the World Economic Forum in January, I observed
something revealing. In a session about the U.S.
religious right, a cartoonist satirized one of Americas
most influential Christian ministers, Pat Robertson.
In the audience, chuckling with the rest of us,
was a prominent British Muslim. But his smile disappeared
the moment we were shown a cartoon that ridiculed
then, a fierce fight has erupted between the European
Union and the Muslim world over caricatures of the
Prophet Muhammad. Months ago, the Danish newspaper,
Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons that showed
Islams messenger wearing, among other things,
a turban-turned-time bomb. Although the paper has
apologized, the controversy has metastasized: A
Norwegian magazine and French paper recently re-printed
the drawings, as have other broadcasters and publications
while covering this story.
response, Muslim rioters torched Scandinavian missions
in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Bomb threats have hit
the offices of more than one European newspaper.
Various Arab countries have recalled their ambassadors
from Copenhagen. Chechnya has banned Danish humanitarian
workers from its borders. Boycotts of Danish products
have swept across supermarkets in the Arab world,
and Muslims as far away as India and Indonesia are
pouring into the streets to burn Danish flags
which feature the cross, among the holiest of Christian
symbols. Early in the furor, thousands of Palestinians
shouted Death to Denmark! Copenhagen
evacuated Danish citizens from the Gaza Strip and
sternly warned nationals in the West Bank to get
out as well. Muslims themselves are getting pummeled
in the riots: four died in Afghanistan alone on
February 7. More will perish now that some Scandinavian
NGOs are suspending tsunami relief efforts thanks
to security problems.
judge the root problem here, let us first determine
how the cartoons became an international incident.
Last September, these comics ran beside a story
about the hurdles encountered by a Danish author
in finding someone anyone to illustrate
his childrens book about the Prophet. Every
artist he approached declined the job out of fear
of having to contend with Islamist extremists.
if on cue, two of the people who produced these
drawings received death threats in October 2005.
We Muslims love to lecture about the need to assess
touchy matters -- such as offensive Koranic verses
-- in context. The context in which
the Muhammad cartoons first appeared suggests that
frustration, not malice, was the motive
the cartoons met with howls of protest from Danish
Muslims. Ten ambassadors of Muslim countries issued
a letter demanding that Denmarks prime minister
punish Jyllands-Posten. Apparently, it didnt
occur to them that in a free society, media are
generally independent of government. The paper continued
to operate. Thus, the controversy continued to simmer.
a group of Danish imams took the cartoons to the
Middle East. Complaining of press bias, they distributed
the drawings and fabricated a few of their
own to ensure that unrest would be sown. One of
the extra sketches, for example, portrays the Prophet
with a pigs snout.
hell soon broke loose. From missionary manipulation,
the imams achieved in the Arab world what they couldnt
accomplish from exercising their democratic freedoms
its not just the Danish imams who choreographed
this passion play. Arab elites also got in on the
game. Why wouldnt they? Such controversies
provide convenient opportunities to channel anger
away from daily crimes. No wonder President Lahoud
of Lebanon insisted that his country cannot
accept any insult to any religion. Thats
rich. Since the late 1970s, the Lebanese government
has licensed Hezbollah-run satellite television
station al-Manar, among the most viciously anti-Semitic
broadcasters on earth.
the Justice Minister of the United Arab Emirates
has said that the Danish cartoons represent cultural
terrorism, not freedom of expression. This
from a country that promotes its capital as the
Las Vegas of the Gulf, yet blocks my
website muslim-refusenik.com -- for being
inconsistent with the moral values of
the UAE. Presumably, my site should be an online
have little integrity demanding respect for our
faith if dont show it for others. When have
we demonstrated against Saudi Arabias policy
to prevent Christians and Jews from stepping on
the soil of Mecca? They may come for rare business
trips, but nothing more. As long as Rome welcomes
non-Christians and Jerusalem embraces non-Jews,
we Muslims have more to protest than these cartoons.
of this is to dismiss the need to take my religion
seriously. Hell, Muslims even take seriously the
need to be serious: Islam has a teaching against
excessive laughter. Im not joking.
But does this mean that we should cry blasphemy
over less-than-flattering depictions of the Prophet
Muhammad? God, no.
one thing, the Koran itself points out that there
will always be non-believers, and that it's for
Allah, not Muslims, to deal with them. More than
that, the Koran says there is "no compulsion
in religion." Which suggests that nobody should
be forced to treat Islamic norms as sacred.
many Muslims will retort, but were talking
about the Prophet Muhammad Allahs final
and therefore perfect messenger. However, Islamic
tradition holds that the Prophet was a human being
who made mistakes. Its precisely because he
wasnt perfect that we know about the so-called
Satanic Verses; a collection of passages that the
Prophet reportedly included in the Koran. Only later
did he realize that those verses glorified heathen
idols rather than God. According to Islamic legend,
he retracted the idolatrous passages, blaming them
on a trick played by Satan.
Muslims put the Prophet on a pedestal, were
engaging in idolatry of our own. The point of monotheism
is to worship one God, not one of God's emissaries.
Which is why humility requires people of faith to
mock themselves -- and each other -- every once
in a while.
my attempt: A priest, a rabbi, and a mullah meet
at a conference about religion, and afterwards are
sitting around discussing their different faiths.
The conversation turns to the topic of taboos.
priest says to the rabbi and the mullah, "You
guys can't tell me that you've never eaten pork."
intones the rabbi.
not!" insists the mullah.
the priest is skeptical. "Come on, not even
once? Maybe in a fit of rebellion when you were
confesses the rabbi. "When I was young, I once
nibbled on bacon."
admit it," the mullah laughs (not excessively).
"In a fit of youthful arrogance, I sampled
a pork chop."
the conversation turns to the priest's religious
observances. "You can't tell me you've never
had sex," says the mullah.
course not!" the priest protests. "I took
a vow of chastity."
mullah and the rabbi roll their eyes. "Maybe
after a few drinks?" the rabbi teases.
in a moment of temptation, your faith waned?"
the mullah wonders.
the priest confesses. "Once, when I was drunk
in seminary school, I had sexual relations with
pork, huh?" say the rabbi and the mullah.
Im as impure a feminist as I am a Muslim.
The difference is, offended feminists wont
threaten to kill me. The same cant be said
for many of my fellow Muslims.
part of "no compulsion" don't they understand?
published in The Wall Street Journal and Muslim-Refusenik