Cartoon Controversy Reveals Much About Muslim Attitudes

Rioting over cartoons reinforces stereotype Islam has tried to stop By Carrie A. Moore Deseret Morning News Violence that has ensued in Europe over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad would never be sanctioned by the revered religious leader, according to a local Muslim, who decried not only the rioting, but also the images and the lack of respect for the sacred he said they represent.

Benan Zahawi says he’s seeking opportunities for a local dialog with media about press freedom vs. social responsibility as a result of the violence and continuing media coverage.

He said many American Muslims are afraid to discuss their feelings about the issue openly for fear of “being questioned by the police or the FBI, or because they’re Muslims and they don’t like to discuss it.

“There are many who are afraid,” though they disagree with the violence that has ensued after a Danish newspaper published the images last September, and other European papers have published them more recently.

Several people have been killed as a result of rioting in Afghanistan and elsewhere over the cartoon depictions.

Zahawi said depictions of the prophet are not prohibited specifically in the Koran, penned by Muhammad and revered as scripture by Muslims, but the ban on creating his likeness is “deeply rooted in our belief. It’s just that we don’t show the face of the prophet — not just ours, but all prophets — out of respect for them. No one has seen their faces, and by showing them people may have a different point of view,” he said.
For instance, in western Christianity, “Jesus is always shown blond with blue eyes in general, yet we think maybe it wasn’t this way,” Zahawi said.

The cultural prohibition against depicting Muhammad was illustrated well in a recent film about Islam called “The Message,” where characters in the film address the camera as if it were the prophet himself.

Zahawi said many commentators express views about the issues without understanding the religious or cultural context that underlies the controversy. He said those who try to depict Muhammad as someone who would retaliate violently against personal insult doesn’t jibe with legitimate historical accounts. “This actually goes against the teachings of our prophet. That’s my understanding of my religion.”

As a Muslim, Zahawi believes the cartoons were denigrating images and wonders why newspapers want something that is clearly offensive to adherents to one of the world’s major religions. He said Islam as a faith is not above criticism, “but to critique someone is not to insult him. Once you start insulting people, their response is to insult you or to defend themselves.”

He wants a dialog with local media over freedom of the press, saying such “freedom without responsibility is chaos — this is not freedom of the press. You have to have some responsibility with it. It goes both ways.”

Having lived in Iraq for 40 years, Zahawi said he has “seen both sides” of the ongoing tension between Muslim nations and the West. “I cannot take this as an isolated incident. I go back to early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. I don’t know who came out and said our enemy now is Islam.

“If people go back to that time and look what is taking place and just connect the dots — you wonder, is it an isolated incident or something that is trying to stir up things and cause problems. A newspaper that publishes cartoons for no reason — the question is why?”

He acknowledged that Arab media regularly denigrate Jews, Israel and the United States, but said there is a difference when cartoons poke fun at Islam’s most revered religious leader. “It’s not Arabs or Jews” being portrayed, “it’s the prophet. Many Americans make fun of Arabs, with films in Hollywood depicting them as terrorists. You don’t see Arabs and Muslims rioting (as a result). We’re angry, but you don’t see that. There’s a difference. You don’t correlate the two.”

Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, has lived and worked in the Middle East. He said Islamic tradition against representations of Muhammad “is not absolute. There are miniature paintings of his ascension into heaven in his biography, and he is commonly illustrated in those,” though the image is typically shown with the face as blank or obscured in some way.

He said it’s “hard to know how offensive this is to a regular Muslim” or how representative the violent actions are of wider feeling about the images in Islam as a whole. He noted that King Abdullah of Jordan visited the White House earlier this week, saying the cartoons “were offensive to Muslims, but one peaceful and articulate protest would be enough.

“I think he represents at least some percentage of the Muslim population who may say ‘it’s distasteful to us’ and write a letter to the editor asking that it not be done again.”

But politically in the wider Middle East, “there are people who clearly have an interest in just ramping up the ongoing, blood-curdling hatred not only toward Denmark, but toward Israel and the U.S.” He said the issue is becoming “a pawn in an ongoing jihadi battle with the West.

“Rumors spread in the Islamic world very rapidly.” When he was living in Egypt some time ago, there was an attack on the grand mosque in Mecca.

An investigation ultimately determined it was conducted by a schismatic group, but there was a “rumor that the U.S. was behind it, so embassies were attacked. It was preposterous, but it was like dry kindling waiting for a spark.”

The cartoons are simply symptomatic of the “overall problem we have. The West is seen as being, on the whole, not only anti-Islamic but anti-religious and totally immoral. You can certainly point to things that would support that claim. But it’s part of a more general hostility in the Islamic world toward the West that still draws on very old historical grudges like the Crusades.”

If asked why it’s OK for Muslims to denigrate Jews and call for the destruction of Israel, Peterson said some of his westernized but devout Muslim friends would immediately see the point. “But the answer you would get from many is that Islam is true and Judaism is false….

It’s just a very different mindset than we have. We think society should be religiously neutral and in their view it should not.”

Part of the failure to communicate is the differing understanding of what freedom of the press really means, he said. Many Muslims think Denmark ought to be able to crack down on the newspaper for printing the cartoons. “When the Danes come back and say ‘we can’t do that,’ I think they are seen as insincere. To do so would be a repudiation of everything that in our modern, democratic and secular society.”

After years of trying to convince people that Islam is a peaceful religion, Peterson said he’s saddened by the fact that such violence and rioting reinforce stereotypes he’s tried to put down. As tension continues over an issue that seems minor to many, he said it illustrates “the clash of civilizations as clearly as you’re ever likely to see.”