Wait, wait, it's just a cartoon from some guy in south-western Denmark

pamela k taylor :essays

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What would Muhammad think?

By Pamela K. Taylor

Watching the Muslim indignation at caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad spill over into outbursts of anger and violence, I find myself wondering which would make the Prophet sadder – the libel of his character by Danish non-Muslim cartoonists or the actions of his followers that are so out of keeping with his own example, and which would seem to prove that the cartoonists depictions are not so far from truth.

During his life, Prophet Muhammad was received with great love, but he also met with great resistance, as were most Prophets. He was insulted and cursed, at times physically assaulted, and yet, he did not return insult for insult, attack for attack. One such incidence occurred in Taif, where the citizens of the city set their children to throwing stones at him. Rather than seeking vengeance, Muhammad asked God to forgive the people of Taif, much as Christ asked God to forgive his tormentors, saying they did not know what they did.

This example is in keeping with the Qur’an, which advises Muslims to, “Keep to forgiveness and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant (Chapter 7, Verse 199) and which tells us "Invite all unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the best of ways." (Chapter 16, Verse 125) Clearly, the groups of Muslims who are threatening violence against the cartoonists, who have burned and torn down embassies, even those who boycotted Danish manufacturers and withdrawn ambassadors, have betrayed these injunctions, and abandoned the Prophet’s example. To me, that is a greater insult to someone they claim to love and follow than a few offensive drawings, especially as people who know little of the Prophet’s character and history attribute their violence to him.

The other principle that had been ignored is that Islam brooks no compulsion in religion, nor does it demand followers of other religions adhere to its religious sensibilities. “There shall be no compulsion in matters of faith” (Chapter 2, Verse 256) and “To you your way, to me mine,” (Chapter 109, verse 6) lay out Islam’s cardinal rules of tolerance and make it clear people who are not Muslim are not expected to follow Islamic religious rules. Even though many Muslims believe Islam prohibits portrayals of the Prophet, the Danish cartoonists aren’t bound by Islam’s rules and they can’t be blaspheming because they aren’t Muslims.

Having said, that, I must also say that some of the drawings are indeed deeply offensive, not so much for the mere fact that they portrayed Prophet Muhammad, but because they are hateful, slanderous, and inflammatory to the point of verging on racism, particularly the ones showing the Prophet with a bomb-turban, as the devil in disguise, or blindfolded and bristling with knives. The cartoonists had to know those images were going to be as provocative and insulting as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” or Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” images.

Freedom of expression is a cardinal value in both the West and in Islam (another value that many in the Muslim world have neglected to uphold), and we must defend the right of cartoonists to draw satirical, biting commentary, and the right papers to publish items which may be offensive or perceived as blasphemous by some. A society without such freedom rapidly becomes poisonously repressed and out of balance. Or worse, it begins to resemble a Barney show with all its saccharine sweetness. Even though we may hate what another person might say, we must, like Voltaire, defend to the death his or her right to say it.

But at the same time, when we practice that freedom of expression, we must do so responsibly. There are items that, rightfully, no editor would publish, particularly things that are libelous, or foster hatred and bigotry. It is never easy to draw the line between what is ironic reflection that will make people laugh, what is pointed commentary that will open the doors of discussion on difficult issues, and what will actually incite to hatred, and from there perhaps to violence. It is almost impossible to draw up universal standards by which one can judge whether to print an item or not, but we must make the attempt.

Could a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb turban or with devil horns incite hatred for him and his followers, making an already tense situation worse? Or could it provoke a dialogue exploring the root causes of that tension and the violence that has ripped through the edges of Muslim society, threatening to plunge us all into chaos? Could publishing the cartoons lead to a substantive discussion about issues in freedom of expression, or just to defensive posturing that drives a wedge between two communities, both of whom feel under siege?

Given the current tensions between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations of Europe, I believe there were better ways to open those dialogues. Publishing confrontational and defamatory cartoons in the tinder box that is modern Europe was akin to crying, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. If it’s not illegal, it certainly wasn’t very responsible. Even if there were not existing tensions, spitting in the face of someone is a decidely odd way to open a discussion.