Non-Sequitur and the Absurd Media Theatre
By Azly Rahman
It is surrealistic. The issue of the Non Sequitur cartoon strip.
It is like something taken out of French existentialist drama or the theatre of the absurd. It is a postmodern situation. This condition is further testing the limits of the ethics of authenticity; testing how far religious iconoclasm can be deconstructed and be made a cliché, objectified, and next, destroyed, to be slowly but surely eroded from the mind of the sacred.
Is it a clash between the sacred and the secular? Between the Islamic Conservatives and Constructivists?
The natives – those at the apparatus of the Malaysian Fourth Estate called the New Straits Times paper – are the ones creating this surrealism, testing the sacred grounds of those who are unshaken by the recent denigration of the prophet of Islam.
Is the Wiley Miller cartoon strip making fun of the reaction of the Muslims to the 12 Danish cartoons?
Those responsible at the NST are now the new Malaysian postmodern natives who have been shaped by the “culture of media/mediated permissiveness”. By publishing a cartoon strip that tries to further bring the issue of denigration and humiliation of the prophet to a more safer, hidden, apologetic, and hopefully acceptable ground, they are hoping to colonize the mind of the Muslims. These minds have already been colonized and conditioned by the mainstream media.
What is happening with the Non Sequitur drama is a testament of the nature of postmodern “state-inspired Islamism” that also characterized the statement made Malaysian Muslim feminists who are becoming more articulate, albeit non sequitur itself, in arguing for deconstructionism in the authenticity of what Islam is trying to offer.
The cartoon strip deconstructed
Right after the global uproar over the Danish newspaper fiasco and right after the suspension of the Sarawak Tribune and Guan Ming, how could one of Malaysia’s oldest and most mature newspaper not understand the possible nature of escalation of the conflict? How could its media gurus not able to do a “futures-wheels” planning and “scenario-building? How could we not learn from the fallout of the Danish cartoons affair?
How could Malaysia’s expert in the science of semiotics or in the art of critical media analysis not able to analyze the ideological-embededness of the Non Sequitur cartoon strip that is actually and interpretively another cartoon in a series of the twelve that represents the globalization of global arrogance of one nation’s ideology of the Fourth Estate.
Let us read the cartoon strip. Let us understand the visuality and heteroglossic dimension of it. By “heteroglossia” I mean, how ideas get linked or embedded to other ideas. Let us learn to read the mind of the producers and the reproducers of the image.
In the Non Sequitur cartoon strip, there is no picture of the prophet of Islam. There are no “bomb fuses”, “donkeys” or “heavens” depicted as compared to the deadly ones published liberally and with pride by the Danish newspaper—the twelve images that angered the Muslims.
The Non Sequitur edition showed an artist whose specialty is drawing cartoons of “Muhammad”. Then there is the suggestion that no one dares approach the street cartoonist in fear of national and global retribution.
What exactly is the message?
What is being ridiculed here is the idea that the “Twelve Muhammad cartoons” can no longer be produced and reproduced. The ”historical Muhammad” denigrated and “reduced to a cartoon figure” is no longer open for ridicule.
This is where the problem of semiotics lies.
It is not about the “historical Muhammad” that is at issue anymore. It is not whether in the Non Sequitur cartoon published by The New Straits Times is about the prophet of Islam itself. The issue has evolved into a more complex one, requiring a more complex interpretation.
It is the continuation of the repeat yet subtle performance of the denigration and humiliation of the “conceptual and metaphysical and iconoclasm of the Prophet of Islam”, that is of larger issue here. It is about the culture that interprets issue; a culture that is conditioned by profits and the colonization of consciousness.
Islam is a religion not merely of historicity and historical-materiality, but of signs and symbols. At a higher level of meaning, the Quran is a “book of signs”. At the level of abstraction, “Prophet Muhammad” is a concept of peace and social justice that permeates Islam and shape the consciousness of the Muslims. It is a figure that lives in the Time and Being of the Muslims. It is a symbol of what is possible for Humanity can evolve into – from tribalism to Universalism.
The editors of the New Straits Times may have known their intention. They perhaps were “testing how far the iconoclasm of Muhammad” can be challenged. They were possibly testing how far the Malaysian Fourth estate can engineer a quiet mental revolution by storming the Bastille of Muslim consciousness through a subtle onslaught of the media that is a historical shaper of consciousness of the Malaysian mind. Read into this quote and in-between its lines, and interpret:
“We apologize. Unreservedly. Obviously we misjudged
how different people would react differently to Wiley Miller’s
Non Sequitur’s syndicated cartoon published by The New Straits
Times … it is a process involving human error, and humans err..
It was a wry humor by an artist whose work is syndicated in more
than 700 newspapers…”
The phrase “how different people will react differently” does not make sense. Ideologically it does if one look at it as this corporate media’s embarkation on a test case of indifference and religious insensitivity right in the culture’s own living room.
Suspend NST then?
It is only fair to suspend the media giant in question, so that the message will be clear.
It will do justice to the other newspapers that were suspended. It will demonstrate a governmental decision not based on double-standard hypocrisy in disciplining the media. The “general will” of the people of Malaysia, as Rousseau would call us, would want to see this form of disciplining. Else the government will continue to add to its archive of hypocritical and double-standard decisions.
But this does not license the government to cruise the nation into a Malaysian McCarthy era. The “general will” cannot afford to tolerate this scenario. This is not an occasion to forget that the perennial issue that needs to be addressed by the media is corruption and the abuse of power that has become an ideology and a habit of the heart itself.
It is an absurd situation. Very surrealistic. Of wry humor to test if subtle blasphemy will make things go wrong and will contribute to the globalization of arrogance and hate.
It takes our keen semiotic mind to read what the Wiley Millers’ cartoon strip represent.
The “general will” can now read cartoons better.