Peter March seemed to be enjoying himself last week as students loudly called him a fool. “By many people’s accounts I am a fool, but even fools have the right to teach,” the Saint Mary’s philosophy prof said during a protest in which 100 people marched from the Dal campus to Saint Mary’s. “It’s a classic critique of Socrates that he was a fool,” March told a CKDU reporter. He added that the demonstrators were “doing exactly what one might ask for.”
But what exactly was March asking for when he posted cartoons on his office door depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist? He claimed to be promoting public discussion. When the university ordered him to remove the drawings, March complained that Saint Mary’s was suppressing free expression. The cartoons, first published by a Danish newspaper and then across Europe, led to protests and rioting. Angry Muslims pointed out that Muhammad condemned violence and therefore, the crude drawings grossly distort Islamic teaching.
They also reinforce racist stereotypes of violent, barbaric Arabs—cunning religious zealots bent on destroying civilized values such as freedom and tolerance. This is the stereotype George Bush played to when, in the aftermath of 9/11, he denounced “evildoers” who “hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” On the surface, Bush was referring to terrorists who, he said, follow “a fringe form of Islamic extremism.” But his words also evoked centuries of hatred and fear. As journalist Robert Fisk points out in his latest book on the Middle East, The Great War for Civilization, British propagandists in the 19th century described Muslim tribesmen in Afghanistan as diabolical, skull-cap wearing fanatics—fiends in human form.
Such racist propaganda seeks to dehumanize its targets. Sixty years ago, the Nuremberg tribunal sentenced the editor of the Nazi weekly Der Sturmer to hang, not because he had any direct role in war crimes, but because he paved the way for the Holocaust. Julius Streicher published thousands of articles, cartoons and photos that depicted Jews as cunning, repulsive and morally degenerate. In his biography of Streicher, Randall Bytwerk writes that Der Sturmer “had been one of the most widely circulated papers in Germany, the one paper Hitler himself claimed to read from cover to cover.” In the words of his indictment against him, Streicher’s propaganda left “a legacy of almost a whole people poisoned with hate, sadism and murder.”
For Peter March, the issue seems simple. It’s free expression, public discussion and academic freedom versus suppression, censorship and political correctness. But a colleague who teaches comparative religious ethics at Saint Mary’s sees things differently. Nancie Erhard says free expression and academic freedom are essential to her work. But they’re not absolute. In an e-mail to CBC Radio which she also sent to me, Professor Erhard writes: “I exercise my academic freedom where it matters: in the classroom. I even use what are clearly offensive cartoons to do so—historical, anti-Semitic cartoons that were part of Nazi propaganda.” Erhard says she helps her students analyze the drawings to understand their use of religious images, their political context and their power. “I do not post such cartoons on my office door and would oppose anyone doing so,” she writes, noting that the Nazi drawings were “effective in expressing and inciting hatred, as were the cartoons from the Danish newspaper. I would be cautious, not out of cowardice, but because I would not want, even inadvertently, to contribute to that destructive purpose.”
Today, as the Western world wages its so-called war on terror, posting anti-Islamic cartoons on an office door will not promote reasoned public discussion. On the contrary, it will cause anger, hurt and frustration, especially among Muslims who already feel they are under suspicion. The Saint Mary’s administrators were right to order March to take the cartoons down. As Socrates himself said: “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”
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