Crazy over Cartoons

Crazy over Cartoons
A privately owned Danish newspaper with a circulation of 150,000 published 12 crude cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light, most notoriously as a turbaned terrorist. That was in September 2005. Hardly anyone beyond Denmark noticed them. Then suddenly European newspapers in Germany, France, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland decided that the cartoons were a litmus test for freedom of press and began reprinting them. The right to blaspheme, one German newspaper declared, is a fundamental freedom of democracy. A French newspaper wrote that democratic and secular societies must not be awed or intimidated by any religious dogma and that even God must remain fair game for caricature.

True, but does gratuitous assault on religious sensibilities serve any purpose, other than inflaming religious passions and forcing a bogus showdown between what some pundits pompously call “Islam versus the West?” Where is the journalists’ responsibility? If the media want to start a debate between the conflicting demands of the secular and the sacred, between self-censorship and the right to speak or write one’s mind – and it is an important debate – certainly it can be done more intelligently than by mocking religious icons. As Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote, caricatures of Prophet Muhammad might not be the best starting point for a constructive dialogue.

But if European newspapers displayed errors of judgment or engaged in deliberate provocations, the violent Muslim reaction in the West Bank and Gaza, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Indonesia and other Muslim countries was worse. Peaceful street demonstrations, recalling ambassadors, cutting off trade ties and pulling products off grocery shelves are legitimate ways of showing displeasure but issuing bomb threats against diplomatic personnel, sacking offices and setting foreign embassies ablaze are utterly unjustifiable, unacceptable and most tellingly, un-Islamic. Peaceful disagreement is a tenet of any civilized society and in that sense Muslim mobs have blown it, however difficult it may be for us to acknowledge. We must wean ourselves from the romance of violence, or the radicals will continue to bury any progress made by the moderates.

To their credit, imams in Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia and other countries as well Muslim leaders in Denmark and France have condemned the violence and warned Muslims not to allow the radicals and the misguided in their midst to distort the image of Islam. The most important question Muslims can ask in this context is: What would the Prophet have done? Numerous instances from his life show that the Prophet would never have approved of the Muslim violence spawned by the cartoons. The Quran makes this clear when it asks the Prophet to “show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant.” (7:199) President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, where eight protestors have already died, echoed this Quranic teaching when he asked the Afghan people to forgive those responsible for the cartoons. “We must have as Muslims the courage to forgive and not make it an issue of dispute between religions or cultures,” he said.

Please visit Hasan Zillur Rahim’s website at