Offensive caricatures tantamount to shouting ‘fire’ in crowded theater

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News (link unavailable).

Jerry Ceppos’ op-ed article Tuesday (“We must see cartoons to understand furor”) poses interesting questions about why U.S. newspapers have not shown the offensive Danish cartoons. As a Muslim American, I suggest a number of good reasons why U.S. newspapers refrained from reprinting the cartoons. Reprinting them would spread further the xenophobic, anti-Muslim feelings now prevalent in much of the West while directly feeding into the “clash of civilizations” sentiment that extremists in both the Muslim world and the West seek to fuel. In view of the continuing hostility between immigrant communities in Denmark and other European countries; extreme-right political parties; and the environment of disenfranchisement, exclusion and bigotry that many Muslims in Europe live in, publishing the cartoons was much like the proverbial “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” let alone republishing them in numerous European dailies.

Second, the cartoons are extremely offensive in their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, who is lampooned as a terrorist. While it is fair political commentary to point out that Muslims have a growing problem of terrorism, it is morally unfair to blame the entire community, the majority of whom do not endorse extremism. It is even more problematic to depict terrorism — as these cartoons have done — as flowing directly from the teachings of the founder of a world religion, whom his followers know as “a mercy to all creation.” Muslims would be equally offended by demeaning caricatures of Moses, Jesus, Mary and other biblical figures.

Third, portraying God and the prophets of Islam, which include Muhammad and all the prophets before him such as Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Noah and thousands of others dating back to Adam, is understood by Muslims to be forbidden, a position similar to Rabbinic Judaism and a number of other traditions — some anti-iconic –within the Christian experience as well.

But the Danish cartoons did not merely portray the Prophet Muhammad; they did so in a manner calculated to be offensive and provocative. At a time when Muslim extremists are advancing their own political agendas by arguing that the West is at war with Islam, these caricatures not only perpetrate a general sense of humiliation and degradation in the Muslim world but also are likely to convince many that the extremist interpretation of the West is valid.

That said, Muslims must categorically condemn the irrational violence that has characterized extremist Muslim reactions to the caricatures in recent days. Such violent actions misrepresent the letter and spirit of Islam and insult to the character of the Prophet Muhammad. On a daily basis, Muhammad was exposed to demeaning abuse for 13 years during the early years of his mission. His response was not to return insult for insult or hurt for hurt but to pray for his persecutors and overlook their insults. In a famous Islamic tradition, he stated: “It is not allowed to cause harm to others or to return harm for harm.”

The media are not focusing on the vast majority of Muslims who would love to discuss and debate this issue in the free market of ideas. We’re usually invited to the table only to comment on the extremist elements among us.

As a Muslim American, I am proud of the responsibility that the American press has generally shown in respecting Muslim sentiments regarding the caricatures, just as they would do so regarding caricatures that demeaned the Holocaust, sought to revive offensive stereotypes of blacks, or in other ways offend and provoke the sensibilities of others.

As a Muslim American, I am deeply grieved by the irrational overreactions of extremist Muslims abroad. As Richard Bulliet has demonstrated in his recent work “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization,” Islam and the West have common roots and history. It is time that we come to understand each other better and acknowledge and not offend our mutual kinship.