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Present tense

Editorial by Bruce Wark


“The central issue in the cartoon controversy is about power,” Paul Bowlby told more than 200 students and professors last week in a crowded auditorium at Saint Mary’s. Bowlby, the university’s chair of religious studies, was referring to the uproar over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. “Canadians enjoy the freedom of cartooning,” Bowlby said as he described how Canadian editorial cartoonists routinely make fun of the country’s most powerful politicians. “Does it make a difference if cartoons are about less powerful people such as members of minority groups?” he asked rhetorically. “Does it make a difference if cartoons cultivate hatred?”

Bowlby was participating in a forum organized by students after philosophy professor Peter March posted the cartoons on his office door. The university ordered him to take them down, but many students were still upset. They confronted March in his office, organized a peaceful demonstration and then this forum. Bowlby made it clear he wasn’t buying March’s argument that posting the cartoons was an expression of academic freedom. “It’s the freedom to do research and publish your findings,” Bowlby said. “That’s academic freedom.” He added that posting offensive cartoons on an office door is an insult to the whole notion.

Later, March himself stood up in the audience to say that Islam’s holy book, the Koran, is full of contradictions and that students should read it for themselves before deciding who’s right. He said the controversy had a silver lining because at least it stirred up debate. True, thanks to its student organizers, the forum did give people a chance to talk. Several students spoke of the hurt and outrage they felt. “The cartoons are an attack on all Muslims by attacking the leader of the faith,” one said to a round of applause. But another worried that “some people want to impose Islamic law on the rest of the world.”

Jamal Badawi, a business prof and Muslim religious leader, tried to put the uproar at Saint Mary’s in the context of world events since 9/11. He suggested that Muslims everywhere feel vulnerable as the western media report daily about violence committed by “Islamic terrorists.” “The media don’t talk about Protestant terrorism or Catholic terrorism in Northern Ireland,” he said. “There’s no Judaic or Hindu terrorism. Just Islamic terrorism. The media are judging a whole religion by a few people’s misbehaviour.” Badawi added that Bush’s so-called war against terrorism is used to justify the occupation of Iraq and the torture of Muslims at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. He referred to the US policy of “rendition” under which the world’s military superpower routinely scoops up Muslims and ships them to other countries for physical torture. “The cartoon issue is not a clash of civilizations,” Badawi said. “It’s a clash of uncivilized people on both sides.”

Surprisingly, the war in Afghanistan didn’t come up at the Saint Mary’s forum. But it’s another example of how Muslims in one of the world’s poorest countries have suffered since 9/11. British journalist Robert Fisk was in neighbouring Pakistan shortly after the bombing began. “For the Afghan refugees who were turning up in their thousands at the border,” Fisk writes, “it was palpably evident that they were fleeing not the Taliban but our bombs and missiles. The refugees spoke vividly of their fear and terror as our bombs fell on their cities.” So far, thousands of Afghans have died and thousands more have been maimed, yet Canadian politicians haven’t even debated Canada’s role in this costly and bloody war. No wonder Muslims are angry at the publication of cartoons that reinforce the lie that Islam is a religion of terror. No wonder they feel threatened when the world’s most powerful countries feel justified in killing innocent civilians in the name of peace and security.

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