Mahmood Mamdani, Bigotry and Blasphemy

by zunguzungu

From a piece at Kafila:

When the Danish cartoon debate broke out I was in Nigeria. If you stroll the streets of Kano, a Muslim-majority city in northern Nigeria, you will have no problem finding material caricaturing Christianity sold by street vendors. And if you go to the east of Nigeria, to Enugu for example, you will find a similar supply of materials caricaturing Islam. None of this is blasphemy; most of it is bigotry. It is well known that the Danish paper that published the offending cartoons was earlier offered cartoons of Jesus Christ. But the paper declined to print these on grounds that it would offend its Christian readers. Had the Danish paper published cartoons of Jesus Christ, that would have been blasphemy; the cartoons it did publish were evidence of bigotry, not blasphemy.

Both blasphemy and bigotry belong to the larger tradition of free speech, but after a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide, we surely need to distinguish between the two strands of the same tradition. The language of contemporary politics makes that distinction by referring to bigotry as hate speech.

Just a few weeks after the Danish cartoons were published, the German writer Gunter Grass was interviewed in a Portuguese weekly news magazine, Visão. In that interview, Gunter Grass said the Danish cartoons reminded him of anti Semitic cartoons in a German magazine, Der Sturmer. The story was carried in a New York Times piece, which added that the publisher of Der Sturmer was tried at Nuremberg and executed. I am interested less in how close was the similarity between the Danish and the German cartoons, than in why a magazine publisher would be executed for publishing cartoons. One of the subjects I work on is the Rwanda genocide. Many of you would know that the International Tribunal in Arusha has pinned criminal responsibility for the genocide not just on those who executed it but also on those who imagined it, including intellectuals, artists and journalists as in RTMC. The Rwandan trials are the latest to bring out the dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice.

To understand why courts committed to defending freedom of speech can hold cartoonists responsible for crimes against humanity, we need to distinguish between bigotry and blasphemy. Blasphemy is the practice of questioning a tradition from within. In contrast, bigotry is an assault on that tradition from the outside. If blasphemy is an attempt to speak truth to power, bigotry is the reverse: an attempt by power to instrumentalize truth. A defining feature of the cartoon debate is that bigotry is being mistaken for blasphemy…