Muslims are not exempt from toleration

By Teresa Mia Bejan

With the possibility of disciplinary action being taken against a University student for posting an original cartoon of Muhammad on his door, the international cartoon controversy has come to our door. Many suggest, including Rahaf Kalaaji in the Maroon (“The Cartoons of Muhammad Are Only Racist Islamophobia,” 2/16/06), that the problem is one of racism, not freedom of the press. He argues that the cartoons were meant “only to offend,” and thus press freedom is inapplicable.

Although some are certainly offensive (and others surprisingly innocuous), all undeniably do what political cartoons are supposed to; that is, they irreverently caricature current events. In this case, they pillory evils committed in the name of Islam, including the oppression of women and terrorism. Such atrocities are common on the world stage; why should political cartoonists be forced to overlook them?

The answer is, of course, that the cartoons are offensive as artistic representations of the prophet, a big no-no in Islam. Why a particular religious taboo should determine how secular institutions behave is less clear. The implication is that non-Muslims should submit or defer to Islamic law, a suggestion akin to banning the eating of pork in America for the offense it gives to one religion—that is, absurd. Let Muslims refrain from depicting the prophet; since my chance of going to heaven in their estimation was already nonexistent, I should be able to sketch him daily.

Kalaaji’s counter-example—offensive depictions of Jesus or Moses—lacks rhetorical weight because such “art” is acceptable and not uncommon in the West. Moreover, anti-Semitic cartoons are standard in publications throughout the Middle East, with Jews portrayed as perverts and cannibals, drinking the blood of Muslim children, yet the Jews do not riot—and, oddly enough, the people protesting the Danish cartoons in these countries appear to have no objections to this unquestionably offensive material.

The Muhammad cartoons have provided an excuse for awesome destruction and violence all over the world. In Nigeria, Christians were killed and churches burned in “protest.” To advocate censorship and issue apologies in the face of such thuggery sends a message to the world that the free press is somehow responsible for these atrocities, not the radical imams who stir up hate, or the violent mobs who murder.

If Muslims want to be welcomed as “citizens of the West,” as Kalaaji insists, they must realize that, although they have a right to be offended by what they perceive as an insult to their religion, newspapers have a corresponding right to publish the perceived insults.

What’s more, others have a corresponding right to be offended that freedom of expression is equated to racism. Kalaaji suggests, in effect, that any criticism of Islam deemed offensive is “racist” and insists that Islamophobia is the “last acceptable racism.” I find these suggestions wrong-headed at best. The Nigerian massacres barely made it above the fold in the Western media, suggesting, rather, that we care very little for Christians and Africans.

Many of the atrocities committed in the name of Islam the world over are underreported. The fear of being perceived as Islamophobic has colored coverage not only of the cartoon controversy, but also the recent French riots and the genocide in Sudan. In our efforts to avoid offending anyone, the seriousness of the problem and danger posed by radical Islamists is underestimated and forgotten in favor of the banalities of “entertainment news” and the Congressional puppet show.

The rise of far right parties in Western Europe is certainly unsettling, but perhaps not unexpected. There, extreme violence in the name of Islam is a harsh reality, as when filmmaker Theo van Gogh was gruesomely murdered in the streets of Amsterdam for “insulting Islam.”

Clearly, such incidents and the problem of radical Islam will and should be confronted in the press, but the response should not be accusations of “Islamophobia”—clearly, not all Muslims are capable of or remotely inclined to such horrors; anyone who suggests otherwise commits a crime against logic. Instead, the response should be an honest appraisal and vocal condemnation by the majority of Muslims of the people who commit such evils in the name of their religion. They are the real, common enemy, not a tiny newspaper thousands of miles from Mecca.

We must also consider whether or not the universalism inherent in much of the cartoon uproar is compatible with a pluralistic society. In order for pluralism to succeed, we must cling unequivocally to our freedoms; tolerance can succeed only if it is a two-way street.

For the Muslims to whom the cartoons are a source of hurt: cancel your subscription, or better yet, have a meaningful dialogue with a non-Muslim about your religion. Don’t suggest that the freedom of the press be surrendered because you are offended. That freedom and, ultimately, your own freedom of speech are at stake in this controversy.