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Hypocritical Outrage Over Cartoons Is the Real Scandal

02/05/2015 08:40 EST | Updated 04/07/2015 05:59 EDT
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Copies of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo newspaper are sold with other newspapers at a newsstand in Lille, northern France, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. In an emotional act of defiance, Charlie Hebdo resurrected its irreverent and often provocative newspaper, featuring a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover that drew immediate criticism and threats of more violence. The black letters on the front page read: "All is forgiven." (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

On January 21, a Palestinian Islamist brutally attacked commuters on a Tel Aviv bus with a knife. The would be murderer, who wounded at least 11 bystanders before being apprehended, later claimed to have been influenced by radical Islamist teachings and dreams of "reaching paradise."

Within hours, Palestinian social media began circulating graphic cartoons glorifying the attack. One depicted a bloody knife with the phrase "Good morning, Palestine." Another rendered the attacker as an excited cartoon figure smiling and waving a blood-stained dagger, a pool of crimson beneath a bus in the background. The hashtag #JeSuisCouteau began trending the next day as individuals took to Twitter to express solidarity with the attacker.

Media in much of the Arab world, and particularly among the Palestinians, regularly demonize Israelis with language and imagery reminiscent of historic antisemitism. Israeli leaders are depicted as sub-human beasts feeding on the blood of Palestinians. Israeli soldiers are portrayed as Nazis committing mass slaughter. In much Arab media, antisemitism often goes hand-in-hand with incitement against Christians, as seen in a 2010 broadcast by Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV which called on Allah to "strike" Jews and Christians and "kill them to the last one."

Worse, cartoons are used as a medium to inspire and applaud acts of terrorism. The wave of violence that crashed over the people of Jerusalem this fall was accompanied by a social media cartoon depicting a hook-nosed Israeli soldier on the verge of raping a woman who was depicted symbolically as the Dome of the Rock. Other cartoons urged Palestinians to expand the campaign of vehicle attacks then gripping Jerusalem. One portrayed Orthodox Jews fleeing a car draped in the colours of a Palestinian flag; another called on attackers to "hit the gas for 199 (km/hour) for Al-Aqsa (Mosque)."

Professor Ilan Danjoux of the University of Calgary has literally written the book on the power of cartoons: Political Cartoons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He asserts that cartoons are like seismographs: they predict (and sometimes guide) violence. "The more demonized the depiction of the person, the narrower the policy options become," Danjoux once said. "You can no longer negotiate with people that are depicted as animalistic or barbaric."

This idea applies to attitudes toward Jews in general and Israelis in particular. The history of crude antisemitism in cartoons began in Europe long before Israel's existence. That it continues to be carried forward today in Palestinian society and Muslim communities elsewhere is a scandal, one that should be condemned by all people of good will. The more Jews are portrayed as contemptible objects rather than human beings, the less likely the Muslim world will accept any effort to reconcile with Israel, thereby perpetuating the status quo to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians.

For those who regularly follow the Middle East, it is easy to cynically dismiss such hatred as par for the course in the region. We should avoid the temptation to do so in light of the current debate following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the propriety of images that depict or mock Muhammad. It cannot be ignored that Islamist extremists are using cartoons to justify the murder of journalists and police officers while using cartoons to applaud the murder of Jews and Christians.

Intellectually honest people can debate and disagree over a media outlet's decision to print the image of Muhammad. But any outrage in the Arab world over such images, as seen in riots against Charlie Hebdo in Niger that left 10 dead and 173 injured, is entirely hypocritical given the prevalence of antisemitic and anti-Christian vitriol, blood curdling in its toxicity, regularly seen in various Arab media outlets.

Until some extreme members of the Muslim world confront their own hypocrisy by ending this type of incitement and developing a culture that celebrates life rather than murder, it will be impossible to take seriously the disproportionate outrage that follows relatively mundane depictions of Muhammad.