Juha Ridanpää. Geopolitics. Volume 14, Issue 4. Winter 2009.
Introduction: The Seriousness of Humour
Humour and cartoons are commonly perceived as practices of innocent entertainment, but the crisis following the publishing of twelve cartoons of the prophet Muhammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten finally proved what serious matters popular culture, cartoons and humour can be. One repercussion of this notorious cartoon crisis was the publication in Kaltio, a minor cultural journal produced in northern Finland, of a comic strip in which various questions concerning the Muhammed cartoon episode and the political hypocrisy of the Finnish government were discussed satirically. This precipitated another, albeit minor, crisis which was noted widely around the world. Through these two interlinked incidences, the present paper discusses how humour functions as a ‘tool’ giving impetus to various forms of geopolitical processes and discussions in a range of contextual circumstances and at different spatial levels, resulting in both politically affirmative and destructive effects. It also discusses how the geopolitical order, discourses and codes can divert the reception and interpretation of humour.
The humour that ironical expression holds in store may at first glance seem just innocent laughter, but in fact irony is often strongly politically charged. Although the theories of humour highlight the fact that humour is rarely innocent, the common assumption is that laughter functions as an antidote to seriousness, transcending the purpose of being analytical. Still, most cartoons convey a political message in some way or other. Irony is a tool through which the geopolitical order and geopolitical meanings become negotiated and social self-identities established. As Linda Hutcheon has enunciated it, “Irony can and does function tactically in the service of a wide range of political positions, legitimizing or undercutting a wide variety of interests”. Therefore irony is, as Hutcheon formulates it, “a risky business” in many ways. After the cartoons of the prophet Muhammed were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, we were once again reminded what a politically serious matter humour can be. Religious sanctity and integrity were measured up against the values of freedom of speech, with dramatic consequences in the form of events such as violent mass demonstrations and the torching of embassies. Twelve satirical cartoons transformed themselves into a geopolitical conflict which caused unexpected reactions at various levels of the social and political bureaucracy. At the same time the cartoon affair demonstrated how easily the categorial distinctions of ‘serious’ and ‘comical’ can overlap and merge together, and how geopolitically charged popular culture, and in this case humour, can often be.
There has been discussion on the political seriousness of cartoons and humour for a long time, but the Muhammed cartoons proved how global the effects of cartoons can be. The impacts were worldwide, and their true volume was illustrated in those cases in which the effects became apparent not only at the global level but also at local or marginal levels. On 19 February 2006 Kaltio, a minor cultural journal produced in northern Finland, published a satirical comic strip, ‘Muhammed, pelko ja sananvapaus’ (‘Muhammed, fear and the freedom of speech’), drawn by Ville Ranta, in which the questions of censorship, freedom of speech and the political hypocrisy of the Finnish government were discussed critically. Following publication of the comic strip, the main sponsors of the journal reacted immediately and announced that they would withdraw their financial backing for the journal unless the cartoon was removed from its web pages. The executive committee of Kaltio then demanded that their chief editor, Jussi Vilkuna, should remove the cartoon, and since he refused to do so, invoking the principle of freedom of speech, he was dismissed on February 24. This was followed by several other unexpected and from a certain point of view rather ‘amusing’ consequences, arousing unaccustomed interest in the case all around the world.
The main focus in this paper is on how ‘innocent laughter’ can become politicised, not only presenting and reflecting politically serious matters, but also functioning as a prime source or ‘tool’ for giving impetus to them and launching new political crises and discussions in various contextual circumstances and at various spatial levels. The politicality of the ‘same joke’ attains new divergent meanings when it is transformed into a theme for discussion in different discursive communities. It may be assumed that Kaltio, as a journal appearing in northern Finland, should have been in many ways unconnected with the Danish cartoon affair and its geopolitical effects. The focus of interest in this paper is on how the interplay of apparently unconnected social, cultural and political contexts may cause new, unexpected crises on various spatial levels. The Kaltio episode is a solid sub-plot in the geopolitical narrative of the Danish cartoon crisis which raises several questions concerning various aspects of the politicality of humour. The main questions pondered here are whether humour functions affirmatively or destructively and how the geopolitical discourses, order and codes can divert the reception and interpretation of humour. The events are interpreted within the discourse of Orientalism and the geopolitical code of Finlandisation. The focus in the section that follows is on the theoretical aspects of the politicisation of popular culture, humour and cartoons, after which the Danish cartoon crisis and its background will be contextualised and discussed more thoroughly. This will be followed by a section discussing the main topic, the Kaltio episode.
Popular Geopolitics, Cartoons, and the Politisation of Satire
Popular culture in general occupies a fundamental role in the social processes of how our ‘geo’ is politically ‘graphed’. It has been argued in critical geopolitics that geopolitics will inherently function as a plurality of practical geopolitics (foreign policies, bureaucracy, political institutions), formal geopolitics (strategic institutions, think tanks, academia), and the popular geopolitics to be found within the artefacts of the transnational popular culture (the mass media, cinema, novels, cartoons, etc.). The geopolitical order becomes sensible and meaningful through popular culture. Several examples exist of how transnational popular culture and geopolitical processes can go hand in hand. The Reader’s Digest is a good example of a forum through which the logic and meanings of contemporary geopolitics are explained easily for ‘common citizens’. In a similar fashion, the American superhero comic books represent an example of how national identities and geopolitical scripts are narrated through easily accessible and somehow seemingly ‘innocent’ cultural practices. Correspondingly, in the case of the movie industry, Hollywood represents an ideological battleground where hegemonic geopolitical discourses are reflected, reified, explained, authored, supported, undermined and challenged. Klaus Dodds, for instance, has argued that the commercial success of the James Bond novels and movies was based on the manner in which the stories reflected contemporary geopolitical anxieties. Popular culture provides ‘easy access’ to the events of the geopolitical world in a simplified form, often ready digested and interpreted. As for the common citizens, so also for researchers, cartoons may help to understand geopolitical discourses more easily, although their interpretation often requires sensitivity towards their contextuality. The relationship between popular geopolitics and humour is a relatively little-studied subject, and it is only recently that papers have been published in which humour is discussed as a geopolitical act.
In the case of the Danish cartoon crisis it is crucial to stress that this time the impetus for the political conflict came from the world of popular geopolitics, which has conventionally been perceived as a more or less passive reflector of geopolitical processes. Most cartoonists are commonly looked on as passive observers who have “a vague understanding of geopolitics on the popular level”, but who at the same time do not strive to take an active part in political discussions by any means. Cartoonists are ‘outsiders’ within the journalistic community, and it is this that enables them to use political satire in a way which is impossible for journalists, and also keeps them ‘safe’ from any serious consequences. On the other hand, Steve Bell of The Guardian is a typical example of a cartoonist who has become famous for his provocative way of actively participating in ongoing political discussions. Political cartoons form a subcategory of political humour, but as is well known, they can also be decidedly unfunny or non-satirical, especially in the case of certain tragic political events, as with the cartoons focusing on the World Trade Centre event of 11 September 2001. Opinions concerning the functions, intentions and consequences of political cartoons vary considerably, but generally speaking, they are thought of as offering alternative discursive and subject positions and as including several different political perspectives, thus bringing opposite political views together.
Irony, the comprehending of words in the opposite way from that in which they are articulated, is a common linguistic and literary device used in political cartoons. Jokes which incorporate irony are usually situated in the areas where there is a lack of general consensus and shared views—particularly in oppressive political systems where overt criticism is not allowed and irony is used as a device for ‘hiding’ underlying intentions. Ironic political humour functions on several levels. It may criticise oppressors and their system, or vice versa, and their political function can also be such as to avoid punishment, to achieve solidarity with others, or to experience relief. Merje Kuus, for instance, has studied how sarcastic humour in newspapers has functioned as passive resistance against the pro-NATO political climate in Central Europe. In the case of the Muhammed cartoons the issue concerning the political nature of humour includes the important question of whether irony functions primarily affirmatively or destructively. These are two opposite but interdependent schools of opinion on its function as a tool in the fight against a dominant authority and on whether it is considered negative and destructive, a view often held by those who have been on the receiving end of an ironic ‘attack’. In Turkey, for instance, it has been shown that cartoonists have played active roles in the democratisation process and the struggle over political and social constraints. Irony takes advantage of oversimplified social stereotypes and caricatures, at the same time revealing to the reader the ‘real’ nature of the social, cultural and political circumstances behind them. Through irony it is possible to help the reader to notice the ‘true’ nature of these oversimplified and artificial stereotypes and caricatures, a fact which demonstrates its emancipatory influences. Similarly, the potential of cartoons to function as devices for education in schools has been noted recently.
On the other hand, all humour has its targets, which in the field of irony studies can also be called ‘victims’. Similarly, it has been noted that irony may operate as a route for being politically aggressive in a seemingly unaggressive way, but as seen, it becomes suppressive in a situation where it is not understood, if its target is embarrassed or humiliated. In this way irony represents a political double code, in that its object is always being simultaneously legitimised and criticised. As described above, it operates at several political, social and cultural levels as a vehicle or tool through which stiff, conventional structures can be deconstructed, but coincidentally it also systematically constructs and confirms them. Humour often permits insulting and racist perceptions, but it can also legitimate and exonerate them. Studies of political cartoons have emphasised their ability to communicate visually, which makes them universally easier to approach and understand, but as often remarked, there are no unified ‘codes’ for humour and the recognition of it is always culturally conditioned in some way or other. In this sense it has been argued in the case of the Danish cartoons that both the Western media and the Muslim protesters were agreed that the argument presented in them was insulting, but the interpretation put on this by the Western media lay within the context of the Western religious world and its previous satires and not within the context and principles of the Muslim world.
It is important from a geographical point of view to note that humour is spatially conditioned: “What is found funny, and why, is spatially and temporally specific. Trying to understand this can tell us much about social identities and values in space and across space and in time and over time”. This refers to how the processes of reaffirming existing social relations and maintaining normative social boundaries are put into practice through humour. There has also been much discussion about ‘the geopolitical iconography of cartoons’. In some cases marginalised regions and minority groups are not only the objects of irony, but common stereotypes imply that an incapability for understanding irony is a characteristic of marginalised regions: “These ‘regional prejudices’ may then result in geographical jokes, which often assume a sophisticated North and a backwoods South. Another factor is the distribution between rural and urban populations. Only urbanities possess sophistication and irony ability.” A similar situation has also been perceivable in the Danish cartoon crisis, in that the discussion concerning the constrained tolerance of the Islamic world, especially in the Western media, has turned into a question of how the East does not possess a sense of irony. In the case of the Muhammed cartoon it is also important to understand how irony becomes conceivable within certain ‘discursive communities’. The manner of perceiving issues discussed in political cartoons ironically requires belonging to a certain discursive community. But discursive communities cannot be reduced to a single component such as class or gender. They certainly involve openly held beliefs, but they also feature ideologies and unspoken understandings. Also, “things like class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference are involved, but so too are nationality, neighbourhood, profession, religion, and all the other micropolitical complexities of our lives to which we may not even be able to give labels”.
Overall, the question of the politicality of irony is always associated with matters of decorum and tolerance. In political humour, satire exceeds the normal boundaries of decorum, but the exceeding of such boundaries is allowed in the modern (Western) world if permission is obtained from the objects of the satire, and from the state, and if certain partly unstable standards are fulfilled. This is not based on systematic control, but rather on common agreement: “Whilst comedians can assume a broad social permission for their art, they should retain sensitivity to the feelings of those, particularly vulnerable groups, that they might be seen as addressing”. There is common agreement in the modern Western world that within certain limits it is acceptable to offend the people holding political power, but in many cases non-political aspects, such as personal affronts through comically depicted physical appearances—over-exaggerated obesity and big noses—cause confrontations between politicians and newspaper editors. Although it is often stated that irony is by nature ‘face-saving’ and tries to keep conflicts at bay by making politically critical statements in a disguised, seemingly inoffensive way, by ‘just kidding’, the Muhammed cartoon finally proved that no commonly agreed boundaries of decorum and tolerance exist and that one’s manner of perceiving and tolerating irony is dependent on the discursive community to which one belongs. Similarly, in the case of politically sensitive subjects, different geopolitical codes may cause different interpretations and reactions between groups.
The Danish Cartoon Crisis as a Geopolitical Affair
Religion is the substitute worldview for those who have no tie to a nation-state. Whereas leaders may use religeopolitical codes as incentives for mobilisation, for the masses religion means an escape from the harsh reality of daily life, the promise of peace rather than war. As bad luck will have it, religious images are also useful when territorial conflict has erupted. We should not reverse the causation.
The first Muslim immigrants came to Denmark in the late 1960s, and currently approximately 4% of the Danish population are Muslims. Since they originate from a number of countries, they are often considered not to form a homogeneous group or to have any specific ties to the nation-state in which they live. Although “the Danish identity has been an image of a liberal, gender-oriented, and socially responsible community”, it has been difficult to implement a multicultural approach within this relatively monocultural Danish national identity. From the early days the Muslim minorities have been an easy target for ‘othering’, for the enhancement of national self-esteem by subjugating ‘the other’. The history of Danish Muslim minorities can be perceived through the discourse of ‘Orientalism’, a concept referring to the Western power of articulation on behalf of the Eastern world, a geopolitical way of perceiving the world and conceptualising it in terms of two categorially distinguished halves, a means of polarising between ‘the familiar’ and ‘the strange’, of defining ‘the East’ in order to serve the colonialist interests of ‘the West’. Categorial distinctions are based on stereotypes—simplified, subjugating images through which what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ is distinguished from what is ‘abnormal’ and ‘unacceptable’, functioning as the life-blood of social injustice. In Denmark “the image of immigrant men as hypersexual threats to women” and the stereotype of oppressed minority women became familiar in the 1970s, while the stereotype of criminal immigrants operating beyond the social and judicial authorities became popular in the 1990s. The public rhetoric used in the Danish media when referring to the Muslim minorities had been notably hostile before the cartoon episode started. It is thus easy to interpret the Muslim cartoons as a continuation of Orientalism, a further cultural practice through which the Islamic world is represented as inferior to the Western world, and which is closely connected with ‘the European history of regulating blasphemy’. It has been argued that ‘only joking’ is the worst excuse for insulting and racist arguments, a rhetorical punch line on which offensive comic discourse commonly relies. If Islam is perceived as forming a self-definition of the group identity, then the publishing of cartoons can be considered racism against minorities.
The Danish cartoon crisis began with twelve satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed which were published in the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. They were mainly based on the old stereotypes directed at Islam as a religion and on stereotypes and preconceptions regarding the treatment of women in Muslim society. The cartoon in which the Prophet was depicted with a bomb in his turban turned out to be most provocative one. It was an undisguised representation of a modern Muslim stereotype implying a strictly offensive argument. It has been claimed that oppressive political systems in particular give rise to jokes which incorporate irony, but in the Muhammed cartoons irony was not used to hide any political arguments, but rather the opposite, it was used in a most insolent way. It is thus reasonable to ask whether these cartoons actually contained any irony at all. Irony is a rhetorical device which is often used in satire, but as is seen here, satirical texts are often not even meant to be funny, but are politically aggressive tools in which wit is used as a weapon. In satire, irony is militant. All the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten were aimed to operate more or less destructively, attacking the Muslim world in a way which cannot be considered ‘innocent laughter’ within any discursive community. It is natural that whether one perceives mockery of this kind as acceptable or not depends on the discursive community to which one belongs, but even so, the actual crisis following the printed cartoons did not arise from the insulting content of the cartoons but from the fact that from the viewpoint of Islamic culture they touched upon something sacrosanct, the act of drawing the face of the Prophet. It is fair to say that only the Satanic Verses controversy, a serious geopolitical affair following the publishing of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988), is comparable to the Danish cartoon crisis as an example of how drastic the consequences of a seemingly innocent piece of popular culture may prove to be in a confrontation between Western and Islamic cultural values.
The consequences that followed have been considered the worst crisis in Danish foreign affairs since World War II. The crucial turning point was on the 19 October, when eleven Muslim countries requested an urgent meeting with the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. When Prime Minister Rasmussen refused to meet the ambassadors and invoked the freedom of the press, this was considered an insult and triggered serious consequences in the form of mass demonstrations, the torching of Danish embassies and the boycotting of Danish products, which has substantially affected the foreign revenue of a number of the country’s industries. The cartoons had turned into a serious geopolitical intervention occurring by several means. Conventionally, geopolitical interventions are perceived as events where popular culture is not considered to serve as an agent, but rather is conceptualised within the realist frameworks of the ‘security community’, represented by “elite politicians, military leaders, and defence-oriented think tanks, as well as by academics in disciplines such as political science and international relations”. The total extent of the consequences is hard to condense into a few words. These satirical cartoons were published in nearly 50 countries, some online on the Internet, some in smaller papers, but in most cases in widely published national newspapers. The printing of the cartoons was followed by condemnations. The reactions were worldwide, drastically intensive and occurred at several administrative levels. There were political meetings all over the world, public protests, boycotts of Danish products, public criticism in the media, official statements and apologies issued by various international organisations and national governments, serious threats, closures of embassies and armed conflicts.
In the discussion on popular geopolitics, criticism has been levelled against the conventional ways of perceiving geopolitical interventions as end products of state-centred logical thought processes, so that in that light it is significant to realise that the publishing of the cartoons functioned, albeit not as a state-centred initiative in itself, but as an impetus for further state-centred geopolitical interventions. The cartoon crisis turned into a game of political diplomacy in which politicians and other public actors had to ‘take sides’. Some of the official statements and demands were strict condemnations and some more or less impartial apologies expressed to the Islamic world on account of this particular case, while there were also some comments indicating genuine support for the Danish government and for the principle of the freedom of speech. It is actually interesting to see how multifarious the reactions were, especially the official statements, so that while the Council of Europe, for instance, criticised the Danish government for invoking the ‘freedom of the press’ in its refusal to take action against the ‘insulting’ cartoons, the European Union backed the Danes up by stating that the boycotts violated the principles of world trade.
While the Cold War division between East and West, as imagined communities, was drawn in accordance with a categorial distinction between the First and Second Worlds, the regional self-definition of the Western world after 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union has proceeded in relation to the Middle East. The Gulf War of 1991 became a landmark for the start of a period of ‘new Orientalism’. It has also been argued that neo-Orientalist enemy images and ‘the new barbarism’ have been serving as hegemonic strategies in the legitimation of continuous economic or political projects of a colonial nature. In this light, the Muslim reactions to the publishing of the Muhammed cartoons reflect a direct criticism of neo-Orientalism, and in fact both the cartoons and the reactions to them turned into political legitimations for the East/West dichotomy, examples of what the ideas of ‘imaginative geographies’ and ‘imagined geopolitics’ mean in practice. The message of the demonstrations was efficiently communicated through placards seen on news reports around the world, and the criticism was not directed only at the Danish government and Jyllands-Posten, as seen in a major activist demonstration in front of the Danish Embassy in London on 3 February, for instance, where flags of the European Union were burned: “Europe. You will pay. Your annihilation is on the way!!!”, “Jihad against European Crusaders”, “Europe, You’ll come crawling, when the Mujahideen come roaring”, “Annihilate those who insult Islam!!!” The burning of flags in front of Danish embassies all around the world became a symbolic gesture which implied not only hostility towards Jyllands-Posten, the Danish government and Denmark as a country but towards the whole Western ideology and what it represents in present-day geopolitics. On the contrary, when free speech was represented as a necessary condition for democratic legitimacy, it automatically turned all criticism of it into criticism of the democratic model of society.
The cartoon crisis became a confrontation between religious values and the principle of the freedom of speech, although it has been argued that the latter issue emerged later and the real reason behind publishing the cartoons had been simply to ‘test’ the audience in a provocative manner. In addition, it also became a confrontation between what is legal and what is ethically advisable. Robert Post, in his analysis of the legal rights attached to the cartoons, concludes that “the Danish cartoons seem to me rather far from legally prohibited hate speech. They take a position on issues of obvious public moment, but they do not advocate discrimination or oppression or violence; they do not threaten; they do not use racist epithets or names; they do not attack individuals; they do not perpetuate an obvious untruth; they do not portray Muslims as without human dignity. They may exacerbate stereotypes and exaggerations, but that is not the same as hate speech. That is simply the nature of most ideas.” On the other hand, another important question has been whether ‘the legal right to freedom of speech’ includes ‘the right to offend’. The most notable geopolitical contribution of the cartoon crisis was that it evoked an atmosphere of fear, causing reactions at several levels in discursive communities. It turned into a social space that was a ‘transnational public sphere’, defined as a situation that emerges “when individuals, organizations, media, politicians, and officials at local and national levels around the world, aware of ‘voices’ in other places, debate the same questions at the same time with reference to the same events, statements and actions”. It was not only the world’s leading politicians who became involved, but the cartoons also precipitated crises in response to many micro-level discussions, of which the Kaltio incident in Finland is a case in point.
The Kaltio Comic Strip Episode: Why Is the Depicting of Muhammed Forbidden in Finland?
There exists a common mental impression of an ambiguous relationship to globalisation which is connected not only with Denmark but with all the Nordic countries. These countries have a long history of internationalism, but “because of the internationalist role, the Nordic countries have rarely been the target of serious criticism from activists dealing with issues of global justice or from groups and politicians in the Third World. Stated banally, people in the Nordic countries have become used to being the good guys”. Political demonstrations with any global reference have been extremely rare in Finland, for instance, and a shared image prevails of Finland being a country sheltered from global political confrontations. The ‘geopolitical code’ of Finnish government was to take as cautious a line as possible and to try to be diplomatic in all directions, especially towards the Muslim world. The concept of ‘geopolitical code’ refers to the idea that there is a certain kind of mechanism that distorts information about the world to which governments (or national representatives) and the public are subjected. The code for the taking of a cautious line in all geopolitically problematic questions goes back to the days of Finlandisation, the Cold War period when the Soviet Union represented a military threat, so that being located ‘between East and West’ and having friendly relations with the Soviet Union was perceived to be politically safer than being a Western nation. The Nordic identity, the ideal of an anti-militaristic society, ‘a third political way’ based on humanitarian principles, was a crucial part of the process by which Finlandisation was advanced: “At a time when ideological definitions dominated cultural ones, the Finnish policy of developing a positive and friendly relationship with the Soviet Union and of neutrality towards conflicts between the great powers, presented the West with a disturbing anomaly in which Finnish claims to ‘Westernness’ appeared hypocritical”. In the case of the media, political neutrality and caution towards the Soviet Union meant self-censorship.
During the cartoon crisis the other Nordic countries, mainly Sweden and Norway, staunchly backed the Danish government and Jyllands-Posten, which meant that these countries were subject to practically the same threats as Denmark. There were several violent demonstrations, for instance, in which Swedish and Norwegian flags were burnt along with Danish ones. As a Nordic country, Finland was similarly a potential target for Muslim assaults, which meant that it could in principle have become deeply involved in a conflict which at first glance should not have happened. The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its ‘official statement’ on 1 February 2006, criticising the Danish government for its slow reactions. Finland was also one of the rare European countries in which the cartoons were not published in wider national forums. The nationalist organisation Suomen Sisu published the cartoons online, to which Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation reacted immediately and decided to order a preliminary investigation by the Central Criminal Police (KRP). The Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, and the President, Tarja Halonen, then issued public apologies for the incident. On 6 February there was a protest in front of the Danish Embassy in Helsinki, where around two hundred participants representing fifteen Finnish Islamic communities demanded that the Danish government condemn the publishing of the cartoons and issue an apology.
One relatively minor episode, but an interesting one from the viewpoint of the geopoliticality of humour, began on 19 February 2006, when a small cultural journal, Kaltio, produced in Oulu, northern Finland, published on its web pages a comic strip ‘Muhammed, pelko ja sananvapaus’ (‘Muhammed, fear and the freedom of speech’), drawn by Ville Ranta, concerned with the Danish crisis and the reactions of Finnish politicians to it. This five-page comic strip did not intend to make a mockery of Muslims or of Muhammed, but instead discussed quite explicitly, critically and self-consciously the whole epic of the cartoon crisis and its political consequences. The comic strip was composed of two interlinked stories in which the first part, specifically concerned with the main themes of Danish cartoon crises, functioned as an introduction to the second part in which the political reactions of the Finnish government were satirised. In the first part the comic strip tells a story in which the main character, presumably the cartoonist himself, interviews Muhammed and asks his opinion of the Danish cartoon crisis. The main topic of the cartoon crisis, or motive behind it, the drawing of Muhammed’s face, is discussed in a witty but, given the political circumstances of the moment, extremely courageous and risky manner. The story begins with the main character making the introduction: “Today I have a guest who is in disguise … namely the Prophet Muhammed. I have asked him to wear a mask because this is a cartoon and I do not wish to incriminate myself by drawing his face.” Muhammed is drawn wearing a clownish mask with thick spectacles and a big orange nose, obviously mimicking René Goscinny’s comic character Iznogoud. Where the Jyllans-Posten cartoons had been openly offensive and lacked a certain ‘wit’ that is characteristic of irony, and in that way represented a typical example of the use of sarcasm as a political ‘weapon’, Ranta’s comic strip tried to avoid the simple use of stereotypes and attempted to place itself above the stereotypes of Islam, discussing them in quite a clever fashion. But even so, Ranta’s comic strip, like the cartoons in Jyllans-Posten, was seriously stretching the limits of decorum and tolerance. The story continues as the main character sits down and starts discussing religious values and fear with Muhammed, and asks whether the Western world should follow Muslim laws. The interview turns quickly into a fight between the main character and Muhammed. The interviewer is represented as a fearful cry-baby and Muhammed as an aggressive man, angry over how the Western world, not only Europe but also the United States and NATO, has treated the Islamic world. Muhammed kicks the interviewer, screaming, “Just tell me, why shouldn’t we have the right to get mad at folks who first drop bombs on us, rob us of our oil, oppress us in the West and then still have time to scorn our faith?!! Why should we respect your candy-ass freedom of speech?” After tearing at the hand of the interviewer and sitting on him, Muhammed concludes their discordant dispute. “This interview is over. You Europeans just have to tolerate us. Only when you do so will you be allowed to come and demand tolerance yourselves.” Muhammed leaves the room, while the interviewer continues begging, “Please don’t kill my family.” All this functions as an introduction to the second part, which starts as the main character suddenly smells a fire and sees the president, prime minister and foreign minister of Finland burning a Danish flag.
In Ranta’s comic strip Finland’s position as an intraterritorial nation is once again problematic, but the threat (the other) is now not a neighbouring country, but the world of Islam as a whole. It still has to be remembered that there are only approximately 30,000 Muslims in Finland (out of a total population of 5,327,397 as of December 2008), of which about 500 live in Oulu (total population 133,541 as of December 2008), which gives a hint of the position of Islam as a religion in this country. Although Finland is by no means sheltered from world geopolitics, it can be argued that the prevailing discussions on ‘new Orientalism’ touch upon it, as a non-NATO country, mainly where socio-economic problems are concerned.
Ranta’s comic strip was in itself an intriguing critical argument regarding the hypocrisy of Finnish geopolitical codes, but the interesting question is what the consequences of its publication were. All its implications have to be understood within the cultural and economic context in which Kaltio has been operating for over sixty years. For most of this time it has been the only cultural publication in Northern Finland, having been founded with the main intention of serving local and regional interests in the (admittedly relatively lame) cultural activities of the region. From the beginning the focus was mainly directed introspectively at local issues rather than national or international ones. It should be emphasised that Kaltio is not an underground journal, but it is quite clearly a marginal one, with a relatively small readership and a circulation of only 1,100 copies, so that it has had to be supported financially by local and regional sponsors. After Ranta’s comic strips were published online, some readers sent messages to the Kaltio office, including one, directed at the chief editor, Jussi Vilkuna, and probably sent to some of the other committee members as well, which was apparently written by a Muslim reader who, in faulty Finnish with certain obscure threatening nuances, asked why companies were backing an anti-Islamic journal. Three major promoters, the Sampo Bank and the insurance companies Pohjola and Tapiola, reacted immediately and announced that they were withdrawing their financial backing. The first news of this was published on 24 February in the regional newspaper Kaleva, printed in Oulu, with a comment by Vilkuna that “we are using the freedom of speech allowed by the constitution and criticizing Finnish discussion through the agency of a cartoon”. The publicity given to the incident increased when Vilkuna immediately asked Ranta to translate the comic strip into English. This was obviously ‘the last straw’ for the executive committee of Kaltio, who ordered Vilkuna to remove the cartoon from the web pages, and when he refused to do so, invoking the principle of freedom of speech, dismissed him on the same day. Later it transpired that the message from a ‘Muslim’ reader had in fact been written by a young Finnish man, probably just as a practical joke.
The Kaleva newspaper followed the episode closely and a huge amount of interest was focused on the extent and manner in which foreign newspapers reacted to the incident. Kaleva reported, for instance, that the Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung had noted that respect for the principle of freedom of speech differed in Finland from that in other European countries. Finland was described as a country where making fun of people is forbidden. Kaleva also published, on 1 March 2006, a translation of Olivier Truc’s column in Le Monde, in which he had described the main phases of the episode and explained how deep the fear of involvement in foreign affairs is in Finnish society because of the history of Finlandisation and the country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. In fact, previous articles in Kaleva had discussed the Kaltio incident as an example of Finland descending into a similar code of caution, self-censorship and Finlandisation in the case of Islam as had been common in dealings with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If ‘geopolitical code’ means a degree of consonance between popular values (the press) and foreign policy goals, it can easily be argued that the executive committee of Kaltio, ironically, acted to sustain a similar code of caution to that of the Finnish state authorities, which was the prime target of Ranta’s satire in the first place. One interesting observation was that the news in the foreign reports was often flavoured with sarcasm, treating the whole case as an example of situational irony, not as a confrontation between contradicting communicative cultures but as a situation which could be regarded as funny when perceived from the outside.
Basically, irony has its ‘targets’ and ‘victims’ in all cases, but in this case the real victims turned out to be the chief editor, Jussi Vilkuna, and the cartoonist, Ville Ranta. The confederation of journalists maintained that Vilkuna’s dismissal was legally dubious and demanded that it should be reconsidered. The schools authority in Oulu had commissioned a cartoon strip from Ranta for a jubilee book in honour of the Finnish author, philosopher, journalist and statesman J. V. Snellman (1806-1881), but the working group withdrew the request after the Kaltio incident, subsequently rescinding the cancellation with appropriate apologies once the worst of the fuss had subsided. The situation was troublesome and embarrassing for Oulu, since the city was a nominee for the European Capital of Culture at the time and the application was to be announced during the same week as Ranta’s commission was cancelled. This case proved how multifaceted the interpretations of irony and the reactions to it can be. Ranta’s comic strip was commonly understood in the media, especially in Finnish journalistic circles, as a constructive tool for opening up political discussion, but at the same time the former Finnish minister of education, Tytti Isohookana-Asunmaa, who was a member of the executive committee of Kaltio, accused Ranta of fomenting violence. It is important to understand that the discretion and consideration shown for the Muslim world was not based on a respect for other cultures and religions, but rather on a fear of the possible consequences. Still, the real fear for economic actors was that political confrontations would interfere with trade and its trends. What makes the incident amusing, and constitutes another part of the situational irony of the present case, is that the comic strip would have gone more or less unnoticed if Vilkuna had not been fired. The news spread rapidly on the Internet, and the incident was soon reported in dozens of foreign newspapers all the way from China, India and Turkey to Iceland, and at the same time Ranta’s comic strip, and the ironical nature of the committee’s reactions, gained more and more publicity—the opposite of what the committee, and especially Kaltio’s sponsors, had hoped for.
The aftermath was that Ranta published a new comic strip on his own Internet pages on 18 September 2006 which functioned as a kind of explanation for the whole affair. Entitled ‘A short introduction to 18.9.2006 (for those who always read only the first page)’, this concerned basically the same themes, but with the difference that now the case under discussion was the Kaltio episode itself. The cartoon ended with the words “So, this fear and the thoughts it aroused was and is the issue in the cartoon. Like the Pope, I won’t apologize to the Muslims, since the people who were insulted were mainly non-Muslims. My thanks go to the representatives of the Muslim community in Oulu, who were some of the few intelligent creatures to be found there in February-March 2006” (translated by the present author).
It can be argued that all forms of humour somehow reflect the current geopolitics, but it becomes obvious from the Muhammed cartoon crisis what a huge variety exists in the forms of political participation that can be achieved through humour. Humour represents a process of negotiating the geopolitical order, and the Muhammed cartoon crisis and the Kaltio incident followed this principle, as both represented examples of how humour is not merely a reflection of geopolitics but can also function as a primary impetus for political actions. While the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten initiated a worldwide crisis, the consequence of Ville Ranta’s comic strip was that it aroused discussion of the values of tolerance, freedom of speech and self-censorship and their relations to Finnish political history. Both cases conveyed several political messages, and in the process humour turned from comical whimsy into an object of political condemnation. Although the discussions involved similar values and themes, they were received, interpreted and contextualised within different discursive communities and geopolitical codes. The arguments were enunciated and defended in different cultural, social, political and historical circumstances, although the background against which all the incidents occurred was the lengthy political history of Orientalism. The history of the colonialist relationship between East and West is a complex and multifaceted social, cultural and political discourse, and it is from this that the ways of representing the East and Islam, their stereotypes and their caricatures have originated. Orientalism embodies a reason why laughter directed at the Islamic world may seem far from innocent from the ‘othered’ point of view. This has a deep connection with the collision of values between the Eastern and Western worlds, which turned into the primary bone of contention during the cartoon crisis. The confrontation between the principle of freedom of speech and that of religious sanctity and integrity was a debate in which the political leaders of numerous countries were obliged to become involved in one way or another. The primary starting point or contextual background for all the repercussions was the position of the Islamic community within the relatively monocultural Danish society. As in the case of Jyllands-Posten, the primary themes in the Kaltio episode revolved around a collision of confronting values, but the contextual circumstances within which the discussion emerged were substantially different. The discussion involved the topics of self-censorship and political politeness and correctness, which were interpreted as contemporary reflections of a history of Finlandisation. Ranta’s comic strip, as any other politically oriented cartoon, discussed critically the prevailing state of political affairs, at the same time raising the question of how caution and self-hypocrisy have operated as a geopolitical code during the history of Finnish nation-building. Still, Ranta’s comic strip did not remain merely as a critical comment, but functioned as an impetus to further unforeseeable consequences which, ironically, stood as legitimations of that very same code which had been the object of the criticism in the first place.
If there exists such a thing as a lesson or a moral to be extracted from crises of this kind, it may be the interesting observation of how remarkably divergent the two cases discussed here in fact proved to be. While the Danish cartoon crisis chastened the Western media for treating the freedom of speech as an intrinsic value, since there is no such thing as a universal and unified code of humour, the lesson to be drawn from the Kaltio incident in Finland was that economic and political actors should be more open to political debate and admit that popular culture can and should be one participant in political discussions. This is closely connected with the question of whether humour has primarily a constructive function, as a socially emancipatory tool or a destructive one, as a political weapon. These cases demonstrate that the constructive and destructive sides of humour are often conditional on each other, that striving for one value functions destructively from the viewpoint of other values, and on the other hand, that serious crises often have their deconstructive, even ‘educative’, aspects as well. Similarly, although the cases presented here suggest that humour is not diametrically opposed to seriousness, it has to be remembered that taking humour seriously does not mean the antithesis of humour. The cartoon crisis in its entirety, and especially the Kaltio incident that followed it, can be perceived as examples of ‘black’ humour, and although it might take some courage to argue that the cartoon crisis was somehow an amusing affair, at least it has proved how indeterminate the categories of ‘comical’ and ‘serious’ can be. This does not mean that all the dramatic consequences that followed the publishing of the twelve cartoons can be transformed into a ‘jolly funfair’, but it has demonstrated that being ‘funny’ is far from being politically uncharged or innocent—and vice versa.