Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Political Correctness, Belarus-Style? Three Years Hard Labor for Journalist Aleksandr Klaskovsky

I don't know whether a Belarusian journalist sitting in prison because he decided to publish some cartoons is political correctness run amok, old-school suppression of a free press, a kind of islamophobia, or maybe all three.

Whatever it is, it's bad news.

Back in September of 2005, the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons, depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

They weren't exactly flattering. In fact, I think some were in bad taste.

As a Catholic living in America, I'm accustomed to seeing cartoons that are impolite toward, and often wildly inaccurate about, my faith. It's one of the unpleasant side-effects of living in a free society.

That may be why, even if an unflattering - or blasphemous - cartoon about Catholicism showed up in the local paper, it's hard to imagine my fellow-parishioners rioting in the streets.

Living in a country where putting a crucifix in urine1 is considered "art," I've gotten used to living among people who don't necessarily share my values or beliefs.

As the cartoons were republished around the world, Muslims got upset. The Norwegian embassy in Damscus was "torched," and followers of Islam made a bonfire of furniture from the Danish embassy. Protests a few days later were "peaceful," with chants of "At your service, oh Mohammed, at your service, oh Prophet of God," and the ever-popular "Death to America, Death to Israel."


The protesters had signs, too, including: "No dignity to a nation whose prophet is insulted;" and "What comes after insulting sacred values?" That second sign raises a good question, actually.

The death toll seems to have been remarkably low:
  • At least 10, according to a socialist website
  • 24 or more in Nigeria alone, as reported in the International Herald Tribune"
  • 139, according Wikipedia, citing a website that is now heavily commercial - and is for sale - (cartoonbodycount.com)
My guess is that 139 is closer to the actual body count than the 10 reported early in the process.

I think it's odd, even considering the global scope of the events, that even an estimate of the actual number of people killed as a result of Islamic "protests" against the cartoons. But that's a matter for another time: and probably another blogger.

Back to that Belarusian journalist.

Belarus isn't an "Islamic" country. About 80% of the people are Eastern Orthodox, about 3% Muslim, and the rest are Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.

As the Danish cartoons were spreading around the world, Aleksandr Sdvizhkov decided to publish them in the Zgoda (Consensus) newspaper. Then, in March, 2006, the Belarusian boss, President Aleksandr Lukashenko, shut Zgoda down.

Belarusian Secret Service agents arrested Sdvizhkov on November 18, 2007, charging him with inciting religious hatred. They'd probably have picked him up earlier, but Sdvizhkov had been abroad. He came back to Belarus for 10th anniversary of his father's death.

From "Freedom Remains Elusive for Journalist in Belarus Jailed For Printing Islamic Cartoons" FOXNews (February 19, 2008):
Vitaly Taras, a member of the Union of Belarusian Writers, said in an interview that Sdvizhkov's punishment was excessive. "The case demonstrates to the whole world that European values, including the freedom of speech, have little value in Belarus," Taras said.

The population of Belarus, formerly a Soviet republic, is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian; only about 3 percent of the 9 million residents are Muslim. Lukashenko's oppressive, Soviet-style government has a history of quashing independent media, and it has close ties to Iran.

"The authorities suddenly became very worried about the feelings of Belarusian Muslims," said Aleksandr Klaskovsky, a Minsk-based independent political analyst with Belarusian News. "Prior to the scandal, Belarusian authorities told everyone who would listen that Belarus was a Slavic, Russian Orthodox country, ignoring the country's true multicultural and religious reality."

Taras said the government's crackdown on Zgoda sent a message to Muslims worldwide: "The Sdvizhkov case in Belarus can only please extremists from Hamas, and other Muslim radicals, who will be happy our authorities turned out to be on their side."
Something bad is going on in Belarus:
  • Political correctness run amok?
    This could be the sort of sensitive response we'd see, if rabid fans of hate crime legislation had their way. There's something in nearly everyone that would like to see those who disagree with them silenced.
  • Old-school suppression of a free press?
    I don't know that anyone, other than hard-line defenders of former Soviet republics, wouldn't agree that what's going on in Belarus is old-school, heavy-handed censorship.
  • A kind of islamophobia?
    I know it sounds odd: but I think that's what we're looking at here. Muslims, some of them, have earned Islam a reputation for being a religion that beheads, blows up, or burns people who are judged unworthy by the local imam. It may be understandable that some governments see placating Islamic partialities at any cost as a reasonable policy.
In the short run, punishing "anti-Islamic" people and publications seems to be good news for Islam. In the long run, I think that Islam, and Muslims, will suffer loss of respect as a result of that sort of 'help.'

Since I'm a Catholic and an American, here's what the American government, and the Vatican, had to say about those Danish cartoons and how some Muslims reacted to them.
In a strongly worded statement, a U.S. State Department spokesman said Friday that the U.S. respects freedom of expression, but the publication of cartoons that incite religious or ethnic hatred is unacceptable.

The Vatican also weighed in Saturday, saying freedom "cannot imply the right to offend" religious faiths, but emphasized also that "violent actions of protest are deplorable."

The Vatican said a government should not be held responsible for actions of a newspaper. However, authorities "could and must, eventually, intervene according to the principals of the national legislation," the Vatican added.
Freedom of expression is a good idea, but there's a distinction between expressing an idea, and peeing on the wall. I think it's time that more publishers learn the difference.

  • Freedom "cannot imply the right to offend" religious faiths
  • Even when offended, "violent actions of protest are deplorable"

1 I'm not making that up. An "artistic" photograph, "Piss Christ," won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) "Awards in the Visual Arts" competition (ca. 1989). Federal funding of the award was discussed in congress. (Transcript posted by the California State University, Long Beach)

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.