Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Students And Cartoon Riots

“There are demonstrations, riots and fire bombings around the world lately because of some cartoon about the prophet Muhammad that was published in a Danish newspaper,” I told students. “Have any of you heard about this?”

Only a few knew knew of it. Taking a piece of chalk, I drew a rough facsimile of one cartoon on the blackboard - a rendition of Muhammad with a turban that looked like a bomb. A lit fuse emerged from the bomb which had Arabic script indicating that it represented Islam. “This and eleven other cartoons were published last October in Denmark, Europe,” I explained, “because a newspaper ran a contest for artists who might wish to illustrate a children’s book about Muhammad. The author, a woman, could find no illustrator willing to do the job out of fear of reprisal from Muslims. The newspaper was trying to help her,” I explained.

“Has anybody seen this cartoon before?” I asked.

Nobody had.

“Evidently, a Muslim cleric in Denmark told people at his mosque the cartoons were insulting to Islam and Muslims should not tolerate them. Soon, Muslims in London and other European cities conducted demonstrations and threatened all of Europe with September 11th-style attacks and new holocausts. There carried signs pledging to slaughter, annihilate and massacre Europeans for insulting Islam. Danish embassies in Beirut, Lebanon and Damascus, Syria were attacked. Danish flags were burned in the Gaza Strip by Palestinians who had cheered the 9-11 attacks against the United States five years earlier.”

I waited for a reaction. Nobody raised a hand for several seconds, then one boy who had seen reports of the demonstrations on television said, “I heard that Islam forbids paintings, pictures or figures of Muhammad. That’s why Muslims are so mad.”

“I heard that too,” I said. “American newspapers have decided not to publish the cartoons.”

There was no more discussion of the cartoon demonstrations that day. After school, while browsing familiar web sites and web logs, I found all twelve cartoons published on Michelle Malkin is a conservative syndicated columnist with a very active web log.

In class the next day, I hooked my laptop to the digital projector and showed students the rest of the controversial cartoons. Most were pretty innocuous, what you’d expect to find illustrating a children’s book. The only sketchy one showed Muhammad in heaven telling a line of suicide-bomber jihadists waiting to get in that he was all out of virgins. I thought it was clever and my students thought so too, but that it might insult Muslims who don’t approve of suicide bombers.

Another cartoon showed the star and crescent symbol of Islam superimposed on a drawing of the face of Muhammad. At this, a student commented that the symbol resembled the hammer and sickle symbol on the flag of the former Soviet Union.

I drew the hammer and sickle (with star above) on the board and beside it drew the star and crescent - symbol of Islam. The similarity was striking. It pleased me that some students picked up on this, not that it had any hidden meaning, but at least they were thinking. We had been studying comparisons of World War II with the Cold War. WWII was a fairly traditional war in that Germany and Japan were attempting to take over surrounding territory. The Cold War had that element as well, but it was also ideological with its propagation of communism. The current war with radical Islam is also ideological. Just as Soviet leaders sought to impose communism on the world, radical Islamic leaders like Osama Bin Laden seek to impose Islam and Sharia (Islamic Law) on the world. That the symbols of communism and Islam are similar is curious in that light.

Most students have a fascination with symbology. They remembered that a cross is symbolic of Christianity and a Star of David symbolic of Judaism. When we studied anarchists in early 20th century America, they learned the upper-case “A” with a circle around it was a symbol for anarchists - people against any form of government. They were interested in the swastika symbol when we studied the Nazi takeover of Germany and were quite taken by Soviet and Islamic symbols.

Regarding the alleged claim that Islam forbade pictures of the prophet Muhammad, a link on Michelle Malkin’s site went to an archive with dozens of Muhammad pictures from Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Iran (formerly Persia) and Turkey. Many went back seven centuries to the 1300s. There were other centuries-old pictures of Muhammad from countries in Europe. There was even one from the American TV show

“South Park.” Students laughed when that one came up. Evidently, none had provoked outrage until now.

Most students tentatively concluded that the cartoons were scant justification for riots around the world and that radical Muslims would seize on anything to stir their followers up against the west, just as they had during the French riots (which we studied, and I wrote about in this space) a few months ago.

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