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Pert but pertinent

Pertie?s phone call took me by surprise. Fortunately it was a Saturday and I had time on hand but I hadn?t expected the challenge he threw at me.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2006 02:51 IST

Pertie’s phone call took me by surprise. Fortunately it was a Saturday and I had time on hand but I hadn’t expected the challenge he threw at me. “What do you make of all this fuss about cartoons?” he began. “Has the world gone stark raving mad or have I missed something?”

“Well,” I responded, “the Danish paper was asking for trouble, wasn’t it? Everyone knows that Muslims consider caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed blasphemous and can work themselves into a terrible froth. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So isn’t it disingenuous to be surprised by it?”

“Except they’re just cartoons!” His voice conveyed his sense of incredulity. “It’s satire or, if you insist, a poor joke. Shouldn’t there be a sense of proportion in the response? Surely, this doesn’t justify death threats, burning embassies and boycotting Danish products?”

“Let’s work this one through,” I said a little pompously. “I accept that Western newspapers, who place freedom of speech above the sanctity of religious symbols and the need to avoid giving offence, have a right to print cartoons. And I accept that the object of lampooning is to hit at sacred cows. But what was the need for some thirty other papers to re-print the cartoons?”

“It was a display of solidarity, that’s all.” Pertie seemed to have no doubt about it. “After all, you press guys always hang together. That’s all that’s happening here.”

“Really?” I asked a shade sarcastically. “Look at the range of papers that have re-printed the cartoons — French, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, German, Swiss, Hungarian, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Bulgarian and even in far away New Zealand. Doesn’t that seem like deliberate provocation? Aren’t they simply lighting a fire to send Islamic sentiments up in flames?”

“Hang on a moment.” There was a sudden edge to Pertie’s voice. “They’ve also been re-printed in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Egypt and Jordan. And the Grand Ayatollah Sistani has publicly suggested that Muslims need to ask themselves if they’re to blame for the way the world sees Islam. So by no means every Muslim is up in arms. Many have taken it in their stride.”

“True,” I said. After all there was no denying this point. Yet I wasn’t going to give in so easily. “But the same Danish paper refused to publish cartoons mocking Jesus. You can’t have double standards in such matters.”

“So the paper’s hypocritical!” Pertie seemed unruffled. “But that’s hardly the point. Don’t forget Western society has frequently made fun of Christ. Remember The Last Temptation? This Scorsese film showed Jesus making love to Mary Magdalene. And according to The Da Vinci Code, he secretly married her. Worse, in The Life of Brian, there are hints of homosexuality. Brian, a spoof on Jesus, falls in love with a Welsh rabble-rouser. The West has been far more irreverent, even hurtful, of Christian feelings than Islamic ones.”

This time I couldn’t think of an instant rejoinder. I had to concede that the West has inflicted far more on itself than on Islam. My silence, however, only spurred Pertie’s eloquence.

“And there’s something else: The very same Islamic societies that are today furious haven’t shown great regard for other faiths. Syrian papers have printed cartoons of Jewish rabbis eating little babies and consider that funny. I would understand if they were against all religious cartooning. But they aren’t.”

It sounded as if he was talking about people who live in glasshouses. Except that point cuts both ways. This time I was quick to interrupt.

“Remember the Holocaust? The West doesn’t approve of people questioning it. Just this week David Irving was tried and convicted in Austria for this footling offence. And at the moment the President of Iran is in the international doghouse for claiming it’s an exaggeration. If the West can be so sensitive about Jewish sentiments, why not Muslim ones?”

Now it was Pertie’s turn to pause. I could sense I had scored. So before I lost the initiative I rushed in with a final thrust. “Everyone is sensitive about what’s dear to them. We need equal restraint on every side. Isn’t that what the West forgot?”

“Or the opposite?” said Pertie, making a remarkably fast recovery. “Surely what we really need to learn is how to laugh at our most holy totems? Taking umbrage is silly. It shows up weakness and vulnerability. Laughing it off is a sign of strength.”

First Published: Feb 26, 2006 02:51 IST