Monday, February 18, 2008

Much Ado About Something Old

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) February 18, 2008 - A new round of controversy and incendiary violence is sweeping both Europe and the Muslim world. The subject being, once again, the publication of cartoon images of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that are regarded by many in the Muslim community as blasphemous.

None of this, of course, is new. We experienced the same thing, and literally the same images, two years ago - but the renewed episode of image-bashing came into play by the exposure of what has been characterized as death threats made against a Danish editor, presumably by Muslims of "extremists" who reacted to the first cartoon episode.

European publications, including an evangelical Christian paper in Denmark, launched the new visual salvo against Islam as an apparent act of solidarity with the editor, and with what is generally understood to be a free press and the right of freedom of expression.

In retaliation, Muslim youth have torched cars and neighborhoods in Copenhagen, and a firestorm of protests in the Muslim world is calling for renewed boycotts of Danish products and the dismissal of the Danish Ambassador to Pakistan. Reportedly, both Saudi Arabia and Libya have also recalled their ambassadors from Denmark.

Here we go again.

So what, are the lessons to be (re)-learned from the latest round of cartoon publications?

Here are my thoughts:

The first lesson, quite literally, is that there are many people who actually love to throw rocks at Muslims, and who revel in the blanket mischaracterization of Muslims as being violent, treacherous, and evil - misrepresentations that won't disappear because we dislike and revile them.

The second lesson, and a corollary to the first truth, is that, by pouring gasoline on this fire, we (as Muslims) only succeed in burning ourselves - while adding legitimacy to the notion that Muslims are incapable of responding to injury or controversy without taking up the sword of revenge. (This is, of course, the calculated effect of publicizing these provocations to begin with - make an inflammatory public image of Prophet Muhammad, let Muslims riot in response, and watch them demonstrate for all to see, just how incorrigibly violent and extreme the world of Islam really is.)

But the third lesson is a lesson on the opportunity we miss to respond to these vile images in a different way.

We don't need to burn cars or neighborhoods in Europe, or retaliate by publishing our own versions of racialized stereotypes aimed at Europeans, or often-times, Jews. The better response to this would be to join with Muslims and numerous interfaith allies in demanding an end to all derogatory and inflammatory religious images - not because people are not free to display or publish them, but because it is not morally justified to do so.

In 2007, MAS Freedom stood with leaders of the Catholic League, a conservative Catholic organization in America, in their denunciation of the public display of a chocolate sculpture that depicted - and some say, ridiculed - the image of Jesus. We did not demand the burning of museums to protest the display, rather, we recognized the constitutional protection given to free speech and artistic freedom of expression and called for a greater public understanding, and respect, for religious images.

The Prophet Muhammad, may peace be unto him, faced similar scorn and rebuke during his lifetime. Even his mosque was defiled by someone who urinated in it. But instead of demanding that the offender be assaulted, or killed, the Prophet used the incident to educate the man about the nature of better sanitation, and respect for the house of Allah.

Our detractors and haters are guided by a passionate aversion to Islam, laced with deep ignorance about the diversity of Muslim life and culture, and violent responses within the Muslim community will not deter them from what they say, draw, or publish.

But our organized, and nonviolent, responses to them might well demonstrate that Muslims, when guided by the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, can claim a moral high-ground that is a better, more reasonable, and strategically more effective place from which we can - with our allies in the interfaith community - defend the integrity of our faith.

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