11 February 2006


Is it the beginning of a clash of civilizations? Accusations of racism, violent protests, journalists threatened or fired, people dead. Over cartoons?

What's this really about?

If you're really curious, you can view the cartoons here, or elsewhere on the web. Except for the one depicting the prophet Muhammed with a bomb on his head, most Westerners probably won't see much offensive about the 12 cartoons. Frankly, they aren't very funny either.

Is it a matter of religious respect versus free speech? Some museums and books contain protrayals of Muhammed, yet have drawn little or no attention. An article in today's San Francisco Chronicle suggests that the so-called ban on portrayals of the prophet is not Muslim law, but interpretation. "To say that Islam is anti-imagery is to have a very limited understanding of the religion," said Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Of course, this doesn't excuse cultural ignorance, insensitivity, or outright malice on the part of newspaper and magazine publishers. Was there news value in publishing these cartoons? Was it for entertainment? Did it accomplish some good that outweighs the damage caused among communities and nations?

Free speech, particularly the kind found in mass media, includes some responsibility. I like how the Christian Science Monitor puts it in their motto: "to injure no man, but to bless all mankind." And they do this with hard-hitting, factual reporting that avoids the current sensationalism (and major ties to commercial interests). It seems the Danes who first published the cartoons were seeking notoriety rather than looking to bless mankind. Still, is it just about the cartoons? Again, the SF Chronicle:
None of this can be explained as a response to one offensive cartoon," said Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "In the last few years, rhetoric of Western politicians and the war on terror have both fed into suspicions of Muslims that the West harbors hostility toward them and mocks their values. These cartoons added to the insult."
And just as I don't support those who seek publicity at any cost, not all Muslims support the violent reaction to the cartoons. An article in the Australian observes:
Of course, there are countless practising Muslims (and secularists within the Muslim world) who do not share the point of view of the masked and marauding fundamentalists. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that they are being spoken for by a minority with whom they have little in common.
While the people shouting loudest tend to get the media attention, many more are talking, listening, thinking, trying to create positive change. We can't -- and probably don't want to -- outshout the shouters. But let's talk to our families and neighbors, write in our blogs and our local newspapers.

The publication of the cartoons was right from a free speech standpoint, and wrong from a moral standpoint. The cartoons were offensive, but this does not justify violence.

One way of getting a broader, deeper understanding of people and issues is to participate in Study Circles. If you're in the South Puget Sound area, you can join a Study Circle on Race or Study Circle for Interfaith Dialogue by attending a free kickoff event at the Tumwater Timberland Library on March 14 at 6:30 p.m. I've been a participant in Study Circles (which are free, diverse small discussion groups with a trained facilitator) and have found them invaluable. For more info locally, contact Interfaith Works. Or check out the Study Circles Resource Center for information on starting your own conversation.

For a thoughtful Muslim perspective (and interesting, extensive follow-up discussion), read Safiyyah Ally's article at altmuslim.com

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