Muslim-Americans defend free speech, despite blasphemous' cartoons

Omar Sacirbey

Cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and misogynist have offended Muslims in the United States as they have Muslims worldwide. But the debate raging among Muslim-Americans on college campuses, the Internet and in Islamic media has its own unique flavor because of this country's constitutional commitment to free speech.

American Muslims are adamant in their support of exercising their First Amendment right to protest the drawings through boycotts and other peaceful means, but many are embarrassed by the torching of European embassies in the Middle East and other forms of violence that have accompanied some demonstrations.

Because the cartoons constitute what he considers hate speech, the issue is not "black and white," said Junaid Ahmad, a student at the College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe Law School in Williamsburg, Va., who is active in national Muslim organizations.

"This is not just a matter of being for freedom of speech and against freedom of speech," Ahmad said. "The first thing we should realize is that Muslims don't accept the basic framework. The principal issue here is not freedom of speech but the Islamophobic context in which such a caricaturing of the prophet is taking place. I think that's the issue here."

Nevertheless, Ahmad said he was against laws restricting such speech.

"You can't give the state too much power. It's better to fight hate not through laws but education and community organizing and activism."

The Council on American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and other American Muslim groups have condemned the violent reactions to the cartoons and have urged Muslims to protest peacefully, write letters or take part in boycotts.

"As a Muslim, I can understand the emotional intensity of the issue, however, responding through violence does not uphold the dignity of our faith," said Mahdi Bray, head of the civil rights bureau of the Washington-based Muslim American Society, in a statement following a meeting with Denmark's ambassador to Washington. "Burning buildings and throwing bricks is definitely not the answer. Muslims united and using their economic leverage, now that's something the world can respect."

While Muslim-Americans disagree over reactions to the cartoons, a consensus seems to have emerged that the cartoons crossed a line that demand some type of response.

"On the legal level and from an Islamic perspective, people have a choice," said Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary-general of the Indianapolis-based Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the United States. "I don't expect my neighbor to have the same reverence about the Prophet Muhammad.

"All that we are expecting is that they don't insult a personality that's made such a historical contribution. This is more a responsibility of living in a pluralistic society than a question of legal restrictions."

Imam Mohamed Magid, executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Northern Virginia, said while he understood Islamic offense at the cartoons, Muslims would be better off protesting defamations against the faith perpetrated by their co-religionists.

"Prophet Muhammad is offended every day when somebody blows themselves up in a marketplace in Iraq. He's offended whenever somebody is beheaded. Prophet Muhammad would have opposed the burning of these embassies, or calls to kill Danes or other people," Magid said. "You can't be untouchable and then call other people infidel."

Watching the Muslim indignation at caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad spill over into outbursts of anger and violence, I find myself, an American Muslim woman, 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, actions that would seem to prove that the cartoonists' depictions are not so far from truth?

During his life, Prophet Muhammad was revered by many, but there were some who resisted his teachings. He was insulted and cursed, at times physically assaulted, and yet, he did not return insult for insult, attack for attack.

Rather, he asked God to forgive the people who harassed him, much as Jesus asked God to forgive his tormentors.

His example of forbearance is in keeping with the Quran, which advises Muslims, "Keep to forgiveness and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant" (7:199). Clearly, those Muslims who threatened the cartoonists with murder, and those who set fire to embassies, have betrayed these injunctions and abandoned the prophet's example.

To me, that is a greater insult to the prophet they claim to follow than a few offensive drawings, especially as people who know little of the prophet's true character and history attribute their violence to him.

Furthermore, 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" (2:256) and "To you your way, to me mine" (109:6) lay out Islam's cardinal tenet of tolerance and make it clear that non-Muslims are not expected to follow Islam's religious rules.

Even though many Muslims believe Islam prohibits portrayals of the prophet, protests of blasphemy are misplaced as the Danish, non-Muslim cartoonists aren't bound by Islam's rules.

Having said that, I must also say that the drawings are indeed deeply offensive, not so much for the mere fact that they portrayed Prophet Muhammad, but because some of them 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 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 cartoon 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.

Similarly, if people are going to publish offensive items, they must accept our right to express our distaste, our disagreement, and our outrage. No people can be expected to sit by quietly while the central figure of their religion is defamed.

While we defend the right to freedom of expression, we must use that right responsibly. Protests must be peaceable. And there are items that, rightfully, no editor should publish, particularly ones that foster hatred and bigotry.

Could a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb turban or with devil horns reinforce hatred for him and his followers? Could it provoke a dialogue exploring the root causes of the violence that has ripped through the edges of Muslim society, threatening to plunge us all into chaos? Publishing confrontational and defamatory cartoons in the tinderbox that is modern Europe was akin to crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater. If it's not illegal, it certainly wasn't very responsible.

Pamela K. Taylor is co-chair of the Progressive Muslim Union and director of the Islamic Writers Alliance.

Published February 11, 2006, Jackson Sun

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