The Cartoon Controversy

Understanding Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons

“Those cartoons made our prophet look so ugly” said Madian. “They are making him look like a terrorist and this is not right…why do they think our holy prophet looks anything like that horrible Osama bin Laden?” The fact that Mohammed is portrayed in a negative light is offensive to Muslims but the very fact that the Danish newspaper undertook to portray the founder of Islam in pictures at all is considered to be an insult as well.

Farid Ali, an Egyptian who operates the fast-food counter on the first floor of my office building, missed some sales to potential customers during the busy dinner rush at his restaurant in order to explain his feelings. “If you know some people really love somebody like the Prophet Mohammed so much, what reason can there be for hurting his image with some cartoons? This is not right.”

Love for Mohammed

Mr. Ali, however, prefers a completely different response to the provocation. He supports the efforts of an Islamic televangelist from Egypt who preaches that even though publishing the images was wrong, the best response for Muslims is not violence or even a trade boycott (a non-violent but lesser-known protest which is perhaps more widespread than the mob violence but has received less coverage is a boycott of Danish products by Muslim countries and by individual Muslims). Instead the Egyptian cleric proposes that Muslims reach out to the Danish people and explain to them what they really believe their prophet is like and to share their faith with them peacefully.

Dr. Hisham Hakim, a neurologist from Syria, made himself late for his important meeting so that he could make clear his love for Mohammed. “The true Islamic spirit calls Muslim people to love our prophet more than our families, children parents, and even more than ourselves” he said. “I think that Danish newspaper understood this and the insult they were making to our religion. If their motives were naive, they would have made a true apology by now, but they do not apologize.” The newspaper’s publishers have issued a statement that they are sorry that Muslims felt offended, but they have not backed down from their argument that “freedom of speech” justifies the Mohammed cartoons.

Brewing Tension

The turmoil over the Mohammed cartoons has brought the undercurrents of conflict between two very different cultures to the forefront of public life. Tensions between Western Europeans and Muslim immigrants working in Denmark and other countries have been brewing for a long time. Muslim workers feel they face discrimination in the workplace and public places and that they are forced to live in dangerous slums and ghettos. The Mohammed cartoons did more than add insult to injury for them; to them the Mohammed cartoons were a declaration that Muslims shall not get even the basic human respect in Denmark or anywhere in Europe.

Of course the violent protests happening in Muslim countries that are otherwise unconnected to the cartoons’ publication also have their basis in the political motives of those who have or want to get power in places like India, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. These powerful elites would prefer their people to be distracted—venting their anger and unrest over the Mohammed cartoons rather than the poor conditions in their own country and the failures of their government. Still others have used the uproar for a fiery publicity stunt of their own, such as the Pakistani cleric who offered one million dollars to anyone who kills the man that drew the cartoons (he doesn’t even seem to know that there were twelve cartoonists).

Self-Censorship or Basic Respect?

Ultimately, however, Muslims around the world are outraged because they sense that the Mohammed cartoons are intended to injure them. Their publication causes many of them to feel real pain for the religion that they love. This is the hardest part for us Westerners to understand. Publishing caricatures of Mohammed—especially in the social and political climate that exists in Denmark—is comparable to referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. using the “N-word” in the United States. The reason why most people in our country refrain from even speaking that word is not “self-censorship” or fear of reprisal from the black community, but rather out of basic human respect and the hurt that using the term would cause.

“Freedom of speech is not an excuse to take someone else’s religion and step on it” said Madian Khouly. “We are upset because those cartoons are hurting something we love so much and treating it like it is not sacred. It is a hurt and a pain for us for real. It has been so hard to find anyone who will listen and really understand how we feel.”