Mohammed cartoons: No one is right

Twelve people died in Afghanistan in the past week during Muslim-led protests against selected Danish newspaper cartoons. From Damascus to Copenhagen, Jakarta to Montreal, a number of Muslims have participated in protests against what they believe are offensive cartoons, originally published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

If something angers such a large number of people, it may be useful to step back and ask why? Just what is it about a handful of black-and-white cartoons that motivates people to protest and burn flags, effigies or embassies, leading to the death of 12 people?

Step inside almost any mosque in any part of the world: you are certain never to see visual depictions of Prophet Muhammad. Whereas depictions of Jesus and Mary are often found inside churches, images of Islam’s notable figures are never found in mosques and very rarely exist in Muslim literature. Islam is strictly monotheistic: while it regards individuals such as Muhammad and Jesus in high esteem, their images are rarely shown, predominantly out of the belief that people would start worshipping them rather than God.

The Danish editorial cartoons offend many Muslims on multiple levels. One cartoon depicted Prophet Muhammad informing suicide bombers that heaven had run out of virgins, and another depicts him wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. Many Muslims believe that, by extension, the cartoons associate all Muslims with terrorism. Three years ago, the Danish newspaper at the core of this issue rejected publishing cartoons of Jesus Christ, based upon the reason that they might be offensive.

There are a few ironies here. A number of the Muslim-led protests turned violent. The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus were burned. Images of some Muslims burning effigies, issuing kidnapping threats, and rampaging through streets collectively seem to reinforce the Danish cartoons’ message. The actions committed by some Muslims appear to corroborate, not contradict, the cartoonists’ message.

There is another irony here. Muslims who were offended because of what they believe to be media demonizations, may now find themselves in a position to appreciate some of the pain felt by non-Muslims (especially Jews) who are regularly caricatured in a number of state-controlled media outlets in Muslim countries.

As a Muslim, I am personally offended by those cartoons. Simultaneously, I reject the violent nature of many of the Muslim-led protests. Everyone possesses the right to participate in peaceful protests. We each possess a right to practice freedom of expression (something incidentally that is sorely lacking in many Muslim societies). By committing acts of violence, ostensibly to ‘defend’ the Prophet, a small group of Muslims have distorted the true meanings of Islam and reinforced the worst stereotypes against all Muslims. These stereotypes were already exacerbated in a post-9/11 climate. No one does their faith any service by committing violent acts in its name.

When Muslims claim to be ‘defending’ Prophet Muhammad by reacting violently, issuing kidnapping threats, and burning foreign embassies, then somewhere along the line, we have lost the true teachings of the very Prophet we claim to be defending. A more effective response from Muslims to the cartoons would have been to launch a ‘cultural offensive’ across Europe: organize public seminars, talks, and exhibitions on Islam, invite prominent intellectuals across the religious spectrum to discuss Islamic issues, hold open houses in mosques, and invite non-Muslims to explore a faith that is so badly misrepresented in western media. This would have been more in alignment with the Quranic injunction to “Invite to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious…” (16.125)

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