Why Islam Is Unfunny for a Cartoonist
By WALL STREET JOURNAL
Added: Fri, 01 Aug 2008 23:00:00 UTC
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Why Islam Is Unfunny for a Cartoonist
The arrest of a controversial Dutch cartoonist has set off a wave of protests. The case is raising questions for a changing Europe about free speech, religion and art.
By ANDREW HIGGINS
On a sunny May morning, six plainclothes police officers, two uniformed policemen and a trio of functionaries from the state prosecutor's office closed in on a small apartment in Amsterdam. Their quarry: a skinny Dutch cartoonist with a rude sense of humor. Informed that he was suspected of sketching offensive drawings of Muslims and other minorities, the Dutchman surrendered without a struggle.
"I never expected the Spanish Inquisition," recalls the cartoonist, who goes by the nom de plume Gregorius Nekschot, quoting the British comedy team Monty Python. A fan of ribald gags, he's a caustic foe of religion, particularly Islam. The Quran, crucifixion, sexual organs and goats are among his favorite motifs.
Mr. Nekschot, whose cartoons had appeared mainly on his own Web site, spent the night in a jail cell. Police grabbed his computer, a hard drive and sketch pads. He's been summoned for further questioning later this month by prosecutors. He hasn't been charged with a crime, but the prosecutor's office says he's been under investigation for three years on suspicion that he violated a Dutch law that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.
The cartoon affair has come as a shock to a country that sees itself as a bastion of tolerance, a tradition forged by grim memories of bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Netherlands sheltered Jews and other refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and Calvinists fleeing persecution in France. Its thinkers helped nurture the 18th-century Enlightenment. Prostitutes, marijuana and pornography have been legal for decades.
"This is serious. It is about freedom of speech," says Mark Rutte, the leader of a center-right opposition party. Some of Mr. Nekschot's oeuvre is "really disgusting," he says, "but that is free speech."
The saga has turned the previously obscure artist into a national celebrity. His predicament reprises, with a curious twist, a drama that debuted in Denmark just over two years ago. Then, Danish cartoonists published a series of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the nation's Jyllands-Posten newspaper. The drawings set off a tempest of often violent protests across the Muslim world and a fierce debate in Europe about how to balance secular and sacred values. One of the Danish cartoonists fled his house and went into hiding late last year after the state security service uncovered a murder plot against him. (The elderly artist is now back at home, guarded by police.) Last month, a suicide bomber killed six in an attack on the Danish Embassy in Pakistan.
The Dutch scenario involves similar issues but has followed a very different script. This time the state has stepped in to rein in the artist, rather than protect him, and it is secular champions of free speech who are angry. They haven't resorted to violence but have stirred up a political storm. Parliament held an emergency debate on the affair and cartoonists have bombarded the Dutch Justice Ministry with a blizzard of faxed protest caricatures.
"Denmark protects its cartoonists. We arrest them," says Geert Wilders, a populist member of the Dutch Parliament famous for his dyed-blond bouffant hairdo and incendiary denunciations of the Quran as an Islamic version of Hitler's "Mein Kampf." The arrested cartoonist, says Mr. Wilders, is "a bit obsessed" with Muslims and sex, but "it is not bad for artists to have a little obsession."
How to handle Muslim sensitivities is one of Europe's most prickly issues. Islam is Europe's fastest-growing religion, with immigrants from Muslim lands often rejecting a drift toward secularism in what used to be known as Christendom. About 6% of Holland's 16.3 million people are Muslims, and nearly half of Amsterdam's population is of foreign origin. Some predict the city could have a Muslim majority within a decade or so.
The contrasting Danish and Dutch responses "show that there is a serious struggle of ideas going on for the future of Europe," says Flemming Rose, a Danish newspaper editor who commissioned the drawings of Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten. At stake, he says, is whether democracy protects the right to offend or embraces religious taboos so that "citizens have a right not to be offended."
In Britain, a local police force got caught up recently in a flap over its use of a German shepherd puppy to promote an emergency hotline. A Muslim councilor, noting that dogs are viewed as unclean in Islam, complained that the puppy could turn off believers. The police force apologized and regretted not consulting its diversity officer.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, a bombastic anti-immigration political party is campaigning to ban all Muslim prayer towers, known as minarets. This week it gathered enough signatures to force a national referendum on the issue. The Swiss government says such a ban would violate freedom of religion and pose a security threat by provoking Muslims.
Afshin Ellian, an Iranian-born history of law professor at Holland's Leiden University, says he fled Tehran to escape religious taboos and now worries that Europe is "importing problems from the Middle East." He understands why Muslims, Christians and other devout believers might take offense at certain cartoons, paintings or texts, but he calls it "a matter of aesthetics not criminal law."
The inquiry into Mr. Nekschot's case is being led by an Amsterdam prosecutor unit that specializes in combating neo-Nazis and other hate-mongers. The cartoonist denies any links to fascist or other extremist groups. He says he loathes all ideologies and all religions as recipes for tyranny.
Mr. Nekschot, who calls the investigation "surreal," says, "Not even Monty Python could have come up with this." (His pen name, Gregorius Nekschot, is a mocking tribute to Gregory IX, a 13th-century pope who set up a Vatican department to hunt down and execute heretics. Nekschot means "shot in the neck" in Dutch.) Some Muslim groups have voiced dismay at his arrest as well. The head of an organization of Moroccan preachers in Holland said authorities seemed "more afraid" of offending Islam than Muslims.
"We are led by the law," says Franklin Wattimena, a spokesman for the Amsterdam Public Prosecutor's Office. He denies any attempt to squelch free speech and says locking Mr. Nekschot up overnight was probably a "mistake."
If formally charged and taken to court, Mr. Nekschot risks up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of 16,750, or about $26,430, says his Amsterdam lawyer, Max Vermeij. He thinks the odds on his client being prosecuted are better than even but draws some comfort from recent Dutch court rulings in discrimination cases that mostly came down on the side of free speech.
Mr. Nekschot himself is very worried. "I'm afraid of getting a judge who doesn't have a sense of humor," he says.
He's also worried that his identity will get exposed if he goes to court. This, says the cartoonist, could make him a target for attack like Theo van Gogh, a polemical filmmaker and foul-mouthed celebrity murdered by an Islamic extremist in November 2004. Mr. Van Gogh was a fan of Mr. Nekschot's work and posted his drawings on his own Web site, The Happy Smoker.
Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin, when grilled about the cartoon affair in Parliament, promised to protect Mr. Nekshot's anonymity so as "to guarantee the suspect's safety." (The Wall Street Journal also agreed not to publish Mr. Nekschot's real name.)
But the minister, a devout Christian, added fuel to a mounting political furor by revealing the existence of a previously secret bureaucratic body, called the Interdepartmental Working Group on Cartoons. Officials later explained that the cartoon group had no censorship duties and had been set up after the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis to alert Dutch officials to any risks the Netherlands might face. The group examined Mr. Nekschot's work, say officials, but played no part in his arrest. Headed by a senior bureaucrat from a national agency coordinating counterterrorism, it draws from the intelligence service, the interior minister, the prosecutor's office and various other government bodies.
Until his brush with the law, Mr. Nekschot was barely known outside a narrow circle of Internet-savvy aficionados. Newspapers shunned his caricatures. "They all said 'no way,' " he recalls. "They thought I was too offensive, too explicit and too strong on sensitive issues like religion." He set up his own Web site, at www.gregoriusnekschot.nl/blog, in 2003 to break the blockade. He published two books, "Sick Jokes" in 2006 and "Sick Jokes 2" earlier this year, but sales languished. A big book distributor refused to touch them.
Today, he's a cult phenomenon. Hits on his Web site went from a few thousand a day to over 100,000 a day when news of his arrest broke, he says. Newspapers that wanted nothing to do with him now print his work. He's been interviewed on television -- with his face hidden -- and his work is currently on display in the Parliament building, where Mr. Rutte, the politician, has set up a "free-thinkers space." Other exhibits include poems by Mr. Van Gogh, the murdered filmmaker, and abstract paintings of seminaked women that were banished from a town hall in central Holland after complaints from Christians and Muslims.
Guessing Mr. Nekschot's true identity has become a media parlor game -- to the chagrin of one prominent cartoonist who was named in print, wrongly, as the mystery man. The case has also stirred much speculation in the media and Parliament about why an apparently dormant investigation first launched in 2005 suddenly became so urgent that Mr. Nekschot had to be snatched from his home without warning. The prosecutor's office says it simply took a long time to figure out Mr. Nekschot's true identity and then find him.
Others say the timing of his arrest suggests an attempt by authorities to soothe Muslims angry over the March release on the Internet of "Fitna," a short film by Mr. Wilders, the Dutch legislator. The film, which denounces "hateful verses from the Quran," infuriated many Muslims and also Dutch leaders, who had urged that it not be released.
Officials deny any connection. The prosecutor's office notes that it has also taken action against Muslims suspected of discrimination. A Moroccan-born Dutchman was recently convicted of discrimination for writing in a blog that homosexuals should be tossed from rooftops and thrown down stairs. A court ordered him to do community-service work.
Mr. Nekschot makes no apologies for causing offense. "Harmless humor does not exist," he says. "I like strong stuff."
But, eager to stay out of prison, he's pruned his Web site of eight cartoons that prosecutors say are the focus of their investigation. Deleted were cartoons of a Muslim at the North Pole engaging in deviant sex, and of a black youth waving two pistols at a left-wing do-gooder wearing a peace sign.
Among the cartoons that survived his cut is a drawing of Mr. Van Gogh's jailed killer naked on his prison bed. It shows him leering salaciously at a copy of the Quran and lamenting that the holy book doesn't have any pictures.
The cartoonist blames his woes on what he calls Holland's "political correctness industry," a network of often state-funded organizations set up to protect Muslims and other minority groups. One of these, an Internet monitoring group known as MDI, says it received dozens of complaints about the cartoonist's mockery of Islam and first reported him to the prosecutor's office in 2005.
"We're not sure what he does is illegal, but there is a possibility that it is not legal," says the group's head, Niels van Tamelen. Many of the complaints, he says, came from followers of a controversial Muslim convert called Abdul-Jabbar van de Ven.
Mr. Van de Ven caused an uproar after the 2004 murder of Mr. Van Gogh, when he seemed to welcome the killing on national TV. He said Mr. Wilders, the anti-immigrant legislator, also deserved to die, preferably from cancer. Mr. Nekschot, appalled by the outburst, caricatured the convert as a fatwa-spewing fanatic.
Mr. Van de Ven says he's glad to see Mr. Nekschot in trouble. The cartoonist deserves prosecution, he says, for "disgusting cartoons about our beloved prophet Muhammad, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him." Politicians who cry about free speech, he says, "shouldn't stick their noses into judicial matters."
Mr. Nekschot says everyone is entitled to their opinions. "If people say my cartoons are disgusting that is fine by me. I see lots of things I don't like. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Write to Andrew Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org
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