NYU's Cartoonish Quarantine

The late Richard Grenier's book The Marrakesh One—Two was a trenchant fictional account of a doomed effort to film the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Grenier (pp.3—4) characterized the filmmakers' basic predicament with biting wit:

It's going to be like The Mohammed Story, The Second Greatest Story Ever Told, like Mohammed Superstar. But Islam, a little detail, has this ferocious hostility to the graven image, rather well known in historical circles, and they don't like tri—acetate either...There are places they'd kill you in a spirit of devoted piety for daring to represent the image of the Prophet. They take these things seriously...After conferring with the doctors [clerics] of Al Azzar [Al Azhar] in Cairo...we've got to cut out Mohammed. We're doing the The Mohammed Story, you understand, but Mohammed's got to go. Too holy to be portrayed. We've got to 'shoot around' Mohammed. But also his immediate family has to go: This wealthy widow he married who gave him his start in life. All his ten or so other wives. His children, all the daughters. His famous sons—in—law. Ali goes. Omar goes. The four first caliphs go. Mohammed's mother and father go. The ten companions of Mohammed go. That's the ten apostles right there. Talk of Hamlet without the prince. This was Hamlet without the prince, king, queen, Ophelia, Polonious, Horatio, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. It was going to be Hamlet with the gravediggers and Fortinbras. The only thing they would give me was I could have P.V. Mohammed. That is I could script shots from Mohammed's Point of View, subjective camera. I could have faces reacting and people talking to Mohammed. But Mohammed couldn't answer them because his voice would be too holy. I got to work it all in by hearsay. And Mohammed couldn't cast a shadow. He was too holy to cast a shadow. That would be sacrilege too. Mohammed seems to have been about five foot four but when people speak to him in our movie they look up to him as if he's the size of [6'11' former UCLA and NBA Hall of Fame basketball star] Bill Walton.

This past Wednesday evening, March 29, 2006, I participated in a panel discussion of the Danish cartoon jihad where life imitated (Grenier's) art as depressing farce through the actions of the New York University Administration. The NYU Administration's toxic combination of moral cowardice and absurd, offensive 'reasoning' forced a Hobson's choice upon the courageous NYU Objectivist Club student organizers  of this important forum: If the cartoons were to be displayed, they could either limit admission to the event to the 'NYU community' and exclude the over 150 off—campus guests who had registered to attend the event, or (as the students ultimately decided) to keep the event open to the (pre—registered) public, agree not to show the Danish cartoons. The FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)  website has posted E—mails from NYU administrator Robert Butler  on March 27 and 28 documenting this ultimatum.

And NYU spokesman John Beckman mimicked the pious wisdom of the Al Azhar 'doctors' of The Marrakesh One—Two with this astonishing pronouncement:

Realistically, one can have a discussion on smallpox without actually handing out the live virus to the audience.

As a physician and epidemiologist having studied both the historical impact of past infectious plagues, such as small pox, and managed real patients suffering from cruel, deadly viral illnesses still extant today, it is hard to comprehend the warped mindset that makes a glib analogy between deliberate exposure to a highly contagious, lethal virus capable of causing indiscriminate, mass death, and viewing twelve rather tame cartoons which might offend the sensibilities of some Muslims.

Sans cartoons, and amidst intensive (full metal jacket/body scan) security—(Whose 'sensibilities' were offended by that state—of—siege requirement one might ask the NYU administrators? Were those same administrators  aware that the unhinged, openly jihadist supporting British Muslim 'journalist' Yvonne Ridley had personally intervened to foment Muslim student unrest at NYU?)—the panel discussion did proceed. Excellent blow by blow accounts of this enlightening evening are available from bloggers who attended. (Atlas Shrugged has provided the most detailed assessment).

The NYU Objectivist Club student organizers, in cooperation with the Ayn Rand Institute, produced a highly informative program representing the eclectic views of attorney Greg Lukianoff,  President of FIRE, and specialist in First Amendment Law; journalist and playwright Jonathan Leaf, who recently resigned as arts editor for the New York Press in protest over the paper's decision to withdraw the Danish cartoons from an issue dedicated to discussing them ; Peter Schwartz, editor and author of The Foreign Policy of Self—Interest, and me.

Addressing the symbolic empty jet black easels behind the panel, where a sampling of the cartoons would have been placed, Mr. Lukianoff noted their tragic absence, ruefully:

Those blank easels were a testament to campus repression and a climate of fear.

This tragedy—and the larger failure of mainstream print and other media to display the 12 images—was compounded by the bitter irony, that as Lukianoff observed, the Danish cartoons have become perhaps the most important and 'newsworthy' cartoons in history. Jonathan Leaf  emphasized the difficulty of conveying the issues, both literally and figuratively, without displaying the cartoons. Leaf only became aware himself of the banality of the cartoons upon reviewing page proofs of the images for an issue of the New York Press that was never published, leading to his voluntary resignation. Peter Schwartz of the Ayn Rand Institute, made the perspicacious observation that the ultimate goal of those Muslims violently fulminating over the cartoons was to create an atmosphere of such intimidation that non—Muslim societies accepted self—censorship, recasting their fear in principled language as 'religious respectfulness' or 'tolerance.'

During my own presentation, and comments, I emphasized how images of Muhammad, both pious and critical, have been produced almost continuously, for a half millennium by Muslim and non—Muslim artisans alike. And in an age where jihadism is run amok, why not ridicule one of its primary sources, i.e., the sacralized violence of  Muhammad himself, emphasized by none other than Sheik Yusuf Al—Qaradawi? The Sheikh is a leading authority in the Muslim world today—'spiritual' leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and head of The European Fatwa Council—lionized (by the doyen of academic apologists for Islam, John Esposito of Georgetown University) as a 'champion of reformist Islam'. During a June 19, 2001 broadcast of one his widely viewed Al—Jazeera religious programs, Qaradawi highlighted the unique characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad when compared to the prophets that preceded him, in a lecture entitled, 'The Prophet Muhammad as a Jihad Model' :

The prophets that Allah sent prior to Muhammad were sent for a limited time ...and to a specific people. ... Allah established in the life of the Prophet Muhammad general, eternal, and all inclusive characteristics, and he gave every human being the possibility to imitate him and take his life as a model...The Christian is incapable of imitating Jesus regarding war and conciliation since Jesus never fought or made peace.

Allah has...made the prophet Muhammad into an epitome for religious warriors [Mujahideen] since he ordered Muhammed to fight for religion ...

Qaradawi further acknowledged that Muhammad launched armed
jihad during his sojourn in Medina. He also maintained that there is in fact a 'jihad which you seek,' i.e., invading other [countries] in order to spread the word of Islam and to remove obstacles standing in the way of this Islamization.

Thus I concluded that the cartoons were also an important statement of long overdue criticism of the direct nexus between Muhammad's actions, this 'Ecce Homo Arabicus,' and jihadism, made triumphally by the most prominent contemporary Muslim clerics such as Qaradawi.

John Stuart Mill wrote a letter dated March 18, 1840, extolling the notion of a perfect openness of,  '...discussion in all its modes — speaking, writing, and printing — in law' being in government the

...first requisite of good because the first condition of popular intelligence and mental progress. All else is secondary. A form of government is good chiefly in proportion to the security it affords for the possession of this.

The only way we arrive at truth is by open discussion, with full freedom of expression. Thus the NYU cartoon panel discussion, as designed originally by the student organizers, included, appropriately, the display of the actual cartoons in question. Ultimately, stifling such fora enables coercive powers—governments or religious orders for example—to impose any order they wish. Ayn Rand in the climactic speech of her epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, (cited in this brilliant essay by the intrepid philosopher and Muslim 'apostate' Irfan Khawaja) wrote:

'The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.'  (Atlas Shrugged,  p. 944).

Somehow the quintessence of these conceptions of Mill and Ayn Rand—don't ask me to explain precisely—it's more of a gestalt—are reiterated in another idiom by my favorite philosopher, Marx—i.e., Groucho Marx, who stated, 'Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.'

The pusillanimous administrators of NYU, whose cowardice was concealed poorly by hollow (and bizarre) utterances regarding concerns not to 'offend,' need to quarantine their personal fears and stop infecting the broader community with their own virulent strain of craven dhimmitude.  

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad.

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