Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Peaceful cartoon protests

Nearly buried in the second section of Sunday's newspaper, I found a small item about some very good news: Muslims in London, Paris, Berlin, and other European cities gathered for peaceful protests against the Danish cartoons that were published last fall, and expressed the desire to "move on to positive dialogue."

I have finally seen the actual cartoons at the focus of the controversy. Some of them are entirely innocuous, giving no cause for offense to anyone. One image simply frames a bearded face in the crescent and star that are also symbols of Islam. Another portrays Muhammad walking through the desert, leading a mule. Anyone who takes offense at either image is simply picking a fight for no good reason.

Two more of the cartoons take the Jyllands-Posten to task for sponsoring the contest, calling it a public relations stunt or reactionary provocation. Neither of those images could possibly be considered insulting to Islam or to the Prophet Muhammad; they are direct slaps at Danish journalist Kåre Bluitgen. A third image carries that theme into my next category: it shows an identification line-up with a figure who might be Muhammad mixed with various other religious figures and Danish politicians and journalists. The foreground figure is unable to pick Muhammad out of the line-up, but #7 is Kåre Bluitgen, holding a sign advertising his PR expertise. That brings us to my next category, drawings which directly address the issue of Muslims taking offense at any depiction of Muhammad, but without doing so provocatively. One shows a nervous artist looking over his shoulder as he draws a cartoon of Mohammed; another shows a Muslim leader holding back his followers from attacking, saying basically, "Relax, it's only a drawing by a non-believer."

A bit more ambiguous is a drawing of Muhammad with a halo in the form of a crescent, but the position of the crescent makes it appear to be horns, possibly making the Prophet appear diabolical. Another cartoon shows Muhammad standing on a cloud in heaven, urging the parade of suicide bombers to stop because heaven has run out of virgins. I maintain that this image does not dishonor Muhammad or Islam, but rather it dishonors the cancer within Islam that is represented by the suicide bombers who believe that Allah will take them to paradise if they give their lives to kill infidels. The suicide bombers have a twisted vision of Islam, and deserve ridicule. Indeed, it honors the Prophet to dishonor those who cast shame upon him.

That leaves the three most controversial images, which I will address in ascending order of provocativeness. First is a set of five stick-figure drawings of shrouded women, each face represented by a Star of David over a crescent moon. A poem appears next to them, criticizing the Prophet for advocating the subjugation of women. While this cartoon is a direct affront to Islam and to Muhammad personally, it is clearly well within the realm of legitimate commentary.

Next is an image of Muhammad holding his sabre ready. He is flanked by two figures shrouded in black with only their eyes visible. In counterpoint, a black bar obscures Muhammad's eyes. This cartoon again is a direct attack on Islam and on Muhammad, but for reasonable cause: Islam advocates a position that the cartoonist finds morally reprehensible.

Finally, the most inflammatory image shows the face of the Prophet with the Shahadah (لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول ال۪; There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.) inscribed on a bomb (with a lit fuse) in place of a turban. Obviously one way of reading the cartoon is that Muhammad is a lunatic advocating senseless violence, and Islam will destroy the world. However, again I would suggest that sincere Muslims and other sympathetic people consider an alternate view: the terrorists who seek to justify their lunatic worldview in the words of the Prophet both see him and portray him to the world in that light, thereby doing Islam a great disservice. (Likewise, George W. Bush, Pat Robertson, and others who seek to justify their lunatic worldview in the words of Jesus do Christianity a great disservice.)

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Muslim. My reference to the Shahadah above is only by way of explanation, not a personal declaration of faith. Likewise, my capitalization of "the Prophet" and sometimes adding traditional honorifics after the name of Muhammad reflects respect for the beliefs of others, not my own beliefs. I do believe, however, that all people, Muslim or not, have an obligation to seek whenever possible to live in harmony with people of other beliefs. That obligation generally extends both to avoiding intentionally offensive behavior and to avoiding taking offense at behavior that is not intended to be offensive. It certainly extends to keeping a sense of proportion and perspective when one feels offended: killing people, or even bombing embassies, or even boycotting an entire nation's products, is entirely out of all proportion to the offense given by these cartoons.

A peaceful protest emphasizing the need for dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims regarding the best way to live together in harmony, is an entirely sensible response to the cartoon controversy. Unfortunately, under the doctrine of "If it bleeds, it leads," it doesn't make good headlines, but headlines should not be the goal.