What I’m working on, 6/14

So I’m currently drafting a research proposal about cartoons and religion.

Over the past decade cartoons depicting Muslims, especially those portraying the prophet Muhammad, have prompted harsh condemnations, property damage, and physical violence. Many Muslim denominations forbid the depiction of the prophet. Even those that don’t would find the orientalist, racist and reductive cartoons cause for anger. In 2005, the reaction in the U.S. was ambivalent. Two of the stronger impulses behind the first amendment butted heads.Free Speech advocates pushed for U.S. papers to republish the cartoons, while others believed that religious tolerance outweighed the need to inform Americans.  For many, knowledge of the existence of the cartoons wouldn’t suffice– they needed to be seen instead of described.

This cycle of provocation and controversy is nothing new. Long before 9/11 pernicious stereotypes about Muslims circulated widely in the West. Of course, it doesn’t seem like  we’ve learned much from these occasional controversies. These cycles seem to recur without much variation.

What has changed are the stakes.

The dominant explanations for the violence are insufficient. Part of the reaction may be explained by aniconity, the prohibition of visual representation. But religious groups that prohibit images usually do so because the creation of images is kin to the creation of idols. This was certainly not the case this decade; the cartoons are as far from idols as possible. Additionally, the hateful tenor of the cartoons may plausibly provoke a destructive response. But there’s no shortage of hateful things about Muslims being circulated in the media these days. The destruction of  embassies and the killing of artists remain rarer occurances.

Strong reaction to cartoons is nothing new, either. Although some would label cartoons as kiddie fare, cartoons often manage to exercise adult fears. In the 1950s many Americans believed comic books to be the cause of juvenile delinquence. Cartoons have been the subject of a supreme court decision, and frequently intervene in electoral politics. But people usually exaluate these cartoons strictly by their content, and fail to examine how the cartoon form, and the venues in which cartoons appear, help create meaning.

It’s my belief that the cartoons of the past decade depicting Muslims must be examined according to the media contexts they appear in, and the positions readers take toward those media, if we are to truly understand how they spurred violence and spread hate.

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