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(2/3/06) In late September last year, a Danish newspaper, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten published 12 different cartoonists’ idea of what the Prophet Muhammed might have looked like as part of an ongoing public debate on the topic of freedom of expression in Denmark. The cartoons included demeaning depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, including one with a bomb in his turban and another with him leaving paradise saying it had run out of virgins. In response to these and other unpublished drawings that began circulating in the Middle East, and after months of mild complaining, Muslims across the world began to protest and boycott Danish products, while some governments, such as Libya and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark. While the editors of the Danish paper recently apologized for any upset they may have caused, the furor threatens to escalate with the new publication of the Danish caricatures and other religiously denigrating cartoons by other European dailies, including French and British papers. At the heart of what has been labeled a cultural conflict is the Muslim sensibility about any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, or any of the prophets for that matter, including Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, who are all highly revered and respected in Islam. Islam forbids the portrayal, not only of God, but of any of the messengers or prophets that are believed to be of such a high and respected status that any attempt to portray them would fall short of their elevated status. No newspaper in the Muslim world would ever dream of printing a caricature of Jesus or Moses, for example. This respect for the prophets is a value shared by Jews and Christians in America and around the world.
While we totally condemn acts of violence or threats by Muslims protesting the cartoons, and emphasize that such actions contradict the teachings of Islam that place the life and safety of human beings at the highest level, and call for restraint, reason, and debate to address the issue, we also call on editors of European papers to act with the same respect and high standards as they would with any other religious group when discussing issues of a sensitive nature.
Moreover, especially in our present political and social climate, with recent events in France, and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, denigrating other people’s religion is divisive and harmful, if not irresponsible, since it can potentially result in violence and mass upheaval. While freedom of speech is a core principal in a democracy, and one that is valued in Islam, even free speech has its limits, per the proverbial “crying fire in a crowed theater”. It is for that reason that there are laws against slander in nearly every country, including laws against blasphemy in the UK. Such laws should not be restricted to blasphemy against only one particular religion but should be applicable to all religions whether one agrees with them or not.
Even under the U.S. Constitution, there are limits on speech that balance one’s right to free speech against the rights of others, including limits on “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterance inflicted injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) 62 S.Ct. 766, 769.) For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that states can constitutionally ban acts such as cross burnings, which, it can be argued, are an expression of “free speech”. So, even under the Constitution, one’s right to free speech is not absolute, and must be balanced against the rights of others and the welfare of the general public.
In the spirit of positive change, we urge people of all faiths and backgrounds to take this issue, not as a means to divide us, but as an opportunity for bridge building, dialogue, and education. At ING, we have worked for the last 14 years to forge a greater understanding and respect between American Muslims and Americans of other faiths. We invite you to take this occasion to learn a little more about your Muslim neighbors, by hosting an ING presentation about a variety of subjects (see our website at www.ing.org).