Friday, February 03, 2006

Danish Cartoons: A view from the other side

It seems like the ultimate ideological battle: Angry sermons, calls for executions and war, death and kidnapping threats, street protests, boycotts, diplomatic spats, defiant journalists, editors being fired, talk of freedoms in secular democracies, and the list goes on and on.

All because of some cartoons.

The Danish paper Jyllands-Posten printed a total of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad last September, one showing him wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb with the kalimah (Islamic declaration of faith) inscribed on it, while another had him saying that paradise is running short of virgins for suicide bombers. A Norwegian publication reprinted the caricatures in January and a handful of other publications jumped on the bandwagon in the last couple of days to express their support for the principle of free expression.

Muslim outrage has spurred protests, calls for executions and wars, kidnapping and death threats, boycotts of Danish products, and diplomatic spats. Danish dairy firm Arla Foods has announced layoffs as a result of the boycott; national leaders have jumped into the foray, and even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has issued a statement in an attempt to cool the growing crisis. Editors have been sacked in what’s seen to be an attack on editorial independence.

Media reports are quick to point out that Islamic traditions ban depictions of the Prophet. Thus, the understanding is that the outrage has been caused by the seemingly blatant disregard for this “Islamic taboo” by the publications in question, which is why Reporters Without Borders and other journalists and non-journalists alike are fighting the wave of Muslim rage.

I’m pretty sure many outraged Muslims will also point to that as the source of their outrage.

But I ask: Would Muslims express an equal amount of outrage had the Prophet been shown in a positive light based on his teachings, perhaps instructing a would-be terrorist not to kill innocents?

Probably not. There might have been some disappointment over the depiction of the Prophet, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near what we’re seeing now.

Thus, the main issue here isn’t the depiction of the Prophet, but rather, the depiction of the Prophet in an incorrect and dishonest manner.

We all know that the principle of free speech is an integral element of a democratic society. Those of us living in democratic societies enjoy that right on a daily basis.

However, no freedom is absolute. There are always limitations and exceptions.

I can express myself by screaming, for as long as I wish, but not to the detriment of my neighbours. Similarly, I can publish whatever I want, as long as I don’t tarnish anyone’s reputation by spreading lies or promote hatred against anyone.

The cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, especially the one with his headdress shaped like a bomb, portray him as a terrorist and portray Islam as a religion of terrorists.

Anyone who is familiar with the life and the teachings of the Prophet knows that he was not a terrorist. He forbade the killing of innocents and even ordered his followers not to kill birds and other living creatures unnecessarily. And even though the Makkans had terrorized him and his followers, he did not retort with the same when he conquered Makkah later on, nor did he let any of the followers terrorize anyone either, even as victors.

While there are groups and individuals who attempt to justify acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, Islam is not a religion of terrorists. If it was, the majority of Muslims throughout history would have been terrorists, which just isn’t the case.

It is clear that the cartoons are slanderous towards Mohammad and they promote hatred. No one likes terrorists and by depicting Mohammad – a symbol of Islam – as a terrorist, the implied message seems to be that Muslims are terrorists and they should thus be hated.

This issue is not about Muslims hating freedom of expression. Rather, it is about the abuse of the freedom to spread hate and fuel stereotypes.

The cartoons are provocative towards a group that has already been victimized as a whole for the actions of a few.

But that’s not the only reason for the outrage.

The level of love and sentimental attachment many Muslims have for and with Mohammad is unparalleled, and may in fact be very difficult to comprehend for non-Muslims.

Think of your dead parents or grandparents that you loved dearly. If someone were to slander them publicly and make a mockery of them, how would you feel? Would you not react angrily and defend them?

For Muslims, their beloved prophet has been slandered and mocked. He is not here to defend himself, so his followers have taken on the task, out of their love and devotion to him.

What we see now is the result of compounded anger, which unfortunately isn’t always expressed in the wisest manner, especially when emotions are running high.

The issue of misrepresentation is an important one. Editorial cartoonists are saying they consider terrorists who use their religion to justify their actions as fair game. But that is not the issue. Hardly anyone would complain if Osama bin Laden was the subject of satire.

The issue is about linking the prophet of God, in a malicious manner, to offensive actions he didn’t commit, promote nor condone.

Publishing and protesting are both forms of expression, and they must both be exercised within reasonable limits.

Muslims are looking for an apology and assurances that the publication of such malicious, unethical works will not become a new trend. At the same time, Muslims need to learn how to contain their emotions and express their displeasure using non-violent means and without making a fool of themselves. There is absolutely no question that a lot of the reaction we are witnessing is reeking with ignorance of the teachings of the very prophet the protesters are claiming to stand up for.

But as long as the incorrect analysis of the issue as a “freedom of expression vs. Islamic stigma” battle remains, I'm afraid the vicious cycle of publications and protests, and more protests and more publications, will continue.


Blogger Webs said...

"Think of your dead parents or grandparents that you loved dearly. If someone were to slander them publicly and make a mockery of them, how would you feel? Would you not react angrily and defend them?"


I don't see Americans attacking and burning Turkish embassies in response to "Valley of the Wolf".

I don't see Jews attacking and burning embassies for any of the dozens or hundreds or thousands of anti-Semitic cartoons that have appeared in Arabic newspapers.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Sikander said...

As I stated, there is absolutely no question that the (over)reaction we are seeing (i.e. burning of embassies, etc.) is one of ignorance and is incorrect.

It cannot be justified and should be condemned.

The anti-Semitic cartoons in Arab papers shouldn't be appearing either.

Call it bullshit or whatever you want, but that is the reason for the reaction. I'm not saying it's right - I'm just trying to help readers understand why such seemingly "harmless" cartoons have caused such an uproar.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Darcy O'Brien said...

11:06 AM  

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