Archive for the ‘Middle Eastern Art & Culture’ Category

"The Chair Carrier"

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Short film with English subtitles. Directed by Tarek Khalil.

Rosetta Stone – Arabic

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I've added a curriculum review of Rosetta Stone's Arabic software. I apologize for its length, but it was the product of several months of frustration.

I'd like to add more reviews of Arabic language learning books and software to this site. The more I think about education and pedagogy, the more I find it useful to be a student myself. How do I learn? How do I not learn? I think learning a foreign language is an especially good way to keep you humble. When I was first learning the Arabic script, I found I had a lot more sympathy for the kids I was working with who were learning to read.

WordPress doesn't allow me to put a comment box on static pages, so this post will serve as the comment space for Rosetta Stone. If you've used it in the past, in any language but especially in Arabic, feel free to share your experience here. I'm especially interested in the changes they've made since version 2.

Jewel of Medina publishing house firebombed.

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

This wasn't me. Swear.

More on Jewel of Medina.

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

The article starts like this:

All happy book publications are alike — the book finally comes out. All unhappy book publications are unhappy in their own ways — except when they involve Islam. Then the story follows a familiar plot.

Yay! I thought. Someone is finally talking about the shoddy research that goes into mass market paperbacks about Islam!

But then I read it, and no, it's chastising territorial academics and those who cower in the face of terrorist threats and Muslims who make such "a fuss" about Muhammad. That familiar plot.

You actually can go home again.

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

Last night I went to meet my friend Wael, who was studying Islamic Architecture at AUC when I was there so many years ago. We met my first week or two in Cairo and I remember him as one of the nicest, most polite people I knew. (Other people said this about him, too.) I remember finding out he was a musician and getting all excited and telling him that if he liked music he should come see this band I knew and I gave him a flyer and he very kindly told me that he would be there. Because he was their guitarist.

With anyone else that would have been an embarrassing moment, but with him, somehow, it wasn't.

At the time he was playing classical guitar in hotels and restaurants, solo, and I'd figured out since then (thank you, Facebook) that he was one of the few musicians I knew back then who had stayed in Egypt and was now doing music full-time.

Even so, I was pleasantly surprised to see how successful he's become. He gave me directions to the venue where he'd be playing and I assumed it would be some kind of restaurant, because that's how I remembered him and I'm still under the impression that time has stood still here in my absence. But I guess what happens when you have skill and talent and stay in one place for 15 years working on your art, you start selling out concert halls. I got there a little late and had to claw my way up to the balcony because there was no place to sit in front.

Here's a shameful secret: I don't love Spanish music. But he and his band, Flamenca, combined classical Spanish music with classical Oriental music in a way that was riveting even to someone like me, who doesn't know that much about Andalusia. Besides him, on guitar, they had two tabla players, a violinist, a bassist, a keyboardist, a kowla player, and an Arabic vocalist. It was really great, and I realized too late that I'd forgotten my video camera.

Afterwards he and the band went to a coffeeshop downtown, which apparently is a regular ritual while they wait to get paid. When he said "coffeeshop" I think I was picturing something between a diner and Starbucks, but it was a real street ahwa, the kind women usually don't go to, out on the sidewalk with sheesha, coffee, and tea. I asked if it was really okay for me to be there and he said yes, yes, this is an artists' cafe. I looked closer and realized all the posters taped to the walls were for concerts and art gallery shows. The guy at the table next to me was writing poetry or song lyrics, something in verse. And yet someone like me, walking around like a tourist, would never have noticed it was anything but a regular working-class cafe if he hadn't pointed it out. It was packed with men in their shirtsleeves, one-right-next-to-the-other, smoking sheesha at midnight. And it was LOUD, in that very pleasant way I associate with Mediterranean countries in the summertime. Men yelling to each other, yelling to the tea boy, the tea boy yelling to the waiters, the waiters yelling to the customers.

We stayed for a couple hours and I smoked so much sheesha that I came home feeling like my body had become one big hookah pipe. Which isn't as pleasant as it sounds like it probably should be. And then (shocker) slept right through my class this morning.

But what a fun night. And how nice to pick up where you left off over a decade ago.

Denise Spellberg responds:

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I Didn't Kill 'The Jewel of Medina'
August 9, 2008; Page A10

Asra Q. Nomani's "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad" (op-ed, Aug. 6) falsely asserts that I am the "instigator" of the Random House Press decision not to publish a novel about the Prophet's wife titled, "The Jewel of Medina." I never had this power, nor did I single-handedly stop the book's publication. Random House made its final decision based on the advice of other scholars, conveniently not named in the article, and based ultimately on its determination of corporate interests.

As a historian invited to "comment" on the book by its Random House editor at the author's express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that "The Jewel of Medina" was "extensively researched," as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.

There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings. The novel provides no new reading of Aisha's life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad's wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses," which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales. If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to "move civilization forward," then they should read a novel that gets history right.

Someone is WRONG on the INTERNET.

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

Note: This post got way more involved than I intended, which makes me feel like a dork, but I know I got overly into it because it involves two issues I care deeply about: how Muslim "offense" to something can be twisted into "prelude to terrorism" on extremely flimsy pretense, and how white Western non-Muslim women see themselves as the arbiters of feminism, sexuality, and the freedom of expression against brown/Muslim/Third World women's prudish backwardness.


shewhohashope alerted to me to this train wreck of a blog post [ETA: an update to it] about a book called The Jewel of Medina, a work of historical fiction about Muhammad's wife Aisha, written by Sherry Jones and set to be published by Random House. Publication was halted or delayed (reports vary) after Random House sent a review copy to Denise Spellberg, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas-Austin and herself the author of (an academic) biography of Aisha. Spellberg warned Random House the book might result in a backlash from Muslims so strong it would lead to riots and violence.

I think I've reported that accurately and fairly — meaning these are the facts that are not in dispute.

Here are some things that ARE in dispute:

1. The nature of the book, and what Muslims are supposed to be protesting in it. It has been described as a romance, a "bodice-ripper," and "soft porn." Asra Nomani, who was also sent a review copy and wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal, calls it "racy." The author, on her blog (which has all of 7 posts on it), takes issue with this characterization: All I did was try to portray A'isha, Muhammad's child bride (believed by most historians to have married Muhammad at age nine and consummated the marriage at age 11) in the context of her times.

Nomani quotes Spellberg as saying the novel describes Aisha's loss of virginity thusly: The pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life. The author says the book has no sex scenes, but she says this in the context of refuting the book's characterization as "pornographic." It's not clear if the above quote was fabricated by Spellberg, mis-reported by Nomani, has been edited out since Spellberg received her review copy, or if Jones felt that was too tame to be considered a "sex scene."

Jones — in an attempt to counter those who accuse her of writing soft porn — said her book has "a 29-page bibliography," which she said she posted on her blog. I went to her blog. She cites 26 _sources_ (not pages of sources). They include 1,001 Nights, Alev Lytle Croutier's Harem — a book about Ottoman harems that would have little relevance to Aisha's life in the Arabian desert a thousand years earlier — and popular mass market books like Geraldine Brooks' Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Karen Armstrong's Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. Nomani claims Jones learned Arabic in order to write this book, but there are no Arabic sources in her bibliography. (I also question her ability to learn classical Arabic fluently enough to research medieval Islamic history in the five years she said it took her to write this book, and am guessing by "learned Arabic" she is referring to the Saudi encyclopedia of Arabic terms, written in English, that she cites among her 26 sources.)

But none of that matters! Remember: whenever Muslims critique something, they do it because they are personally offended and unable to deal with ambiguity about faith (or depictions of sex), never because pop culture's treatment of Islam is just so … bad. Sloppy, poorly researched, poorly written.

2. Spellberg's agenda. Jones said she read Spellberg's work on Aisha and asked Random House to send her a review copy. Spellberg, obviously, didn't think much of it. But are her concerns literary, political, or territorial? I'm voting #3.

If she simply didn't like the book's literary tone (and if the passage quoted above is accurate, I'm with her), a simple "this is dreck" would have sufficed. But I think characterizing her as a shrill alarmist with fucked-up politics is probably inaccurate, too. It was her editor, not Spellberg herself, who sent an e-mail to Random House saying that Spellberg thought the book was 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Spellberg may have in fact said things of that nature, but to me that sounds more like the language of an editor looking for buzz than that of an academic in Islamic history. UT-Austin has one of the best Middle Eastern Studies programs in the country. If she's on faculty there, she's not going to be someone who confuses "Muslims" with "terrorists," or someone who thinks any minor insult to Islam will lead immediately and inevitably to Defcon 1.

What I can see, however, is that she read the book, predicted — probably accurately — that it would be controversial and unpopular with Muslims, and said so. And dollars to donuts she was more than a little irritated that scholarly work like her own never puts a dent in the political landscape or finds its way into the mainstream media but authors like Jones get a $100,000 advance to write something called The Jewel of Medina, drivel one step above Harlequin's Bedded By The Sheikh series or whatever it's called, and this, THIS, is what becomes part of the popular conversation about Islam in the United States. But can she say that out loud? No, that would be tacky, and smack of self-interest. She has her own book coming out from Knopf, an imprint of Random House, that in the relatively small world of "books about Islam" would compete, however peripherally, with this one. So when Random House freaks the fuck out and decides not to publish The Jewel of Medina for fear of inciting Muslim terrorism, well, she's not exactly throwing herself in front of the train to stop them.

That paragraph is pure conjecture. But it makes more sense than anything else I've read.

3. How and why Actual Muslims got involved in this. Before going to Random House and her editors, Spellberg contacted Shahed Amanullah, the editor of and a guest speaker at one of her courses. is known for being a moderate-to-progressive web site, though I haven't seen that reported anywhere in this mess. In the blogosphere at least, Amanullah's name seems to be shorthand for "real Muslim guy; has Bin Laden on speed dial" and the e-mail he wrote to a mailing list mentioning being contacted about the book = "sending word to Muslims everywhere that they should start preparing the poison gas." Another Muslim guy re-posted that e-mail his blog, calling the book "a new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam," and a third one "proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure 'the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world.'" That post now seems to be locked, but it included such violent suggestions as "find a volunteer to read this book and alert others of its content."

Negative reaction from a handful of Muslims: check.

[ETA: Shahed Amanullah responds.]

4. The difference between words like "review," "critique," "boycott," "censor," "protest," "riot," and "terrorism." And while I'm here, "fatwa." shewhohashope, demonstrating extraordinary patience in the blog post linked above, attempted to explain that it was possible to not like a book without calling for the author's death, and be a Muslim at the same time. Really!

This went nowhere. Or rather, I do think many people started to understand, but she was also repeatedly told that if she didn't like something she didn't have to read it — again, as if her discomfort was the only problem, rather than Muslims' right to review a book and give it a negative critique (or does that not count under "freedom of speech"?). Not that this was even possible with this book, since it hasn't been released. But whose fault is that?

This is such a pet peeve of mine: the belief that "negative review" = "banning." It comes up everywhere but is especially prevalent when people are arguing religious topics. The fact that evangelical Christians HAVE, in fact, wanted to ban certain works of art does not therefore make "critique" synonymous with "censorship." It just doesn't.

p.s. "Fatwa" does not mean death sentence.

5. Why anyone cares. As shewhohashope and a few other Muslim commenters pointed out, a fictional depiction of the Prophet is considered inherently offensive to Muslims, even if the portrayal is positive. Many of the other commenters just didn't get this, and many others did but didn't care. That's fine. I understand that.

But to me there are other issues at stake with this book, which is an account of the famous story of Aisha becoming separated from her caravan after she loses her necklace, and subsequently being accused of adultery when it's discovered that she's missing. Jones's book is told from 14-year-old Aisha's perspective. In it — and I've only read the prologue, but I think I'm being fair to the tone — she is portrayed as a timid teenager, and adultery as something she considered but did not act upon. She turns to Muhammad to defend her, and he does. From there on out it purports to be a love story describing their relationship.

I am guessing that the reason the author keeps insisting that she's being sensitive to Muslims is because she's written a positive, romantic portrayal of a marriage that has often been vilified by those who paint Muhammad as a pedophile. (Aisha's actual ages at her engagement, marriage, and consummation are not known, but she was certainly very young.) I understand that, but it's not enough for me.

This is a portion of the comment I added, which is buried deep enough in the comment thread that I'll re-post here:

In the last twenty years (well, really the last hundred, but I’m talking very modern history) Muslim feminists have made extraordinary strides in part by using the Qur’an and the hadith to answer back to misogynist cultural (i.e. not religious) trends in Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East and Central Asia. When, for example, men argue that women have no right to work or participate in public space, Muslim women have been able to point to the example of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, a successful businesswoman who employed him as her assistant. There are many examples of this.

This line of thought, or ‘tactic’ if you will, of using religion to make a *progressive* argument might seem counterintuitive to those raised in countries where religion (Christianity) is generally regarded as more conservative than (secular) culture, but in Middle Eastern countries it is culture, not Islam, that is more conservative and misogynist. Not all feminists who are Muslim would consider themselves “Muslim feminists” and there are certainly secular activists here, too, but really, the women who have been able to convince the clerics to re-read their own holy books have been the ones to make the most strides in fighting FGM and other institutional abuses of women that have no basis in Islam.

With that in mind…

The central point to the story of Aisha’s necklace is the ban on slander, and it’s often raised in context of the discussion around honor killings. No, Mr. Suspicious Husband/Father/Brother, you may not lash out at women based on gossip and hearsay. The Prophet himself, the best of men, was tested in this same manner, and look what choice he made: he defended Aisha against those who gossiped about her, even if it meant the risk of losing face among the powerful members of the community. This is a very important story to those of us committed to fighting abuses of women emanating from suspicion and slander and then ignorantly and retroactively justified as “Islamic.” All you have to do is say “Aisha’s necklace…” and people will know right where you’re going with this.

Yes, Ms. Jones portrays Muhammad as defending his wife (at least from what I’ve read in the prologue), but to cast doubt on Aisha’s actions and/or intentions—and this seems to be central to the plot of her entire book—essentially ruins the story. The point here is that it was Aisha’s (truthful) story against those of men who weren’t there. Not knowing who to believe, Muhammad went to God, and God told him to believe Aisha. The deciding factor was not, as Ms. Jones seems to be saying, his romantic love for Aisha, but rather her right, even as a young girl, to be believed. This wasn’t something she had to earn; it was inherent, literally God-given. Her word trumped their suspicions, even though she had less power than they did. From my own feminist perspective, this is an important distinction.

Do I think Muslim clerics are going to pick up this English romance novel and completely change their minds about Aisha? Obviously, no.

Do I think the book should be banned? No, of course not, and I have a whole separate rant about how Muslims, who were barely even aware of this book’s existence, are being blamed for that. 🙂

But I bring this up because I keep reading versions of “don’t like it? don’t read it!” and I want to say that this isn’t just a matter of being _personally_ offended, a la The DaVinci Code or Temptation. This story isn’t just some random tale out of the Qur’an, on par with something out of 1,001 Nights. Its interpretation has had real world consequences for women.

I would also, for reasons I hope should be obvious if you’ve read this far, take issue with the idea that this author’s interpretation is more feminist than the original. And that’s fine, I defend people’s right to write whatever regardless of where it lands on my feminist meter. But I also feel like there’s a lot of you-go-grrrl, publish away, screw the fundies! in this discussion, positing sex against religion as if that’s the issue, that’s based on an inaccurate understanding of the original story and its place in Islamic tradition. Aisha is not a “forgotten” woman of Islam; she is tremendously important. Every Muslim knows who she is, and knows that she was a strong female. Muhammad joked with his followers that they “should get half of their religion” from her. Jones' book doesn’t increase Aisha’s feminist appeal—that needs no assistance—and she most certainly didn’t _discover_ it. If anything, she undermines it.

Again, not a reason for censoring the book. But not really a reason for celebrating it, either.

Sounds of Cairo.

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

I'm still not always comfortable taking pictures or video of strangers, but following people around with a voice recorder? That's stealth and unobtrusive. (I wouldn't record private conversations; only public 'street' noise.)

Today I followed two guys pushing an empty wagon. I have no idea what they're saying. Usually when someone is, for example, riding a donkey cart full of mangoes they will shout "maaaaaaan-goes! maaaaaaan-goes!" …. but since these guys weren't peddling anything in particular, I don't know. I do know that folks will sometimes go through the street asking for donations of used clothing and other objects, which would explain the empty wagon, but I really can't say. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

What I think is interesting is the stylized nature of these public calls, almost like chanting. There are actually two men here, going back and forth, though in the recording they sound like the same person.


The most beautiful time I heard something like this was during Ramadan in 1992, in Imbaba. A woman was walking through the alleys, begging, with her young son, who couldn't have been more than four. The boy would call out a sentence or two from the Qur'an and she would respond to each line, almost as a lament, with "God is generous." I can still hear it, and it still leaves a lump in my throat.

And now it is time for some tabla.

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Frames that bother me:

Monday, February 13th, 2006

I. "They're too ignorant/oppressed to understand free press."

Barbara Boxer was on my television last Sunday telling a CNN interviewer that the Muslim cartoon riots are an unfortunate but necessary part of the inevitable learning curve for a society unaccustomed to democracy and freedom of speech. Her contention was that Muslims, like children, cannot be expected to understand political satire and the proper parameters of the free exchange of ideas, and the tragedy of burning embassies only points to the need for a benevolent lesson in Western-style education on this matter. I wanted to crawl into the TV and dope-slap her upside the head.

Like many people my age who came up during the Cold War, I was raised to believe "free speech" was sacred because it was what separated us from the Communists, not so much for its literal promise. By sixth grade I knew reputable American newspapers couldn't use the f word, that you wouldn't see penises on network programming, that you could sue a magazine for something called "libel," that I wasn't allowed to shout "fire" in a crowded theater or talk to my neighbor during reading time or call my mother a wanton whore or any number of things that contradicted the notion that all speech was always acceptable. It was fine, in other words, to have a discussion about the parameters of the acceptability of speech, but only so long as the argument was an internal one. Once the argument went global it became a matter of national pride to maintain that ours was a society of freedom-lovin' people who embraced all manner of open debate, without restriction. I see this happening again now, this distance between how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves through others' eyes. It's interesting.

When I was in sixth grade I pictured the Soviet Union as a country with only one newspaper, which Yuri Andropov wrote himself each night over a cup of warm milk. I didn't give that bias much thought until I went to Egypt and saw how complex journalism really is in a country with a state-controlled press. Egypt has an official censorship board. (I think they actually call it that — at least, I've never heard it called anything else.) Mainstream magazines, newspapers, films, television shows, even recording studios must pass their content through this body, where their work is edited and refined. The larger press outlets receive federal funding in exchange for taking part in this process. As irritating and ridiculous as this may be, however, it's different from my original conceptualization of state-run press: I thought all the reporters who worked for government-controlled media were on Mubarak's payroll; thought they were the voluntary mouthpieces, if not eager cheerleaders, of the administration. It was only after working with some of them that I realized they found the process as exasperating as I did. Write a piece, wait for editing, sigh, eyeroll, change a sentence or two, send it back, get it okayed, print or record. It's technically illegal for any work to be published without going through this process, but it happens all the time regardless, since banned political parties all have their own newspapers and musicians and imams can release their work on bootlegged tapes and there are overseas publishers that cater to presses that would be banned domestically (Cyprus, as I recall, was popular for this).

Really the situation isn't all that different from the U.S., where the largest media outlets are corporate-owned and the journalists who work for them don't want to risk that golden thing called "access" by reporting scathing criticism of the elite. For that we have a large and diverse alternative press, who trade advertising dollars and a seat in the White House press room for the freedom to write what they please.

From the perspective of a reporter there's obviously a difference between writing for a paper that's banned and one that's merely marginalized and underfunded, but from the perspective of the reader the difference isn't all that stark. Banned papers are still distributed on street corners, discussed in coffeeshops, and referred to in university classes and by the state-run press. It's simply ignorant to say that Muslims – you know, all of them – are rioting because they're unfamiliar with discussion and dissent in the media. If anything the Arab world has a press even more robust and diverse than ours, because journalists are expected to write with a distinct viewpoint. Our papers have one page of columns and op-eds. Theirs are more likely to have a page or two of news feeds and then lots and lots of commentary. This is doubly true now with the internet, and triply true if we're talking about political cartoons, which in countries with high illiteracy rates are a particularly popular form of protest speech.

I still think there's value in framing this as a debate around freedom of expression, but not if it comes with liberal soft-pedaling about just what "we" can and can't expect "them" to handle. They're not burning down embassies because they befuddled at the idea of a newspaper printing something offensive. They're burning down embassies because they're pissed.

II. "Middle Eastern governments should take responsibility for fueling this fire."

Of course they're fueling the fire. They know where their bread is buttered. Even dictators need to maintain some semblance of support with their population, and this issue is a freebie. Every government in the Middle East dependent on Western aid fears internal Islamist resistance more than any other domestic threat; the recent election in Palestine is a good example of why. A dictator's first line of defense will be to arrest and kill the Islamists, but his second will be to claim and define Islam in a way that doesn't threaten the internal order. By criticizing "the West" for insulting Islam and standing in mock solidarity with those who riot against DENMARK of all places, Middle Eastern governments can channel local outrage that would otherwise be leveled against them and point it toward a foreign source that has no real political or economic power in the region.

III. "This is no different than mocking Jesus."

Religion has never existed in a political vacuum. This is a map of the riots, demonstrations, and deaths that have occurred on three continents over this issue. You'll note that North America, so far, is not represented, despite the fact that the United States is the biggest bully in Middle East affairs at the moment and has a sizeable Muslim population. You'll also note that North America rarely if ever sees violent home-grown clashes between immigrant Muslims and the government. (9/11 was the work of outsiders who came here to live with the specific intent of committing a terrorist attack.) Why? Because (so far!) assimilation in the United States has been possible within the space of one generation. If you've read this journal for more than five minutes you know I don't gloss over the very real problems immigrants have in adapting to this country, but the difference between us and Europe is that we don't imagine that there is anything like a "pure" American with ties to this land going back a thousand years or more and that immigrants are therefore "guests." First-generation Middle Eastern immigrants in the U.S. have higher incomes and higher educational levels than the American average. A quarter of them have household incomes above $100,00 a year. It is a pain in the ass for an immigrant to get an American passport, but it's not impossible, and their children will be granted citizenship automatically just by virtue of being born here. Consequently American Muslims may feel an affinity with majority-Muslim countries but they are not forced to look abroad for their primary sense of national identity.

This is not, overall, the case in Europe, where Muslims are both figuratively and literally ghettoized. And I shouldn't need to mention the array of abuses and humiliations, from Guantanamo Bay to Palestine to Abu Ghraib, that Muslims abroad endure at the hands of so-called Western powers. The Jyllands-Posten has been portrayed as a paper that unwittingly published some cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. Oopsie! Oh no! Now what! In fact they put out a call for such cartoons as a specific challenge to what they knew to be a sensitive issue with Muslims, and they did so two years after rejecting similar cartoons that pilloried Jesus. This is their right. However, in making a decision specifically designed to stir shit up within a population that has been habitually oppressed, harassed, and discriminated against, they look less like martyrs and more like someone who shoves his fingers into a burn victim's scabs — "does it hurt here? how 'bout HERE?" — and then shouts out in surprise when the victim finally slaps him. Again, I defend the right of the paper to say and publish whatever it pleases. But the frenzied discussion around this issue has (once again) portrayed Muslims as so inherently violent as to be almost random in their choice of targets. The problem isn't that those protesting don't understand the spirit in which the cartoons were published: it's that they understand it all too well. And in that case it doesn't matter if the newspaper were private or an official mouthpiece of the Danish government; doesn't matter if those who drew the cartoons weren't Muslim themselves and therefore not covered under the no-mocking-Mohammed clause. This was intended as a slam against Islam, and it was interpreted as such.

IV. "This is no different than mocking Jesus," take two.

Two words bear exploring: "offensive" and "taboo." I'm not sure the word "taboo" is really appropriate here. If it is, it's certainly not universal, since there have been paintings of Mohammed throughout Islamic history and, though rare, they haven't been particularly controversial when they appeared, usually because they were painted by Muslims and with affection.

I think it's better described as a "tradition" that has emerged as something of a creative challenge, respected by most Muslims for over 1,400 years. The first thing you learn in Islamic Art 101 is that the prohibition against depicting the human form has led to the flourishing of other types of art, including mosaics, calligraphy, and architecture. This practice even survived the invention of film. The Message, a biographical film about Mohammed (its director, tragically, ironically, was killed in the Jordanian hotel bombings) managed to create an entire narrative about the prophet's call to Islam without ever depicting him directly.

In one particularly memorable scene, the flight to Medina, the camera switches to what we are to presume is Mohammed's perspective. His followers line the highway from Mecca, folding into view solely through their greetings. They welcome [the cameraman] and invite him into their city, but we never see or hear anything from the object of their invitation. I know some viewers have said this feels awkward, or that Anthony Quinn would have made a wonderful Mohammed and should have been cast to play the role outright, but I always liked it. Putting aside from any overblown worry about idol worship, it allowed me to keep my own private version of Mohammed untainted (something I'm no longer able to do with the characters in The Joy Luck Club or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, never mind the 6093850439 million movies I've seen based on the Bible) and was an interesting bit of filmmaking to boot, one that gave a nod to the cultural and artistic legacy of the Middle East.

More than that, though, it's a testament to the lengths Muslim artists have been willing to go in order to preserve this particular tradition while still creating art that deals directly with Islam. Is that fear? Of God, of other Muslims? Maybe, sometimes, and that's a topic worth exploring. Then again, no one says Shakespeare was less talented because he wrote in iambic pentameter rather than free verse. If you can't see the difference between the creative possibilities that come from making art within selected parameters and "self-censorship," I suggest you go back to reading the tax code or whatever it is you do all day.

Saying someone is offended by the cartoons implies a blind attachment to a certain religious view, almost as a matter of taste, i.e. "Christ was our Lord and Savior! Don't you dare dunk a statue of him in urine!" That take, in my opinion, doesn't really capture the response we're seeing now. I'm not about to speak for the world's billion or so Muslims, but I know I was bothered by the cartoons mainly because I saw them as yet another clumsy attempt to claim art, expression, and the "correct" response to religious debate as the intellectual domain of the West. I'm not going to go burn down an embassy or anything over this view, but then again neither are most people who are bothered by it. Most people have been demonstrating, putting together boycotts, and writing letters to the editor. For this they were, right on cue, told they didn't understand politics and free speech. That's when the rioting started.