To be fair, he wasn’t wholly responsible. If it wasn’t for all the lunacy that preceded him, I probably would have dismissed his cartoon as just anotherHerald Sun atrocity, more a piece of Murdoch-madness to be mocked rather than trigger for outrage. But context is everything. And after days of sanctimonious blather about freedom of speech and the Enlightenment values of Western civilisation, his was one pencil-warfare cartoon too many.
The cartoon in question depicts two men – masked and armed Arab terrorists (is there any other kind of Arab?) – with a hail of bomb-like objects raining down on their heads. Only the bombs aren’t bombs. They are pens, pencils and quills. Get it? In the face of a medieval ideology that only understands the language of the gun, the West – the heroic, Enlightenment-inspired West – responds by reaffirming its commitment to resist barbarism with the weapons of ideas and freedom of expression.
It is a stirring narrative repeated ad nauseam in newspapers across the globe. They have been filled with depictions of broken pencils re-sharpened to fight another day, or editorials declaring that we will defeat terrorism by our refusal to stop mocking Islam.
It is well past time to call bullshit. Knight’s cartoon made the point exceptionally clear, but every image that invoked the idea that Western culture could and would defend itself from Islamist extremism by waging a battle of ideas demonstrated the same historical and political amnesia.
Reality could not be more at odds with this ludicrous narrative.
For the last decade and a half the United States, backed to varying degrees by the governments of other Western countries, has rained violence and destruction on the Arab and Muslim world with a ferocity that has few parallels in the history of modern warfare.
It was not pencils and pens – let alone ideas – that left Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives, with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and watched their country be torn apart.
To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses that bore the brunt of “shock and awe” bombing in Iraq; to those whose bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib; to all of them – what but cruel mockery is the contention that Western “civilisation” fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
And that is only to concern ourselves with the latest round of atrocities. It is not even to consider the century or more of Western colonial policies that through blood and iron have consigned all but a tiny few among the population of the Arab world to poverty and hopelessness.
It is not to even mention the brutal rule of French colonialism in Algeria, and its preparedness to murder hundreds of thousands of Algerians and even hundreds of French-Algerian citizens in its efforts to maintain the remnants of empire. It is leaving aside the ongoing poverty, ghettoisation and persecution endured by the Muslim population of France, which is mostly of Algerian origin.
The history of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world – a history of colonialism and imperialism, of occupation, subjugation and war – cries out in protest against the quaint idea that “Western values” entail a rejection of violence and terror as political tools.
Of course the pen has played its role as well. The pens that signed the endless Patriot Acts, anti-terror laws and other bills that entrenched police harassment and curtailed civil rights. The pens of the newspaper editorialists who whip up round after round of hysteria, entrenching anti-Muslim prejudice and making people foreigners in their own country. But the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the powerful and their guns.
Consideration of this context not only exposes the hypocrisy of those who create the narrative of an enlightened West defending freedom of speech, it also points to the predictability and inevitability of horrific acts of terrorism in response. Of course we will never know what was going through the minds of the three men who carried out this latest atrocity. But it is the height of ahistorical philistinism to ignore the context – both recent and longstanding – in which these attacks took place.
The idea that Muslim outrage at vile depictions of their religious icons can be evaluated separately from the persecution of Muslims in the West and the invasion and occupation of Muslim countries is the product of a complete incapacity to empathise with the experience of sustained and systemic oppression.
What is extraordinary, when even the most cursory consideration of recent history is taken into account, is not that this horrific incident occurred, but that such events do not happen more often. It is a great testament to the enduring humanism of the Muslim population of the world that only a tiny minority resort to such acts in the face of endless provocation.
In the days ahead, a now tired and exhausting theatre of the absurd will continue to play out its inevitable acts. The Western politicians who lock up their own dissidents and survey the every movement of their citizenry will go on waxing lyrical about freedom of thought. Muslim leaders of every hue will continue to denounce a terrorism they have nothing to do with, and will in turn be denounced for not doing so often or vigorously enough. The right will attack the left as sympathisers of Islamist terrorism, and demand we endlessly repeat the truism that journalists should not be killed for expressing their opinions. They will also demand that we accept that white Westerners, not Muslims, are the real victims of this latest political drama.
Meanwhile, Muslims in the West will, if they dare to walk the streets, do so in fear of the inevitable reprisals. And pencils aren’t what they will be afraid of.