The Cartoon Controversy

Understanding Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons

As television newscasters were reporting every night for weeks back in April 2002 on the story of Israeli troops surrounding Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the Franciscan Monks who had given asylum and shelter to some militant and some civilian Palestinians I barely glanced up from my microwaved Lean Cuisine dinner each evening.

The only reason I was aware of these events at all was because my good friend Madian Khouly would urgently tell me what was happening at the site of Jesus’ birth. It was important to him and he thought it should be important to me, since I am a Catholic. Madian is in his mid-thirties and owns the computer store where I get all my techno-gadgets. He comes from a Palestinian family but grew up in Kuwait. He is a Muslim.

I wasn’t the only Catholic person that Madian confronted with the news happening in Bethlehem. He had left his busy store in the middle of the workday to visit nearby businesses and restaurants where he had Christian friends to tell them the shocking story of what happened to the Church of the Nativity. He believed the idea of people being killed and damage being done to such a sacred place would make us feel something like the kind of sadness and pain that we all felt on September 11. But Madian was shocked to see the distracted and even apathetic reactions he received from almost every Western Christian that he spoke with.

Words on Pictures

Below is a brief description of each of the twelve cartoons published by the Danish newspaper:

(1) A caricature of the newspaper’s own editor wearing a turban and holding up a stick drawing of a bearded man with a turban. An orange with the words “PR Stunt” drops down onto the editor’s head.

(2) A schoolboy wearing blue jeans and a striped shirt points to a chalkboard. On the chalkboard is a message that the newspapers’s staff is “a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.”

(3) A witness looking at a police lineup states that he cannot identify Mohammed because he doesn’t know what he looks like. One of the figures in the lineup is presumably Mohammed, but he is joined by Jesus, Buddha, the newspaper’s editor and some political figures.

(4) A bearded face to represent Mohammed, with the Islamic symbols of a star and crescent enveloping the face.

(5) Mohammed standing with a crescent acting as his halo.

(6) A cartoonist feverishly sketching the face of Mohammed (who looks a lot like Osama bin Laden) and checking behind his back to see if someone is coming to hurt him.

(7) An angry-faced Mohammed with a walking stick leading a donkey through the desert (this cartoon resembles an often-shown video clip of Osama bin Laden walking with a stick)

(8) A bulbous-nosed Mohammed in an opulent palace telling assassins who carry guns, swords and bombs to relax. After all, he tells them, it is just a sketch by an unbelieving Dane.

(9) Mohammed standing on the clouds of heaven as a long line of suicide bombers approaches for their final reward. “Stop!” he tells them: “We ran out of virgins!”

(10) Five figures that are regarded by most to represent Muslim headscarves, showing the Star of David and a Muslim Crescent together where the women’s faces would be. The caption reads: “Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke!”

(11) An angry, scimitar-wielding Mohammed (who looks a lot like World Trade Center bomber Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman) with his eyes covered, followed by two women in black headscarves and veils which allow only the eyes to be seen.

(12) A scowling face of Mohammed wearing a turban. The turban contains a bomb with the Islamic creed written on it.

I Do Not Understand

He was confused at why Western Christians wouldn’t at least express some outrage. “I can’t believe how much the Christians here don’t care about what is happening in their holy place” he told me. “Forgive me, it is like someone came into a man’s house and raped the man’s wife and the man didn’t even do anything to stop it and then he didn’t even cry. I do not understand how you people think.”

Sadly, nearly four years later, the situation has been reversed. This time twelve little pictures—the Mohammed cartoons—are at the center of the battle. More than four months ago a Danish newspaper published twelve editorial cartoons to satirize the Muslim belief that making artistic representations of Mohammed, the central prophet of the Islamic faith, is a shameful and forbidden act. The editor said he was taking a stand for freedom of speech and against self-censorship. The cartoons themselves express a number of ideas, from teasing the newspaper itself for a shameless publicity stunt to inflammatory insults against the religion of Islam and Mohammed, the likes of which most folks would recognize as outright bigotry if some other religion or ethnic group had been the target of the cartoons’ taunts (see sidebar).

We here in the West are bewildered at the way adherents to Islam throughout the world have reacted. We watch in wonderment as Muslims are still causing riots around the world in furious and often deadly protests over these twelve little cartoons. “Why would you let a bunch of silly pictures bother you so much?” many of us in the West wish we could just ask them. “People say mean and hateful things about each other all the time. Why choose this as a reason for so much conflict? I do not understand how you people think.”

An Attempt at Translation

As an immigration attorney I have spent the last four years helping clients from other countries understand how to follow our laws and how to live together peacefully with their new neighbors in the United States. In particular, a large portion of my work has been with the local Muslim communities in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama and surrounding areas. When a mosque wants to sponsor a religious teacher, a Muslim school principal or even an Islamic burial minister to live and work with them in America, I guide them through the legal process and I also explain to immigration officials how each religious worker’s job is connected to authentic Muslim religious practice. In short, my job is to explain Western ways to the Muslims on one hand, and to explain Islamic traditions to American government workers on the other hand.

When the turmoil erupted over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, I knew that my Muslim friends and neighbors would be deeply affected, not only by the cartoons themselves, but also by the tremendous violence being committed in the name of Islam all over the world. Last week I dropped in unannounced on three of my Muslim friends at their places of business to discuss the controversy. My intention was just to set a later appointment with each of them so we could sit down and talk, but as soon as they heard what I wanted without exception each of them immediately and generously interrupted their busy day to speak with me. I was surprised at how very deeply they wanted Westerners to hear them and understand their true feelings about the cartoons, the protests and the significance of Mohammed to them as their prophet.

Insult and Injury

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that somebody finally wants to listen to us” said Madian who, though he was understaffed at his computer store, dropped what he was doing on two large computer projects to talk with me. “I have been writing letters to the editor to so many newspapers and trying to call the discussion shows on the radio, but it seems like no one wants to hear how we Muslims in America really feel.”