Religious pride is fine, but prejudice is no joke
Muslims have the right to religious tolerance, but so do the Jews
By Tom HYLAND
19 Feb 2006
IN THE musical Fiddler on the Roof, the peasant Tevye, exasperated by his unmarried daughters, lamenting his arid cow and his lame horse, fearful of Russian pogroms, appeals to God: "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?"
It's an old joke. A Jewish joke, by and about people forced to play the role of the world's scapegoats. It's hard to find jokes in the Danish cartoons controversy, which ends with Jews as scapegoats. You know the story by now: a Danish newspaper publishes cartoons of dubious merit and taste purporting to portray the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, an act of blasphemy under Islamic faith. The cartoons sink with barely a trace, until four months later, after a concerted campaign by clerics to draw attention to the offence, riots erupt across the Islamic world.
In retaliation, an Iranian newspaper runs a cartoon contest of its own, but the target is not the Danish perpetrators of the original offence, but the Jews. Of course. Not many jokes there, just hypocrisy and prejudice by the bucketful.
Muslims in the West, like members of any religion, have a right to tolerance for their customs and beliefs, so long as they accord with the law and wider community standards. But they can't expect elements of their faith won't sometimes be subjected to the satire that other religions suffer in Western secular societies. Offensive? Humiliating? Particularly hurtful in a climate of Islamophobia? All of that. But that's the way it is. Just ask the Jews.
Obviously it's too much to expect resigned endurance from the theocrats in Iran. Instead, the government-controlled Tehran daily Hamshahri is staging a cartoon contest, designed to test the limits of Western freedom of expression, with Jews the target.
But there's no poking fun at the belief systems of Judaism here: faith isn't mocked, but facts are. Hamshahri doesn't want jokes. Instead, entrants are urged to question "alleged historical events like the Holocaust". In case you haven't got that, the entry form asserts: "Many thinkers express doubt about the accuracy of the Holocaust."
Presumably those "thinkers" include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, who says the mass murder of European Jewry by the Nazis is a "myth" and who wants Israel "wiped off the map".
"Some European countries insist on saying that, during World War II, Hitler burned millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps," he says.
Well yes, they do insist on saying that, because it happened. Denmark knows something of the Holocaust. Occupied by Nazi Germany, Danes, in an act of collective courage, saved Jewish citizens from being consumed in the "mythical" Holocaust in 1943. Learning that all 7500 Danish Jews were to be sent to concentration camps, ordinary Danes helped most escape to neutral Sweden. Presumably that, too, is part of the "myth".
The logic of all this is if you can deny the reality of the Holocaust (an attempt to erase Jewry from the human map of Europe), you can then erase Israel off the political map of the Middle East.
Ahmadinejad's outbursts are an extension of an entrenched prejudice across the Middle East, which in seeking to deny Israel's legitimacy questions the humanity of Jewish people.
An internet search will find scores of cartoons from the Middle East press depicting Jews as subhuman, as filthy vermin, as controlling, manipulative killers who drink the blood of Arab children. No satire here, no legitimate political comment about the real grievances of Palestinians, just blatant racism.
Late last year, Iranian state TV broadcast a cartoon that glorified suicide bombings by Palestinian children who kill Israeli civilians. The day before the cartoon was shown, Ahmadinejad declared: "This stain of disgrace (Israel) will be wiped off the face of the world - and this is attainable."
All of this comes as Iran is apparently seeking to develop nuclear weapons - just what you need if you want to wipe an opponent off the face of the earth. Now that's no joke.
Tom Hyland is a senior Sunday Age reporter.