Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Japan Opinion: Disturbances Caused by Caricatures
HIRAYAMA Kentaro  / Former NHK commentator

May 16, 2006
The furious, sometimes violent, protest demonstrations raging in various parts of Europe and the Middle East, were triggered by caricatures making fun of Muhammad, the Islamic Prophet. The drawings were first carried in a Danish newspaper. Now however, the outrage appears to have subsided somewhat, although angers still seem smoldering in the Islamic population.

One of the twelve caricatures in question shows an old bearded man, seemingly an Islamic priest, standing in front of a group of suicide bombers coming up through the clouds telling them: "Maidens out of stock now!" and refusing them entry to paradise. This is a joke about the Islamic belief that Allah will reward each brave man who sacrifices his life in defense of Islam with 72 maidens in heaven as a prize. This sort of caricature ridiculing Islamic extremists is a matter of daily occurrence among some European newspapers and magazines such as Le Monde. The recent commotion was caused by the fact that the old bearded man in the picture was depicted as "Muhammad": which really set Muslim nerves on edge. From the standpoint of Islam, which prohibits idolatry, the representation of images of Allah and Muhammad is an unforgivable taboo. When the Danish authorities were sluggish and mishandled the small-scale protest by local Islamic inhabitants, the ruckus spread to many places through various types of media like the Internet. The fact that European journalism with its value on "the freedom of the press and expression" challenged the Islamists'protests worsened the situation and the issue became both politicized and "globalized."

It has been over half a year since the controversial caricatures were carried in Danish papers. The general situation has calmed down as moderate Muslim state governments and religious leaders have been trying to persuade their people that protest should not be violent, while, in European countries and the United States, the necessity of respect for non-Christian believers has come to be emphasized. The Financial Times, a British newspaper, said in its editorial: "The freedom of the press is a right but the use of good judgment is a duty..." This is an appropriate and good presentation of the delicate symbiotic relationship between the European prime value of the freedom of speech and expression and that of non-Christian faith.

A well-known example of blasphemy against Islam and its prophet is the case of The Satanic Verses written by Salman Rushdie, a British novelist, who was born in India as a Muslim. In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the brink of death issued a Fatwa (a formal legal opinion or religious decree based on Islamic law) that the writer deserves death. Obeying this decree, an Islamic foundation in Iran offered a huge bounty on his head and author Rushdie is still under the police protection long after the Ayatollah's death. In the meantime, Hitoshi Igarashi, an associate professor of Tsukuba University who had translated the novel into Japanese, was killed by somebody on the campus in 1991 (and the case still remains unsolved).

In China also, where 18-million people, or 1.5% of the total population, are Muslim, there have been some incidents related to the caricature. In 1993, pirated copies of the caricature made in Taiwan and commercialized by a publisher in Szechwan caught the Muslim's (Huizu) attention in Lanchou, Kansu Province. The caricature of Islamic people worshipping pigs was captioned: "Muslims never eat pigs because their ancestors were pigs." Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest against the caricature in Lanchou. The demonstrators were so enraged that they wanted to take the train to Szechwan to burn the publisher! The local authorities quickly responded and while permitting the demonstration, they ordered the closure of the publishing house. The commotion finally quieted down after the authorities promised to bring the responsible person to justice on suspicion of contempt.

The swift action by the Chinese government to this incident, recorded as "contempt of religion," can be considered as part of its appeasement policy of Muslims, bearing in mind the existence of a separatist movement by an Islamic minority living in Chinese territories, such as the Hsingchiang Uyghur Autonomous District. These minorities have been influenced by the independence of new Muslim states in Central Asia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In 1997, a similar incident took place also on the West Bank of the Jordan River under Israeli occupation. It happened in Hebron the site of the tomb of Abraham of the Old Testament, the sacred book for Judaism. For the Muslims (Palestinians), the same tomb is Ibrahim's as mentioned in the Koran. Therefore, Hebron is a town where the Muslims and Jewish settlers have often fought and shed blood, each side seeking exclusive possession of the tomb. One day, a young ultra-right Jewish woman who had immigrated from Russia began pasting up hand-drawn caricatures on the wall around the tomb. The picture showed a pig writing something like a book with a pen in his hand. The pig was captioned "Muhammad" and the book the "Koran." It was a vicious provocation since pigs are viewed as filthy and abominable animals by both Jews and Muslims. Indignant Palestinians retorted, "The Jews are a hybrid race of pigs and monkeys." In the Chinese classic Xi You Ji ("Journey to the West"), both the pig (Zhu Bajie) and the monkey (Sun Wu-kong) are treated as positive characters, following Xuan Zang, a Buddhist priest who brought to China a large volume of holy scriptures from India. But the work is familiar to neither Jews nor Muslims. The Israeli authorities arrested the woman and put her in jail for several years. This may be another example of measures taken out of political consideration.

Now let us look at Japan. Although the tragic murder case of Prof. Igarashi took place in Japan, there are a smaller number of Muslims residents here than in European countries and fortunately we have had only a few small-scale demonstrations in Tokyo after the caricature incidents swept around the world. If we are to learn a lesson from the case of caricature affair, wouldn't it be the one centering on the war shrine Yasukuni? This issue should be considered not from the religious point of view, but rather from the relationship between a "right" and "bon sens."Could we replace the above-quoted "the freedom of speech" in the Financial Times editorial with "Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni shrine"?

The writer is former NHK commentator.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

平山健太郎 / 元NHK解説委員

2006年 5月 16日







一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Japan Opinion: Disturbances Caused by Caricatures