Danish cartoon controversy and Islam: An American Muslim’s perspective

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

When I first heard that a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had published inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), my initial reaction was of great disappointment and sadness. I was deeply troubled by the fact that the editorial board of a supposedly respectable newspaper would publish such content, despite knowing that nearly a quarter of the world’s population would find it greatly offensive. As a Muslim and as an American, I was raised to always respect the religious beliefs of others. This universal principle that we hold so dear in this country was egregiously disregarded by the newspaper’s editors.

In no way do I support censoring free speech. Jyllands-Posten had the legal right to publish the cartoons, but as The Tartan itself found out two years ago, there is a responsibility that comes along with that right.

Contrary to what some may think, there is nothing inherently un-Islamic about freedom of expression. Certainly Islam is not the only religion with prohibitions on lying, cursing, and blasphemy; in modern society, this has never been a barrier to free discourse.

The reason the cartoons are so offensive is twofold. First, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) preached monotheism to an extremely idolatrous society, and in order to emphasize that it is God that should be worshipped and not him, he explicitly banned his followers from creating any drawings or sculptures that might later be misinterpreted as having divine qualities. This explains why Muslims find even the tamest of these drawings to be abhorrent. Second, the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) was the living embodiment of Islam. He was a man of impeccable character, and Muslims around the world strive to emulate his excellent example. Thus, for Muslims, an attack on our beloved prophet is an attack on the foundations of our faith.

Therefore, in addition to being disgusted with Jyllands-Posten, I was disgusted at those that would respond to an attack on their prophet with lawlessness and violence, which ironically only acted to reinforce what one cartoon implied. If they in fact loved the Prophet (p.b.u.h.), as they claimed, they would follow his example, and his example could not be further from their actions. Throughout his life, the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) was often persecuted for his beliefs, but in response, he always took the high road. There are countless stories of times when he faced incredible adversity, but one immediately comes to mind.

Once, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) traveled from Mecca to the Arabian city of Ta’if to preach his message and find sanctuary for his persecuted followers. Instead, his preaching fell on deaf ears, and the children of the town were sent to pelt him with stones. His body covered in blood, he eventually made it to safety outside the city limits and was approached by the angel Gabriel, who informed him that God was willing to punish those who had caused him such suffering, if the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) so desired. In a noble display of patience and mercy, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) declined, for he held out hope that perhaps one day, even just one of the town’s children might grow up to believe in his message.

This stands in stark contrast to the events that unfolded in the Middle East over the past few weeks, and begs the question: If the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) was so merciful, why is it that some of his supposed followers are so ill-tempered and prone to chaos?

First, it is important to note that although much attention has been given to the ignorant few whose actions were inexcusable, the vast majority of Muslims around the world reacted peacefully and responsibly. For instance, there are an estimated 7 million Muslims living in America, and save for perhaps some Steelers fans, none of them could be found on the streets wreaking havoc. The Philadelphia Inquirer shamefully reprinted the cartoons a few weeks ago, and the Muslim community of that city staged a large and dignified protest. This was the case, by and large, all around the world. Second, to answer this question is to take a deep look at the sociopolitical realities that exist in the Middle East — something that I am not nearly fully qualified to do. However, I feel that the pent-up rage that these people develop from living under oppressive regimes, when coupled with their strong belief that there is a global war being waged against Islam, provides for a mob easily cajoled into wrongdoing.

When the public eye is focused on radicals that would hijack my faith, I find myself as an American Muslim struggling for the noble soul of my religion. I cannot sit idly by and let these people dictate to the world what it means to be Muslim. My response has always been to educate others about my beliefs, and to become even more involved in my community and civic society than I already am.

We Muslims need to learn more about our religion by studying the life of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.), so that maybe — just maybe — in the future, if such a provocation repeats itself, these people rioting overseas will first ask themselves: WWMD? What would Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) do? And then maybe — just maybe — when others hear the word “Muslim” and try to conjure a mental image, rather than some scruffy fanatic they instead picture their Virginia-born Muslim friend from Carnegie Mellon with a penchant for country music.