Another view on the Cartoon Controversey

I came across a very interesting article about the cartoon controversey that was set in Denmark and erupted all over the world. The article is by Kristin E. Johnson, an immigration lawyer. It throws a fresh view on the whole episode.

Especially telling is this one paragraph

“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.”

Understanding Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons

by Kristin E. Johnson

As television newscasters were reporting every night for weeks back in April 2002 on the story of Israeli troops surrounding Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the Franciscan Monks who had given asylum and shelter to some militant and some civilian Palestinians I barely glanced up from my microwaved Lean Cuisine dinner each evening.

The only reason I was aware of these events at all was because my good friend Madian Khouly would urgently tell me what was happening at the site of Jesus’ birth. It was important to him and he thought it should be important to me, since I am a Catholic. Madian is in his mid-thirties and owns the computer store where I get all my techno-gadgets. He comes from a Palestinian family but grew up in Kuwait. He is a Muslim.

I wasn’t the only Catholic person that Madian confronted with the news happening in Bethlehem. He had left his busy store in the middle of the workday to visit nearby businesses and restaurants where he had Christian friends to tell them the shocking story of what happened to the Church of the Nativity. He believed the idea of people being killed and damage being done to such a sacred place would make us feel something like the kind of sadness and pain that we all felt on September 11. But Madian was shocked to see the distracted and even apathetic reactions he received from almost every Western Christian that he spoke with.

Words on Pictures

Below is a brief description of each of the twelve cartoons published by the Danish newspaper:

(1) A caricature of the newspaper’s own editor wearing a turban and holding up a stick drawing of a bearded man with a turban. An orange with the words “PR Stunt” drops down onto the editor’s head.

(2) A schoolboy wearing blue jeans and a striped shirt points to a chalkboard. On the chalkboard is a message that the newspapers’s staff is “a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.”

(3) A witness looking at a police lineup states that he cannot identify Mohammed because he doesn’t know what he looks like. One of the figures in the lineup is presumably Mohammed, but he is joined by Jesus, Buddha, the newspaper’s editor and some political figures.

(4) A bearded face to represent Mohammed, with the Islamic symbols of a star and crescent enveloping the face.

(5) Mohammed standing with a crescent acting as his halo.

(6) A cartoonist feverishly sketching the face of Mohammed (who looks a lot like Osama bin Laden) and checking behind his back to see if someone is coming to hurt him.

(7) An angry-faced Mohammed with a walking stick leading a donkey through the desert (this cartoon resembles an often-shown video clip of Osama bin Laden walking with a stick)

(8) A bulbous-nosed Mohammed in an opulent palace telling assassins who carry guns, swords and bombs to relax. After all, he tells them, it is just a sketch by an unbelieving Dane.

(9) Mohammed standing on the clouds of heaven as a long line of suicide bombers approaches for their final reward. “Stop!” he tells them: “We ran out of virgins!”

(10) Five figures that are regarded by most to represent Muslim headscarves, showing the Star of David and a Muslim Crescent together where the women’s faces would be. The caption reads: “Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke!”

(11) An angry, scimitar-wielding Mohammed (who looks a lot like World Trade Center bomber Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman) with his eyes covered, followed by two women in black headscarves and veils which allow only the eyes to be seen.

(12) A scowling face of Mohammed wearing a turban. The turban contains a bomb with the Islamic creed written on it.

I Do Not Understand

He was confused at why Western Christians wouldn’t at least express some outrage. “I can’t believe how much the Christians here don’t care about what is happening in their holy place” he told me. “Forgive me, it is like someone came into a man’s house and raped the man’s wife and the man didn’t even do anything to stop it and then he didn’t even cry. I do not understand how you people think.”

Sadly, nearly four years later, the situation has been reversed. This time twelve little pictures–the Mohammed cartoons–are at the center of the battle. More than four months ago a Danish newspaper published twelve editorial cartoons to satirize the Muslim belief that making artistic representations of Mohammed, the central prophet of the Islamic faith, is a shameful and forbidden act. The editor said he was taking a stand for freedom of speech and against self-censorship. The cartoons themselves express a number of ideas, from teasing the newspaper itself for a shameless publicity stunt to inflammatory insults against the religion of Islam and Mohammed, the likes of which most folks would recognize as outright bigotry if some other religion or ethnic group had been the target of the cartoons’ taunts (see sidebar).

We here in the West are bewildered at the way adherents to Islam throughout the world have reacted. We watch in wonderment as Muslims are still causing riots around the world in furious and often deadly protests over these twelve little cartoons. “Why would you let a bunch of silly pictures bother you so much?” many of us in the West wish we could just ask them. “People say mean and hateful things about each other all the time. Why choose this as a reason for so much conflict? I do not understand how you people think.”

An Attempt at Translation

As an immigration attorney I have spent the last four years helping clients from other countries understand how to follow our laws and how to live together peacefully with their new neighbors in the United States. In particular, a large portion of my work has been with the local Muslim communities in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama and surrounding areas. When a mosque wants to sponsor a religious teacher, a Muslim school principal or even an Islamic burial minister to live and work with them in America, I guide them through the legal process and I also explain to immigration officials how each religious worker’s job is connected to authentic Muslim religious practice. In short, my job is to explain Western ways to the Muslims on one hand, and to explain Islamic traditions to American government workers on the other hand.

When the turmoil erupted over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, I knew that my Muslim friends and neighbors would be deeply affected, not only by the cartoons themselves, but also by the tremendous violence being committed in the name of Islam all over the world. Last week I dropped in unannounced on three of my Muslim friends at their places of business to discuss the controversy. My intention was just to set a later appointment with each of them so we could sit down and talk, but as soon as they heard what I wanted without exception each of them immediately and generously interrupted their busy day to speak with me. I was surprised at how very deeply they wanted Westerners to hear them and understand their true feelings about the cartoons, the protests and the significance of Mohammed to them as their prophet.

Insult and Injury

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that somebody finally wants to listen to us” said Madian who, though he was understaffed at his computer store, dropped what he was doing on two large computer projects to talk with me. “I have been writing letters to the editor to so many newspapers and trying to call the discussion shows on the radio, but it seems like no one wants to hear how we Muslims in America really feel.”

“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).

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.”

Kristin E. Johnson is an immigration attorney living and working in Birmingham, Alabama. A primary focus of her law practice is representing churches, dioceses, mosques and religious workers of all faiths in their immigration needs.

Comments to: editor@bustedhalo.com

Original article can be found here

Related post: Why I Published Those Cartoons

0 Comments

  1. lucky manrao December 16, 2006

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