The cartoons of Prophet Muhammad are the latest saga in what must look like endless sources of tension between Muslims and the West. When looking at how this controversy was started and allowed to escalate, and the reactions that it invoked, one struggles not to think that some Muslims and some Westerners are ready to jump at any opportunity to discredit each other and trade insults. Laying all the blame on the West or Muslims would bear little relation to the facts on the ground.In this article, I will try to analyze what happened and offer a view on what I think went wrong. I will discuss the Qur’an’s perspective on this controversy, evaluate the Muslims’ responses in the light of the Qur’an, assess the response of the supporters of the cartoons in the light of their right to freedom of speech, and finally consider how reconciliation and mutual understanding can be reached.
A Qur’anic Perspective
The Qur’an’s perspective on issues raised by the cartoons controversy may be summarized under six points.
First, the Qur’an prohibits Muslims from insulting the objects of worship of other religions, as seen in its command to the early Muslims not to insult the idols that the people of Arabia used to worship:
And do not insult those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they would insult Allah out of ignorance. Thus We have made the deeds of every people look fair to them; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did (6.108).
Insulting and mocking someone’s beliefs is a highly provocative action that can rarely solicit a rational or positive reaction. Even when instructing the Muslims to try to convert the idolatrous Arabs to Islam, God commands the Muslims to use debates and argue their points in the best possible way:
Call [O Muhammad!] to the way of your Lord with Wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner; surely your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He best knows those who follow the right way (16.125).
Second, if Muslims find their beliefs being insulted, they should turn away from the places and gatherings where this is done, until the offensive attacks against their religion is stopped:
And He has revealed to you [O you who believe!] in the Book that when you hear Allah’s verses being disbelieved and ridiculed, do not sit with them (those who do so) until they engage in some other conversation. Otherwise, you would be like them; Allah will gather together the hypocrites and the disbelievers all in hell (4.140).
And when you [O Muhammad!] see those who meddle with Our verses, turn away from them until they engage in some other conversation. And if Satan causes you to forget, then do not sit, after you remember, with the wrongdoing people (6.68).
Note that the Muslim is not told to return the insult with insult or violence, but he is commanded to respond in a completely peaceful manner. He should turn away from those who are trying to provoke him and avoid listening to their insults to his religion. This is not a passive reaction to a serious issue, but it is a positive response that protects the Muslim’s faith and underlines his veneration for the symbols of his religion, and also preserves peace and avoid conflict.
These verses also imply that Muslims should not live in isolation from those who do not share their belief. They should avoid them only if they ridicule and insult Islam, but Muslims should continue to cohabitate with non-Muslims if they stop trying to hurt them.
Third, the practice of ridiculing Prophet Muhammad started from the very first days when he started calling people to Islam:
And when the disbelievers see you [O Muhammad!], they treat you only with mockery, [saying]: “Is this he who speaks of your gods?” And they disbelieve the Remembrance (the Qur’an) of ar-Rahman (Allah) (21.36).
And when they see you [O Muhammad!] , they treat you only with mockery, [saying]: “Is this he whom Allah has sent as a messenger?” (25.41).
The Prophet was continuously berated, reviled, and denigrated. The Qur’an has documented in several verses the different accusations that were leveled at Prophet Muhammad. Some of these charges, which probably mainly came from the polytheistic Arabs, accused Muhammad of basing the Qur’an on confused dreams; making it up; and being merely a poet, a madman, or a soothsayer:
Nay! They (the disbelievers) say: “[The Qur’an is] Medleys of dreams; nay! he has made it up; nay! he is a poet. So let him bring to us a sign as the former [prophets] were sent with” (21.5).
And they (the disbelievers) say: “O you [Muhammad] to whom the Remembrance (the Qur’an) has been revealed! You are a madman” (15.6).
Therefore continue [O Muhammad!] to remind; for by the grace of your Lord, you are not a soothsayer or a madman (52.29).
Another charge was that the Qur’an is a collection of ancient stories that was being taught to and written down for Muhammad by some people:
And they [the disbelievers] say: “[The Qur’an is] stories of the ancients that he [Muhammad] has got them written, as they are read out to him morning and evening” (25.5).
Another verse responds to a specific form of this accusation which claims that the Prophet was being taught by a non-Arab teacher, who was probably Jewish or Christian:
Say [O Muhammad!]: “The Spirit of Holiness [Gabriel] has revealed it [the Qur’an] from your Lord with the truth, that it may establish those who believe and as a guidance and good news for the Muslims (16.102). Certainly We know that they say: “It is a man that teaches him”. The tongue of the man to whom they attribute the Qur’an is foreign, yet this is clear Arabic tongue (16.103).
This particular accusation is likely to have been leveled at the Prophet by Jews and Christians who did not accept that he could have received revelation in the same way that their prophets had done.
There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that told the Prophet or Muslims in general to respond to the accusers with any form of violence.
Fourth, the Qur’an commands the Muslims to revere Prophet Muhammad and love him even more than their family members, as the reverence and love for the Prophet is derived from and feeds into the reverence and love for God:
Say [O Muhammad!]: “If your fathers, sons, brothers, mates, clans, properties which you have acquired, trade whose decline you fear, and dwellings which you like, are dearer to you than Allah, His Messenger, and doing jihad in His way, then wait till Allah brings about His command”; and Allah does not guide the backsliders (9.24).
Say [O Muhammad!]: “If you love Allah, then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your sins”; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (3.31).
While Muslims do not worship the Prophet, and only consider him as a human being who is very close to God, all accept that loving him is an essential part of their practice of Islam.
Fifth, the Qur’an states that the Muslim must revere and believe in all other prophets, not only Muhammad. Rejecting the prophethood of any prophet is equivalent to rejecting the prophethood of Muhammad:
Say [O you who believe!]: “We believe in Allah; and in that which has been sent down to us; and in that which was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the children of Jacob; and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus; and in that which was given to the prophets from their Lord. We do not discriminate between any of them, and to Him we are Muslims (we submit)” (2.136).
Say [O Muhammad!]: “We believe in that which has been sent down to us; and in that which was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the children of Jacob; and in that which was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We do not discriminate between any of them, and to Him we are Muslims (we submit)” (3.84).
This is why Muslims hold prophets such as Moses and Jesus in the highest esteem and would never insult them. It is common practice among Muslims to follow the name of every prophet with the honorific phrase “peace be upon him”.
Sixth, contrary to the belief of many Muslims, the Qur’an does not explicitly prohibit the visual depiction of Prophet Muhammad. Nevertheless, since the early days of Islam Muslims refrained from showing Prophet Muhammad, or in fact any other prophet, in artwork. Sunni Muslims would not depict even his revered companions. Shias do depict their most revered figures after the Prophet, including his cousin and closest companion, Imam ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, but they also do not depict the Prophet. The original reason for this universal consensus on not depicting the Prophet is probably the Qur’an’s censure of the worship of other than God, which is believed to be facilitated by the use of statues, images, and icons. This is why not only Muhammad, but all other prophets are never depicted by Muslims, as they try to avoid a practice they feared could lead some to treat Prophet Muhammad as Christians treated Jesus, i.e. elevate him to divinity. Another, probably later, reason is that Prophet Muhammad is seen as the perfect Muslim, so any visual depiction of him may be seen as violating this perfection.
Let’s look know at the reaction of Muslims to the publication of the cartoons in the light of what the Qur’an says.
The Muslims’ Reaction
The verses above show that the recent defamatory cartoons are nothing other than the latest of countless attacks against Islam and its Prophet which started almost 1400 years ago. What those cartoons and their promoters say is no different from what the idolatrous population of Arabia said 14 centuries ago and what many other opponents of Islam have been saying and doing ever since. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which first published the cartoons in September 2005, and other newspapers that republished them did nothing other than maintain that anti-Islam tradition.
If you look at the publication of the cartoons against this background you would struggle to understand why these specific insults have been given this much attention by Muslims. Of course, the fact that these cartoons continue a centuries long tradition of mocking and defaming Islam, Prophet Muhammad, and Muslims does not give them any legitimacy, but it also in some way shows that there was nothing particularly new about them. The reaction of some Muslims suggests that they have been quite unaware of what has been happening to the image of Islam. There should have not been any sense of surprise, and certainly no shock, at the publication of the cartoons.
What is particularly sad is the violent reaction of some of Muslims, which is completely detached from the teachings of the Qur’an. The Qur’an commands the Muslims to shun those who deliberately insult and ridicule their religion, but some Muslims have rather decided to confront the offenders, and do so in an equally provocative way which can only make the offenders more insolent and insistent on their act. There is absolutely nothing in the Qur’an that gives any Muslim the right to call for the beheading, killing, or physical harming of someone who insults Islam. The Qur’an stresses in many verses how the Prophet himself was being insulted and ridiculed, but there is not a single verse that states that the Prophet or Muslims should attack those offenders. Even the Qur’an’s permission to Muslims to respond to violence with violence came only after 13 years of patient and courageous endurance of all kinds of mistreatment, torture, and killing they were subject to. I have dealt with this issue in more detail in article The Divine Permission for Armed Jihad and other articles that can be found in the Jihad category of articles.
We have seen hundreds and thousands of Muslims attack the Danish and other European embassies in various countries. This is completely unacceptable. The religion that these people claim to represent and defend has never given them the right to do that. Some extremists have demonstrated on the streets of London carrying placards that glorify the 7th/July bombing of London. Islam does not support the glorification of terrorism. Those violent protesters are not true Muslims, and their incitement to murder has nothing to do with Islam. It is instructive that one protestor who dressed up as a suicide bomber turned out to be a convicted drug dealer who was on parole!
Unlike some commentators, I differentiate between violent and emotive reactions, like those cited above, and the economic sanction against Danish products that spread throughout the Muslim world. Muslims have the right to express their outrage at what happened in a peaceful way, and boycotting Danish goods is one of those ways. This is no different from what many interest groups do on a daily basis throughout the democratic world. This is one way for a group of people to make their voice heard. To object to Muslims exercising this right is yet another example of discriminating against them — denying them a right that is given to others. This can only advance the cause of those minority of Muslims who believe that violence is the only means available to them.
It is informative to contrast such limited sanctions with the 13 years long embargo that the West imposed on Iraq. The latter prevented children from getting milk and the ill and weak from getting their medicines, and it killed millions of children, women, and innocent people. May be those who object to the Muslims’ sanction against Danish goods had this embargo on the back of their mind, but surely what the Muslim did has nothing of the cruelty and brutality of the blind sanctions against the people of Iraq. I should also note that regardless of the legality and validity of the grounds on which the sanctions against Iraq were started, they were made to continue for years on the basis of pure lies and misinformation.
Muslims complain, and rightly so, that the West adopts double standards in its dealing with them. They, however, have also to wake up to the fact that they have among them people who are equally involved in double standards. Take for example the burning of the Danish and other embassies. One may argue that the Danish government should have shown more sensitivity and understanding of the feelings of Muslims. In a move that defies any sense, the Danish Prime Minister even refused to meet ambassadors of Muslims countries who requested to discuss with him the escalating issue. But no sensible person would accuse the Danish government of being involved in the publication of the cartoons and the defaming of the Prophet. On the other hand, surely the Taliban government of Afghanistan did so much damage to the image of Islam and Muslims and was directly involved in supporting terrorism under the name of Islam, yet their embassies were not subjected to anything similar to this level of protest for the disservice of Taliban to Islam!
Some protestors also carried banners condemning the freedom of speech. Yet it is this very right that allowed them to voice their anger at the publication of the cartoons. What these protestors should have objected to is not the freedom of expression, but the abuse of this right which they also need and have.
Muslims’ protestation has also confused the issue of the depiction of the Prophet with the way in which he was depicted. Muslims have the right to object to any demeaning depiction of the Prophet, such as the cartoon that showed him as a terrorist carrying on his head a bomb with the Islamic statement of faith written on it. This is clearly offensive, provocative, and inciting. I will discuss this in more detail later. Objecting to any depiction of the Prophet, even if it does not degrade him, is a different matter. Muslims have the right to choose not to depict the Prophet, but whether they have also the right to impose this ban on others is debatable, because it can be seen as an attempt to force their beliefs on someone else.
Let me approach this point from a different angle to illustrate the contradiction in the Muslims’ position. Muslims know that most non-Muslims do not share their belief that Muhammad was the messenger of God. I have already cited examples from the Qur’an about the kind of charges that were leveled at Muhammad. Nothing has changed, and what the population of Arabia claimed at the time is still being claimed today and will continue to be so. Nothing in history suggests that this would change. On religious grounds, accusing Muhammad of being a fake prophet is actually far more serious than depicting him visually. The latter might not imply anything with respect to the verity of the Prophet’s message and his credibility and integrity, but denying Muhammad’s prophethood means that he was a liar, magician, deluded person, and so on. This is surely a bigger attack on the person, integrity, and honor of the Prophet than any neutral depiction of him. This is why those Muslims who object to non-Muslims depicting the Prophet in a non-demeaning way are in contradiction.
A Western Perspective
I will try now to look at the controversy from the Western point of view and judge the actions of the publishers of those cartoons accordingly.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and one of the cornerstones of Western democracy. It signifies the individual’s right to express his views without fear of punishment or retribution. It is this human right that the publishers of the cartoons have been arguing allows them to publish the cartoons. This argument has been applied inaccurately and misleadingly.
The freedom of speech, like any form of freedom, is not a license to say anything as if one has the world for himself and has the right to disregard the effects that what he says may have on other people. I am aware that this argument can cut both ways, and that there would always be a tension between someone’s right to free speech and someone else’s right not to be hurt by that speech. I am not interested in discussing this rather complex issue in abstract terms here, but I would like to show that the publishers of the offensive cartoons understood all too well that freedom of speech is not an absolute right to say anything. In an interview about the cartoons controversy, the editor of Jyllands-Posten stuck to his argument that what he did was nothing more than to exercise his right to freedom of expression. The BBC journalist who was interviewing him, Stephen Sacker, called his bluff by asking him whether he would consider publishing a cartoon of a Jewish rabbi in Nazi uniform. The editor never cited his right to freedom of expression to answer with yes, and chose to dodge the question repeatedly!
The journalist’s question and the failure of the editor to answer it reflect the fact that freedom of expression does not give the person the right to say anything and everything. There are statements that some might find amusing but others see highly offensive or hurtful, and the freedom of expression does not legitimize saying them.
Some in the West have been discussing the cartoons controversy as if Muslims are trying to change the human right of expression by introducing the concept of offensiveness to a world that has never dealt with the term “offensive” before. Every individual and every group of people, including those in the West, have things that they consider offensive. They would be willing to tolerate some of the less offensive things, but they would never tolerate others. In the UK and many other courtiers, the protest of some people at a TV program as being offensive, even if the program did not contain anything that attacks those viewers, could result in it being taken off the screen.
Muslims are not the only group of people who consider some statements and actions as highly offensive and require others not to use them. The failure of Jyllands-Posten’s editor to answer the question clearly shows that he understood this simple fact very well. His failure also exposes his double standards, as he sees that freedom of expression as allowing him to offend some people but not others. There is nothing in the right to speech that discriminates between the feelings of different people. It is the abuse of that right that introduces this pseudo discrimination.
When Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi soldier in a fancy dress party there was near universal condemnation of his “offensive” act, even though he did not do or say anything that glorified what the Nazis did or show disrespect to their victims. Nevertheless, many people felt that what he did was offensive, and he rightly apologized for the hurt he inadvertently caused. The fact that being offensive is wrong and should not be justified under the right to freedom of speech is not an Islamic novelty.
The clever question of the journalist takes me to another important aspect of the offense caused by the cartoons. Cartoons of a Jew in Nazi uniform would have, understandably, hurt the feelings of Jews, but it would not have implied that the Jews themselves did anything wrong. It would not have meant, for instance, that the Jews themselves were like Nazis. The cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, did not only hurt the feelings of Muslims, but were a direct attack on Muslims, their image, and their religion. It does not take a genius to conclude that the cartoon that depicted the Prophet as a terrorist suggests that he is the head of terrorism, and it does not take any more intellect to realize that many people would read this to mean that Muslims in general are terrorists or that they are particularly inclined to terrorism because of their very religion and spiritual guide. This outcome is particularly ensured by the current climate of Islamophobia and misrepresentation of Islam. This makes the cartoons nothing short of being a very effective tool for inciting violence and hatred toward Muslims.
If there is even a hint of justification for publishing the cartoons, and I do not believe there is any, then surely the republication of these offensive images by several European newspapers is nothing other than total provocation and a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims. Additionally, having seen what the publication of these cartoons had already done in terms of straining relationships, outraging people, an even causing many deaths, it is extremely difficult not to think that the publishers have a bad agenda. They are not idiots to think that their reproduction of the cartoons was going to change Muslims’ perception and reaction to them, and I cannot believe that they did not know that this act can only make a bad situation worse.
The publication of the cartoons is an act of abuse, not use, of the right of expression.
Where To Go From Here?
In the cartoons controversy, as is the case in most conflicts, there is always more than one side to the story, and there is not one party that is completely innocent and another that is the epitome of guilt. This latest conflict between Muslims and Westerners was started and fueled by some provocative Westerners, but the reactions of some Muslims were also wrong.
There is a gap of communication and there is mutual cynicism between Muslims and the West. Both sides are applying double standards when dealing with the other, and both are failing to practice what they preach. Westerners are offended, and rightly so, by the scene of a protestor mimicking a suicide bomber. But they have to accept that Muslims have also the right to feel offended by a cartoon that depicts their Prophet as a terrorist. Muslims have to be sensitive to the feelings of non-Muslims, whether in Europe or elsewhere, but equally no one in Europe has the right to tell Muslims what they should consider offensive. If Muslims choose to show utmost reverence for Prophet Muhammad, consider him closer to them even than their family members, and see any attack on him as if it was an attack on their most loved ones, then that is their right and no one should be allowed to interfere with this right. In the same way that Muslims do not have the right to impose their own values and beliefs on others, others do not have the right to impose theirs on Muslims.
Many in the West seem to confuse democracy with moral authority. They behave as if they have the moral high ground in their perceived conflict with Muslims, particularly as most of the latter live in non-democratic counties and many of them who live in Western democracies have yet to learn how to utilize democratic institutions. One major mistake that many Westerners make is to think that democracy cannot be abused. Recent and past history has shown that regimes that are fully democratic within their borders can treat other countries as despotically as the worst dictators. The USA and Britain, for instance, have given themselves the right to decide what happens in some Muslim countries. Surely, the USA and Britain can help those countries learn from their democratic experiences, but their behavior is often nothing short of colonialism and dictatorship masquerading as a campaign to spread democracy. Many Muslims saw in the approach of the West to the cartoons controversy a strong reminder of this abuse of democracy to treat them dictatorially.
Muslims must also take their share of responsibility for the growing gap between them and the West. Muslims who live in the West have a particularly important role to play in building bridges between Muslims and Westerners. But when some European Muslims go on London’s streets to glorify terrorism against the West, we should not be surprised that the Muslims in Islamic countries do not contribute anything positive and constructive to the much needed dialog and understanding between the West and Islam. Those Western Muslims who do not like what is being done to the name of Islam in the West have two options: shun the West and go elsewhere, or respond to any black propaganda in a positive and peaceful way, making full use of the democratic institutions and the law of the land. If these Muslims have learned anything from living in the West, then they need to show that, and they need to convey this learning to fellow Muslims who have not had the opportunity of experiencing a different culture and living in a democracy.
Most of the time Muslims and the West seem to be locked in battle of moral supremacy. Enough self-indulgence and the addictive drug of looking in the mirror. We all need to learn to be aware and respectful of the others, at least as much as we are aware and respectful of ourselves. We have to first accept that we need to learn from each other, and we then need to learn how to do that. In a changing world whose distant parts are getting increasingly closer to each other, mutual understanding and tolerance are our only option.
Copyright © 2006 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved
A very good article! However,I don’t think the consensus on not depicting the Prophet has always been completely universal. At least medieval Islamic manuscripts seem to contain pictures of him, sometimes veiled, sometimes not.