Story by Chris Graham
It has been described as a cartoon controversy. But the issue involving the drawings depicting the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper last fall is a lot more than that.
“I liken this to a stovetop, and the pots are at a rolling boil right now in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Libya, Iran, Syria, the UK and in lots of other places. Well, those pots were already simmering on the stovetop long before the cartoons appeared, and so it is somewhat deceiving to depict the demonstrations and riots as purely responses to a cartoon,” said Timothy Gianotti, a professor of Islamic philosophy and theology at the University of Virginia.
The boiling reaction of Muslims to the publication of the cartoons – which have appeared in newspapers worldwide in recent weeks since their first appearance in September – has led to 19 deaths in the past month in demonstrations in Europe and the Middle East.
That the protests have taken on a more generally anti-Western and even specifically an anti-American tone is perhaps a sign of the times that we live in.
“This is not just about a cartoon. This is not just a cartoon controversy,” Gianotti told The Augusta Free Press. “This is part of a much larger historical evolution – at least to Muslims a continuation of the colonial period. This is not just about a cartoon. This is about the whole conglomeration of issues that are coming to a head with the publication of this cartoon and then the defiant republication of the cartoon in France and other places.”
The violence associated with demonstrations overseas has yet to appear in the United States – where Muslim leaders have been urging restraint on the part of the faithful.
“We do not condone the violence which has erupted in many Muslim countries,” said Ehsan Ahmed, the secretary general of the Harrisonburg-based Islamic Association of the Shenandoah Valley.
“We believe that Muslims around the world must follow the example of Prophet Muhammad, who was compassionate and man of mercy,” Ahmed said.
“During his lifetime, when he was insulted or encountered offensive behavior, he did not respond with rage or violence. Instead he taught his followers to respond with mercy and best behavior,” Ahmed told the AFP.
That isn’t to say that the American Islamic community hasn’t been impacted at all by the images that have stirred up passions across the globe.
“The global community should not allow people to humiliate the sacred and religious values and dignity of any people in the name of freedom of expression, and should assure respect for the beliefs and religions for all, even if they are of other religions or ideologies,” said Amer A. Al-Zubaidi, a minister at the Roanoke-based Kufa Center of Islamic Knowledge.
“There is no place in this world for racism and prejudice. Unity and avoidance of sectarian and ethnic differences should be strongest goal of Muslims, so that they might prevent people from indulging into extravagance and immoderation, and bring the human-self under the control of reason and the law,” Al-Zubaidi told the AFP.
The more peaceful reaction to the controversy in the States could be due in part at least to the decisions of editorial leaders at all but a few major American newspapers against republishing the cartoons.
That approach has not exactly been met with universal praise by media watchers – whose criticisms have ranged from concerns about the implications on press freedoms to others that question whether the news media has allowed itself to be backed into a corner out of fear.
“I think that they’re just scared. They’re intimidated,” said Cliff Kincaid, the editor of the conservative Accuracy in Media Report.
“They feel that if they publish these cartoons, they will offend Muslims, causing more demonstrations, perhaps even riots. And that some of their own journalists may be targeted. I think that is, frankly, what explains it,” Kincaid told the AFP.
Robert O’Neil, the director of the Charlottesville-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, focuses less on the fear factor and more on the relative wisdom of showing voluntary restraint.
“Some may have assumed that there could have been some potential liability. I think that is most unlikely. My assumption is that they were acting voluntarily and chose not to run them on two separate grounds – one, the fact that you have a free-speech or free-press right to say or to print something doesn’t mean that you need to exercise it, and two, that there is a sense that it may actually be undermined if you exercise it in a way that creates consequences and makes it harder to exercise it in the future,” O’Neil said.
“There may even be a kind of perverse argument that as a matter of policy your free-press interests are stronger if you don’t push it to the limit,” O’Neil said.
“There almost certainly would have been consequences if that had been the more common action on the part of editors. For that reason, I think the policy of not pushing it to the limit has some considerable value,” O’Neil told the AFP.
And that is true even outside the bounds of journalistic standards and practices.
“Although we as Muslims hold freedom of speech as one of the unalienable rights of human beings, we believe that press has the utmost responsibility to exercise restraint when it comes to the basic beliefs of human beings,” Ahmed said.
“We also believe that Muslims must use restraints in reacting to these cartoons and use educational methods to teach fellow human beings about Islam,” Ahmed said.
“We must lead by example of mercy and forgiveness, a trait every Muslim must have by very definition of being a follower of Islam,” Ahmed said.