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Remember When Cartoons Used to be Funny?

Remember When Cartoons Used to be Funny?
By Am Johal

When I was a kid, I used to read the Andy Capp comic strip - he was a sort of everyman whose thoughts of politics and life transcended the world around him. He would be slouched over a bar stool with a pool cue in his hand from which he would parry the complicated nature of the world with a wry sense of humour.

The Danish cartoon controversy has been a significant sideshow in the post-September 11th world. The clash of civilizations conspiracy theorists are actively trying to fulfill the self-fulfilling prophecy they have constructed. They are having the equivalent of an international relations wet dream.

Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten who published the infamous and inflammatory cartoons recently wrote in the pages of the Washington Post, "... I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously -- and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter." As a mea culpa, it barely registers or for that matter, takes sufficient responsibility for the events that unfolded. It was highly irresponsible.

The most creative response came from underground comic book artists in Israel. After an Iranian newspaper decided to hold a Holocaust caricature contest in response to the Danish cartoons, Amitai Sandy decided to declare an Israeli anti-Semitic cartoon contest exclusively for Jewish artists vowing not be outdone by the Iranians. So far over 40 submissions have come in and one even includes Moses with a stone tablet that reads “The 11th Commandment – Don’t forget to Control the Media.”

The limits of free speech and the insecure nature of radical Islam are natural combatants on the world stage. Those Danish Muslim leaders which stoked the fires in foreign nations are also not blameless. This was, after all, constructed and irresponsible violence.

Western values and cultural arrogance superimposed upon radical Islam in the post- September 11th world will have the kind of responses that we witnessed in a global way. Responsibility, while retaining the right to exercise basic freedoms, needs to be understood at a much deeper level than we collectively have come to understand it.

The United States has also changed their foreign policy approach in the Middle East in a fundamental way since September 11th which explains some of the insecurity in the Arab world. They now view the domestic situation of Arab countries as a matter of national interest and a potential security threat. This has widened the gulf in these countries and further radicalized the mainstream in the short term. As well, many Arab and Muslim nations have correctly placed blame on the Israeli/Palestinian issue squarely on the doormat of the United States and the European Union. Their collective dithering on the issue coupled with Israeli expansionist efforts in Jerusalem and the West Bank, further polarizes the region. The recent election of Hamas further complicates situation.

The United States, in response, will be attempting to set up funding mechanisms to bring about long term changes in the region similar to how the Helsinki Accords of the 1970's attempted to break the impasse of the Cold War by planning for the long-term collapse of the Communist system. The US has traditionally turned a blind eye to compliant authoritarian regimes, but is now changing its approach to active democratization even if it means destabilization in the short term. The US approach has to be viewed within a 15 year time frame where few in the Pentagon expect to see tangible results until 2020. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will be the primary targets while the US attempts to maintain relations with traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan. Radicalized elements of the Islamic movement could take up political space in these parts of the Arab world or lead them towards destabilization. Iraq could yet break in to civil war.

There are other important factors that need to be stressed in this historical milieu. There are major human rights issues throughout the Middle East that are not being addressed. In Iran, new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is running a dangerous course with inflammatory rhetoric and open threats against Israel. Amnesty International has also called out Iran on 69 executions since July 2005 including those of two alleged minors. Death sentences continue to be imposed for charges such as drinking alcohol or consensual adult sexual relations. As well, there may be sanctions imposed by the UN related to its nuclear programme. It is heading in the direction of a pariah state with few allies.

The G8 Nations have also made energy supply and prices the dominant themes for this year. The strategic significance of Iran, Russia and the Central Asian republics will increase in the coming two decades as oil production peaks throughout the world. Close to 50 percent of the world's proven oil reserves are situated in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, standing at 263 billion barrels, 132 billion barrels and 112 billion barrels respectively. As a result, Iran is the world's second ranking holder of both crude oil reserves and natural gas reserves of 26.7 trillion cubic meters.

The dispute between the United States and Iran will be a permanent feature of international relations over the next fifteen years whether or not it spills over into a formal military conflict or not. Iran is a greater security threat in the region to the United States than Iraq ever was. The United States is not in a financial or military position to have a war in Iran without a significant coalition in place. The US will continue to run heavy budget deficits while its foray into Iraq could come in at a hefty 1 trillion dollars when it is fully accounted for without any guarantees of a compliant regime in Baghdad by 2010. Iran's radicalized politics, its support of terrorist activity, its pursuit of nuclear weapons, open threats to Israel and its importance in the global energy equation make it #1 on the US hit list.

The cartoon controversy is a mere sideshow and distraction to the real issues at play in the region: what will be the US and European Union approach to strategic intervention in the Middle East and is the Arab world willing to play the game? Who will be the winners, who will be the losers and what will be the cost in financial and human terms? If not the clash of civilizations, then what does the alternative look like?


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