Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper last September have caused outrage in Muslim communities around the world. In the past week some protests have turned violent, and diplomatic missions have been attacked in several countries.
The cartoons and their republication in several European newspapers have raised serious questions about the balance between freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs. For example, one of the cartoons depicting the Prophet with a bomb atop his turban effectively equated Islam with terror.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at The American University in Washington and a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Encounter program, Professor Ahmed explained that mainstream Islam forbids depiction of the Prophet.
Helle Dale, Deputy Director of the Davis Institute for International Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said she thinks the Danish editor who originally commissioned the cartoons believed the European media were exhibiting signs of self-censorship. So, in reacting against some of the political correctness in the media, he was being “a bit provocative.” Professor Ahmed agreed that challenging established norms is an intellectual tradition in Europe. However, when one “deliberately” and “grossly” insults people, it suggests the real motive may be to stir up trouble in a situation where there is already tension between the majority community and Muslim immigrants. Professor Ahmed said Denmark had a good reputation for reaching out to its minorities, and he expressed his “deep sorrow” that Danish embassies have been attacked.
Helle Dale, who was born in Denmark, said she does not think that cartoons published in a privately owned Danish newspaper justified the violent reaction they have caused. She noted every week things are published in Western media that offend some individuals or groups. She suggested that there is “a bit of a cultural conflict” between Western values, such as freedom of expression, and the Muslim world “with its sensibilities.”
On the other hand, critics have argued that there has to be a sense of “responsibility” associated with freedom of expression. Professor Ahmad said that in an “age of globalization,” where what appears in one country’s media can be flashed across the world, some topics and some ethnic groups are considered “off limits.” So he questioned why in this case people are being provoked “quite unnecessarily.”
Helle Dale noted that most Muslims in Europe have reacted in a very responsible way by taking part in peaceful demonstrations and expressing their unhappiness through the “right channels.” She condemned the violence and suggested that some governments in the Muslim world have used the controversy to “radicalize” their citizens against the West to gain political advantage at home.
Professor Ahmad agreed that some leaders have used their people’s angry emotional response to the cartoons for their own political advantage. For the past two decades, he said he has publicly protested against “angry emotional outbursts,” and he totally condemns violence. But he said he also condemns and rejects insults to his religion and his Prophet. Furthermore, he would prefer a “more intellectual response” so that people on both sides can become aware of the nature of the problem.
Helle Dale noted that some state-sponsored media in the Middle East allow publication of cartoons that are anti-Semitic or that are “aimed at” Israel or the United States. Professor Ahmed agreed that these cartoons are also offensive, and he has publicly objected to them as well as to a recent television documentary that treats the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, “The Protocol of the Elders of Zion,” as fact.
Regarding what can be done to diffuse the current crisis, Helle Dale noted that Danish websites have been set up where private citizens can write greetings to people in the Muslim world expressing their feelings about the controversy. Professor Ahmed said, “We need to be more sensitive to other people’s cultures and religious beliefs.” He urged religious leaders on all sides to involve people in dialogue because the cartoon controversy has reinforced the idea of a “clash,” rather than a “dialogue,” of civilizations.
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