Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cartoon Controversy

Over the course of the past three years, there has been a considerable controversy over the various Danish newspapers (and, subsequently other newspapers) decision to publish highly offensive cartoons that negatively depicted the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). The controversy over this, from the Muslim perspective is that, first the depiction of images is discouraged. Specifically, the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) has been traditionally prohibited. Beyond that, to depict the Prophet (pbuh) AND do so in a highly offensive manner angered many Muslims. I have written two Op-Ed pieces on this topic, which I will post below, and beyond that, I will post some additional information.

Freedom of Speech?
Nausherwan Hafeez, 2-14-08, Op-Ed

The decision by Denmark’s leading newspapers to reprint a cartoon that depicts the Prophet Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban displays a gross misuse of the liberal ideal of freedom of speech. This ideal, enshrined in the US as sacrosanct through the first amendment, has been misused to couch hate-speech within the legitimate framework of acceptable discourse. It increasingly appears acceptable to denigrate Islam in the press and to defend these attacks as freedom of speech. Yet when it comes to other topics, such as say race or sex, the use of freedom of speech appears to be restricted.

The most recent example of this is the case of Don Imus. When Imus referred to Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” there was a huge outcry by the press and general public. Many people questioned how Imus could say such racist and sexist filth. What followed was a concerted campaign by civil and women’s rights groups to get Imus off of the air for his hate-speech. Time magazine even did a cover story that probed the extent to which freedom of speech can be legitimately exercised without crossing the line. After all was said and done, Imus publicly apologized for his comments and had his show taken off of the air.

Now consider the reaction to the publishing of this cartoon in some US newspapers last year. Almost clear cross the political spectrum people defended the cartoon as an example of freedom of speech. There was no apology or significant outcry against the cartoons by either the press or the general public. This inequity between what Americans and Westerners consider freedom of speech feeds the perception that there is a cultural war going on between the West and Islam. This cultural war adds fuel to the idea of a “clash of civilizations” and increases the divide between Islam and the West.

The legitimization of attacking Islam under the guise of free speech and the delegitimization of racist and sexist speech smacks of hypocrisy. These double-standards serve to increase tension with the Muslim world and hurt our image abroad. To defend the use of freedom of speech as a tool to attack a religion or group of people is certain to cause more anger and resentment in the future. While it is important to defend the right to free speech we must also understand the consequences of exercising this right.

The Art of Hypocrisy
Nausherwan Hafeez, 2-17-06, Op-Ed

Recently, there has been a huge uproar across the Muslim world about the appalling depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Many countries have experienced violent protests and have called for a formal apology from Denmark. Meanwhile, most Western governments have responded to these protests by saying that the portrayal of the Prophet is legitimate and cannot be stopped based upon the idea of freedom of speech. However, this depiction of the Prophet goes well beyond the legitimate use of freedom of speech and is, in effect, a hate crime purported against a quarter of the world's population.

This depiction is a hate crime because it unfairly portrays the Prophet of Islam as a terrorist. Muslims view any portrayals of the Prophet as blasphemous, much less the depiction of him as a terrorist. To make this suggestion and then stand by and not expect a violent response from the Muslim world is ludicrous. How would the Right-wing Christians of America respond to the depiction of Jesus as a terrorist? How would the world respond to a cartoon claiming that the holocaust was a fraud? Incidentally, a similar event has recently occurred and the response was far from shocking.

In the middle of last December, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied the holocaust and called its portrayal a "myth". What was the West's response to President Ahmadinejad's use of his freedom of speech? The response was harsh and swift. The Western world quickly condemned the statement and even convened an emergency session of the UN Security Council to further condemn the statements. That resolution was passed and the world stood united against this callous exercise of Ahmadinejad's freedom of speech. So my question now is this: Why can't the West react the same way they did to Ahmadinejad's statements and condemn these vicious cartoons? If there is no apology or condemnation of these cartoons by the West it will only go to reinforce Islamic anger and distrust against the West.

Ultimately, this defamation was libelous and illegal under articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights. After September 11, everyone in America wanted to know why the Muslim world "hates us so much". The answer to that question is exemplified by the West's response to these blasphemous cartoons.

Danish Law, and Debates over the Cartoon Issue

February 2006

Denmark has laws regarding blasphemy as well as racism. Both of these laws have been violated in the current case, the assertion of the newspaper that it broke no laws, notwithstanding. Section 266b of the

Danish Criminal Code provides:
Any person who, publicly or with the intention of wider dissemination, makes a statement or imparts other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, or sexual inclination shall be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for any term not exceeding 2 years.

And its section 140, which deals with blasphemy, reads:

Those who publicly mock or insult the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal in this country, will be punished by a fine or incarceration for up to 4 month.

Similarly section 142 of the Norwegian Penal Code provides for punishment for any person "who publicly insults or in an offensive manner shows contempt for any religious creed...or for the doctrines or worship of any religious community lawfully existing here."

My friend, after reading my article and the Danish law stuff, posed a question concerning the violent response to the cartoons across the muslim world. My response:

Nicely put...I agree, the violence must end, b/c those who perpetrated this act will eventually be punished (according to Islamic belief, in the afterlife). Its a shame that western govts, wouldnt condemn the cartoons...I mean look at what happened to the Historian David Irving for challenging the holocaust (he got sentenced to 3 years in prison for saying that the statistics of the holocaust are exaggerated, and other such things). The media performs self-censorship everyday; they won't print pornography, excessive use of curse words, or racial epithets. And yet, these foolish Danes feel that they what they did was okay? When Bush announced after 9-11 that the US would go on a "crusade", Muslims around the world took heed. This modern crusade against Islam has taken the form of political ( e.g. international pressure on multiple Muslim countries around the world...think of Iran), military (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, alleged "war on terror"), psychological (e.g. Danish Cartoons), and cultural (e.g. Western Cultural influences on traditional Islamic societies...including many western criticisms about the treatment of Women in the Islamic world...while I recognize that some Islamic countries are at fault, the West cannot expect the rest of the world to hold to the same cultural/religious traditions that they do…think cultural relativism) attacks against Islam. 5 years after 9-11 and the Muslim world is very apprehensive. How many more ways will the West attack Islam...Only time will tell.

Following this, Someone asked me about the things going on in Iraq and Radical Islamists. Below is how I answered:

This issue is when you get into very tenuous grounds. Above all, I think the sectarian violence that is gripping Iraq is wrong. Muslims should not be fighting other Muslims. Unfortunately, this has been a impossibility throughout Islamic History. To give you on example (I'll give you more and discuss this issue further when we meet up), think about the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 20th century. Arab Muslims fought Turkish Muslims for independence...which in reality never really came (first there was colonialism, then despotic home rule, and now neocolonialism). It is sad when their is so much interreligious warfare. Unfortunately, that is the situation of today. Hopefully, it will get better.

On your other question, "How many ways will Radical Islamists attack Islam"?, we enter even more mudied waters. There are so many issues and ideas brought up with this question that it would be an injustice to discuss this over an email. The topics are too broad, the definitions extremly nuanced, and the portrayals always slanted. Hence, I will also defer this question to a face to face meeting. Nonetheless, to indirectly answer your question, I don't think their are that many "radical Islamists" out there right now; rather, there is a media concoction of hobgoblins which make it APPEAR that there are many "radical Islamists". Furthermore, some of the greivances that these "radical Islamists" hold to are completly legitimate; e.g. occupation of their countries, attacks against their peoples, etc. However, I do not want to seem like an apologist for some of their actions, nor should you construe that I am justifying some of their actions. What you should gather, though, is that this is an extremly complex issue due to its sensitive nature in the modern day. We will discuss this later.

Also, the only major Newspaper in the US to publish these cartoons was the Philadelphia Inquirer. It
was obviously stupid for them to print it, and I sent this preface to them along with my editorial. They never gave me a response:

After hearing about your newspapers decision to run the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, I was quite shocked. Out of all of the major newspapers in the US, you guys were the only ones who choose to run these insensitive cartoons. Just as you would not print cartoons lampooning the holocaust, or print something condoning African-American slavery, I feel that you guys should not have run these cartoons. Since you all have, I have written a short editorial piece concerning this issue. If you all wish to show multiple sides of this debate, I would like you all to consider running this piece. Thank you for your consideration and, in the future, try not to run articles which offend peoples sensibilities.

"When Hitler attacked the Jews, I was not a Jew, therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists [sic!], I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then, Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church--and there was nobody left to be concerned."
-Martin Niemöller
To add to this, when they came after the Muslims....

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