam recently tried to kill
Westergaard with an axe, because of the cartoon he drew. Westergaard and his five-year-old daughter, who had been living in a secret safe house in Denmark, narrowly escaped death, as did a Danish police officer who tried to stop him. Three years later, and his life is still threatened by his act of expression in a free country.

What happened in this situation is a clash of cultures. As one culture migrates to other countries with another culture, conflict will inevitably arise. Muslims felt the cartoons insulted and slandered their religion, and demanded they be withdrawn. Western countries like Denmark felt it was unreasonable for Muslims to impose their religious restrictions on non-Muslim cultures.

Why am I not posting the cartoons for you to see? For two primary reasons:

  1. I try to keep politics and religion out of my art classes. The classes I teach (as well as this blog) are no place for my political and religious views. I write about this situation only because it involves the consequences of someone's art.
  2. I don't want to offend Muslims. The majority of Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding people who harbor no ill will toward anyone. It is only a small percentage of Muslims which cause violence.

Westergaard and his five-year-old daughter, like Salman Rushdie, will have to live in hiding for the rest of his life because of his art.

This page has a chronology of events stemming from the publishing of these cartoons, and the efforts of western artists and writers to stand up to the threats of violence from militant Muslims who were offended by the cartoons.

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