Sunday, March 05, 2006

Finally some sense in the cartoon crap

The Cartoon Controversy
Understanding Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons
by Kristin E. Johnson

As television newscasters were reporting every night for weeks back in April 2002 on the story of Israeli troops surrounding Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the Franciscan Monks who had given asylum and shelter to some militant and some civilian Palestinians I barely glanced up from my microwaved Lean Cuisine dinner each evening.

The only reason I was aware of these events at all was because my good friend Madian Khouly would urgently tell me what was happening at the site of Jesus’ birth. It was important to him and he thought it should be important to me, since I am a Catholic. Madian is in his mid-thirties and owns the computer store where I get all my techno-gadgets. He comes from a Palestinian family but grew up in Kuwait. He is a Muslim.

I wasn’t the only Catholic person that Madian confronted with the news happening in Bethlehem. He had left his busy store in the middle of the workday to visit nearby businesses and restaurants where he had Christian friends to tell them the shocking story of what happened to the Church of the Nativity. He believed the idea of people being killed and damage being done to such a sacred place would make us feel something like the kind of sadness and pain that we all felt on September 11. But Madian was shocked to see the distracted and even apathetic reactions he received from almost every Western Christian that he spoke with.

I Do Not Understand

He was confused at why Western Christians wouldn’t at least express some outrage. "I can’t believe how much the Christians here don’t care about what is happening in their holy place" he told me. "Forgive me, it is like someone came into a man’s house and raped the man’s wife and the man didn’t even do anything to stop it and then he didn’t even cry. I do not understand how you people think."

Sadly, nearly four years later, the situation has been reversed. This time twelve little pictures—the Mohammed cartoons—are at the center of the battle. More than four months ago a Danish newspaper published twelve editorial cartoons to satirize the Muslim belief that making artistic representations of Mohammed, the central prophet of the Islamic faith, is a shameful and forbidden act. The editor said he was taking a stand for freedom of speech and against self-censorship. The cartoons themselves express a number of ideas, from teasing the newspaper itself for a shameless publicity stunt to inflammatory insults against the religion of Islam and Mohammed, the likes of which most folks would recognize as outright bigotry if some other religion or ethnic group had been the target of the cartoons’ taunts (see sidebar).
We here in the West are bewildered at the way adherents to Islam throughout the world have reacted. We watch in wonderment as Muslims are still causing riots around the world in furious and often deadly protests over these twelve little cartoons. "Why would you let a bunch of silly pictures bother you so much?” many of us in the West wish we could just ask them. “People say mean and hateful things about each other all the time. Why choose this as a reason for so much conflict? I do not understand how you people think."

An Attempt at Translation

As an immigration attorney I have spent the last four years helping clients from other countries understand how to follow our laws and how to live together peacefully with their new neighbors in the United States. In particular, a large portion of my work has been with the local Muslim communities in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama and surrounding areas. When a mosque wants to sponsor a religious teacher, a Muslim school principal or even an Islamic burial minister to live and work with them in America, I guide them through the legal process and I also explain to immigration officials how each religious worker's job is connected to authentic Muslim religious practice. In short, my job is to explain Western ways to the Muslims on one hand, and to explain Islamic traditions to American government workers on the other hand.

When the turmoil erupted over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, I knew that my Muslim friends and neighbors would be deeply affected, not only by the cartoons themselves, but also by the tremendous violence being committed in the name of Islam all over the world. Last week I dropped in unannounced on three of my Muslim friends at their places of business to discuss the controversy. My intention was just to set a later appointment with each of them so we could sit down and talk, but as soon as they heard what I wanted without exception each of them immediately and generously interrupted their busy day to speak with me. I was surprised at how very deeply they wanted Westerners to hear them and understand their true feelings about the cartoons, the protests and the significance of Mohammed to them as their prophet.

Insult and Injury

"I can't tell you how glad I am that somebody finally wants to listen to us” said Madian who, though he was understaffed at his computer store, dropped what he was doing on two large computer projects to talk with me. “I have been writing letters to the editor to so many newspapers and trying to call the discussion shows on the radio, but it seems like no one wants to hear how we Muslims in America really feel."

"Those cartoons made our prophet look so ugly" said Madian. "They are making him look like a terrorist and this is not right…why do they think our holy prophet looks anything like that horrible Osama bin Laden?" The fact that Mohammed is portrayed in a negative light is offensive to Muslims but the very fact that the Danish newspaper undertook to portray the founder of Islam in pictures at all is considered to be an insult as well.

Farid Ali, an Egyptian who operates the fast-food counter on the first floor of my office building, missed some sales to potential customers during the busy dinner rush at his restaurant in order to explain his feelings. "If you know some people really love somebody like the Prophet Mohammed so much, what reason can there be for hurting his image with some cartoons? This is not right."

Love for Mohammed

Mr. Ali, however, prefers a completely different response to the provocation. He supports the efforts of an Islamic televangelist from Egypt who preaches that even though publishing the images was wrong, the best response for Muslims is not violence or even a trade boycott (a non-violent but lesser-known protest which is perhaps more widespread than the mob violence but has received less coverage is a boycott of Danish products by Muslim countries and by individual Muslims). Instead the Egyptian cleric proposes that Muslims reach out to the Danish people and explain to them what they really believe their prophet is like and to share their faith with them peacefully.

Dr. Hisham Hakim, a neurologist from Syria, made himself late for his important meeting so that he could make clear his love for Mohammed. "The true Islamic spirit calls Muslim people to love our prophet more than our families, children parents, and even more than ourselves” he said. “I think that Danish newspaper understood this and the insult they were making to our religion. If their motives were naive, they would have made a true apology by now, but they do not apologize." The newspaper's publishers have issued a statement that they are sorry that Muslims felt offended, but they have not backed down from their argument that "freedom of speech" justifies the Mohammed cartoons.

Brewing Tension

The turmoil over the Mohammed cartoons has brought the undercurrents of conflict between two very different cultures to the forefront of public life. Tensions between Western Europeans and Muslim immigrants working in Denmark and other countries have been brewing for a long time. Muslim workers feel they face discrimination in the workplace and public places and that they are forced to live in dangerous slums and ghettos. The Mohammed cartoons did more than add insult to injury for them; to them the Mohammed cartoons were a declaration that Muslims shall not get even the basic human respect in Denmark or anywhere in Europe.

Of course the violent protests happening in Muslim countries that are otherwise unconnected to the cartoons’ publication also have their basis in the political motives of those who have or want to get power in places like India, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. These powerful elites would prefer their people to be distracted—venting their anger and unrest over the Mohammed cartoons rather than the poor conditions in their own country and the failures of their government. Still others have used the uproar for a fiery publicity stunt of their own, such as the Pakistani cleric who offered one million dollars to anyone who kills the man that drew the cartoons (he doesn’t even seem to know that there were twelve cartoonists).

Self-Censorship or Basic Respect?

Ultimately, however, Muslims around the world are outraged because they sense that the Mohammed cartoons are intended to injure them. Their publication causes many of them to feel real pain for the religion that they love. This is the hardest part for us Westerners to understand. Publishing caricatures of Mohammed—especially in the social and political climate that exists in Denmark—is comparable to referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. using the "N-word" in the United States. The reason why most people in our country refrain from even speaking that word is not "self-censorship" or fear of reprisal from the black community, but rather out of basic human respect and the hurt that using the term would cause.

"Freedom of speech is not an excuse to take someone else’s religion and step on it” said Madian Khouly. “We are upset because those cartoons are hurting something we love so much and treating it like it is not sacred. It is a hurt and a pain for us for real. It has been so hard to find anyone who will listen and really understand how we feel."

A Response to the Cartoon Controversy
A Danish reader offers some perspective
by David M.

I was randomly surfing the web when I found your article on the Mohammed cartoons and, though it did offer insight into the Muslim thinking, I have to admit that I found the point to be without insight into what has actually caused the situation in the first place.
I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. I am a Dane. I am a Christian, and I did not enjoy those cartoons. However, anyone from the Danish culture, would interpret them differently than you did. Which is why I thought you might find the background story interesting.


You probably already know, that what started the whole ordeal was a man who wanted to make an informative book about Islam for children. Harmless? No, because he wanted cartoons in it...that belongs in children’s books.

In our culture however, lately we have had many incidents, of an extreme Islamic subculture who openly oppose the Danish values of equality, and freedom (speech, religion, etc). The main group behind this is called Hith ub Tahir, whose purpose and goal (according to themselves) is to have Sharia laws (Islamic laws based on the Koran) in Denmark. We have had attacks motivated by racists with religious motives from these groups, and since the Muslim subculture stays separate from the Danish culture...well, I am sure that you can guess what fear and ignorance that leads to on both sides.

Anyway, the cartoonist, fearing reprisals refused to make these drawings.
Making the drawings in the first place, may seem unnecessarily cruel for people outside the Danish culture, but (and this may sound weird, but keep in mind that Danish culture, and humor is built around irony and sarcasm) making fun of things is a tradition. The Danish church, and Christianity, and my savior have certainly not been spared. However, out of fear, Muslims have been spared.

Raising Discussion

The man who wrote the book was very offended by this because there should be no need of fearing reprisals. It does not belong in a free country. (Also, keep in mind that Theo Van Gogh was killed on an open street in Holland by an extremist for making a movie that dealt with people who use the Koran to justify beating their wives--this still had many in shock). He told a newspaper about his problem and the newspaper thought that this was worth raising a discussion over--hence, the 12 drawings. If you do some research you will quickly find that this way of raising discussions on matters from politics, to state church, have been used many times in Denmark.

Personally, I found the cartoons to be unnecessary. The idea was to raise a discussion about Muslim extremism and violence. I do not fully understand the reaction, but I try my best to show sympathy, and understanding.

The newspaper cannot issue a complete apology, because this would be as if they are saying that it is ok to threaten people with violence and the like. They did however issue a statement of intent which says very clearly that the intention was not to hurt Muslims, and they apologized for doing so.

Personal Danger

As a Christian, I have been the victim of things far worse than this, even from Muslims. Especially now when the winds of this ordeal are still blowing strong, I have nearly gotten my butt kicked by angry Muslims who reasoned like this: this is a Dane…it was a Danish newspaper who printed these cartoons...lets kill him. (fortunately I escaped, but only thanks to a taxi).

Many Muslim countries have for years made fun of Jews and Christians with cartoons and they have every right, regardless of how distasteful I find it.
I realize that it’s hard to understand for outsiders. It’s another culture, and hence it may not make sense to Americans, or Muslims (who have a very different outlook and culture), but I believe this to be a major cultural misunderstanding. At least all the Danish Muslims friends that I have understand this point.

Reconciliation Now

Sorry to be so long...I hope that you did not get the picture that I was mad or offended or anything. Really, I am not. I just think that Danish people as well as Muslim people should try understand each other’s culture better. Ignorance and closed subcultures and racism never leads to anything good. But I don’t believe that any one side is to blame.

The paper did have a point however as we can see from the reactions. European people were kidnapped, and almost killed (until they found out that they where not Danish). Everywhere, European people are shocked to find that the Muslim people they thought were so well integrated now scream for blood and reprisals. This leads to fear, and fear leads to anger, and so on.

From the Muslim side, it’s the same thing. Hurt feelings leads to hate (as seen on CNN almost daily). Just imagine what this can ignite.

Danish people (and I mean all Danish people, Muslims, Christians, Atheists etc.) have started a campaign called Reconciliation Now. Regardless of what people thought of the cartoons, this movement is for everyone who wanted to work for understanding between cultures.
I long to see a similar incentive from Muslim countries.

David M, 21, is currently in Slovenia studying for his degree in marketing management. His permanent residence is just outside Copenhagen in the city of Greve. He is a member of the Church of the Nazarene in Denmark. He requested that his last name be withheld for security reasons.

I would like to be the first to give my praise for the anonymous "David the Dane" for showing the counter-position. We in the West have this whole "multiculturalist" attitude, which more often than not devolves into the right to free speech... unless it is a minority who takes violent exception to it. The idea that the cartoons were "in bad taste" is personal taste.

Homestly I think the whole incident shows why multiculturalism has been essentially a Judeo-Christian institution. The Islamic response shows me that the cartoonist had a great point. It's very much his right to insult whoever he feels like. We have absolutely no prerogative to make the catoonist(s) stop doing what they're doing. It's absolutely impossible to live in a multicultural society without developing a thick skin. God knows that Christians are insulted every day of the week, and in much more substantial and public media than a fringe paper in Denmark. Yet, more often than not, we do not begin burning embassies and street harassment. We understand those to be the rules of the game. If Islam is to be assimilated into our culture, they also will have to develop thick skins.

You don't actually have free speech unless you're willing to empower even those who hate you to speak their mind. Certainly we can agree to stop physical aggression, and I doubt that the cartoonists would disagree, but you have every right to insult those who you feel like. One of the (often few) things which makes me happy to be an American is that our Bill of Rights doesn't read "you have the right to free speech... unless you want to put down someone you don't like and thereby hurt some feelings or, worse, cause a stir." And, incidentally, I find it telling that much of the violence has been against Christians (such as in Pakistan) and Americans, whereas the cartoons were associated with a nation that has strained relations with the US and a very secular mentality. The irony never ends.

If we now truly live in a society where cartoons can be so offensive that we begin to alter our perceptions of free speech to avoid consequences for our principles whereas the bombing of Churches and accosting of unassociated nationals calls for "understanding of position", God help us all.

If we now truly live in a society where cartoons can be so offensive that we begin to alter our perceptions of free speech to avoid consequences for our principles whereas the bombing of Churches and accosting of unassociated nationals calls for "understanding of position", God help us all.



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