A caricature of itself

Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark and the stench is being smelt the world over. The spontaneous expression of outrage in Muslim communities around the world, sparked by the Danish cartoons, has surprised many.

Its magnitude has led some to question its spontaneity by speculating whether a hidden hand orchestrated this reaction. Such commentators fail to appreciate the love and reverence of the Prophet engendered among all Muslims from birth.

To understand the Muslim reaction requires an understanding of some theological issues that are fundamental to Muslim belief — among these is the strict adherence to monotheism, which for some traditionalists amounts to the prohibition of any images — hence images (photography, drawings or sculpture) of any animate object are strictly forbidden lest they become objects of worship. Images are also denounced, as the creation of any living creature is God’s sole right. More so for images of God or the Prophets (Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham, Moses, et cetera), as they are more likely to become images of adoration or worship.

But some Muslim traditions do allow images, with some art even representing the Prophet found in museums around the world. One such example is the book of poetry of Bustan of Sa’di on the night journey (or Mi’raj) of the Prophet. Historically, the vast majority of Muslims however, would take offence to any image of the Prophet.

The Danish cartoons violate not only this theological belief, but more importantly caricaturing him in ways reminscient of the medieval crusades. In anyone’s reckoning, this was bound to inflame Muslim sentiment and was clearly designed with that intention. Not content with insulting the image of the Prophet, the cartoons go further in lampooning another Islamic symbol — by depicting a copy of the Qur’an with a swastika on it and as toilet paper.

Beyond theology and insult, one cannot escape the tinderbox context in which this match was lit. In an environment where Muslims see themselves as everyday victims of rampant Islamophobia, these caricatures are seen as part of this political, cultural and religious attack on Muslims. This perception of Islamophobia is constructed from multiple events. Western powers occupy Muslim countries such as Iraq and are blind to the gross violation of rights of Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya.

The insult and denigration of Muslims, Islam and its symbols in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the secret prisons of Europe still loom large in the Muslim conscience. Thus these cartoons cannot be seen in isolation of a broader frustration — hence the disproportionate response. The political impotence of Muslims in their own countries also contributes to this outpouring in reaction to the most trivial issues.

The appeal of Council of Muslim Theologians to the high court represents one of the more creative responses — employing the instruments of democracy to protect the rights and values of a minority community. Does this represent a threat to freedom of expression? Only the most fundamentalist liberals would answer in the affirmative; to others the right to dignity and respect supersedes the freedom of expression, which imposes limitations on rights. Europe most notably has such limitations on freedom of expression where Holocaust denial is a crime and where Muslim girls are not permitted to wear hijab in schools. All Muslims ask for is that respect and dignity be afforded to them and their religious symbols. Of course, Muslims need to reciprocate such courtesies to others. The Muslim Judicial Council engagement with the Danish ambassador also has to be applauded as a gesture of dialogue rather than rhetoric. Such incidents should serve as a catalyst for the ”dialogue of civilisations” and to bring back civility to civilisation.

Without doubt, this issue has been exploited by some Muslim groupings seeking either to gain legitimacy or mobilise the masses for their own agenda. Some groups have argued that they occupied the civil space in order to prevent more extremist elements from doing so — but in their rhetoric they only end up competing with such extremist elements. This, however, is not to deny Muslim anger at these insulting cartoons. Ironically, the most vociferous advocates of a media ban on these cartoons continue their agitation by spreading them through the Internet.

Unfortunately, some protests have only served to confirm the Muslim stereotypes — irrational, violent and without respect for others. An important element has been that even avowedly secular governments such as Egypt have jumped on the bandwagon to outflank the Islamists in their countries. This politicisation has further inflamed the situation and created a diplomatic impasse, with some countries withdrawing their ambassadors and calling for an economic boycott against Denmark.

Interestingly no such call was made by these governments against the United States, when its army has committed worse crimes, or against the Sudanese government, which stands accused of gross violations of human rights in Dafur.

It is indeed a sad testament to Muslims that their reaction to these cartoons does violence to the very Prophet they so earnestly seek to defend. The Prophet’s life was one of love, justice and humility, and his reaction to personal attack and abuse was one of calm — neither reciprocating such attack nor praying for the destruction of his enemies. Instead, with ”patient perserverence”, he prayed for their guidance, with the unshakeable belief that God would protect His religion and Prophet.

While Muslims have shown a remarkable capacity to utilise electronic media to mobilise civil society internationally, Muslim leaders instead of further inflaming the situation are expected to deal with it in a calm and rational manner. Our commitment to the noble principle of freedom of expression should be blended with our need for respect, sensitivity, dignity and honour — but our protests should not deny others the same. Sadly, instead of drawing a broad coalition to their cause, some Muslim groupings have done the exact opposite: the call for a cartoon competition on the Holocaust sadly minimises and mocks the suffering of others — Jews, Gypsies, gays and communists. Our response sadly exposes a spiritual poverty. We all could take a lesson from Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark:

”Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong; But pardon’t, as you are a gentleman.

This presence knows,

And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d

With sore distraction. What I have done, That might your nature, honour and exception

Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.”

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