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Time to move beyond mutual incomprehension with Muslims

It’s hard to imagine that a worldwide controversy resulting in riots and death could have come from such a simple problem. Kåre Bluitgen wrote a children’s book in Danish whose title in English would be “The Qur’an and the Prophet Mohammed’s Life.” The book itself is reportedly not offensive. The problem was that as it was to be a children’s book, Bluitgen wanted illustrations.

Though some sects of Islam have historically permitted art of humans and even of the prophet, most Muslims consider picturing their religion’s founder to be blasphemous. So, fearing an Islamic backlash at depicting Mohammed, no artist would agree to work on the project. The author’s problem was covered by Danish media. Then on September 30, 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed 12 cartoons depicting Mohammed.

The cartoons were accompanied by text on self-censorship written by the newspaper’s culture editor who said in part, “[Muslims] demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule” (translation courtesy

The cartoon often cited as most offensive to Muslims showed the founder of Islam wearing a turban made of a cartoon-style round bomb with a lit fuse. Another cartoon begs for viewers to put the cartoons in perspective as it shows angry men charging with bombs and swords while a leader says (in an English translation) “Relax friends, at the end of the day, it’s just a drawing by an infidel South Jutlander.”

There were angry reactions among Danish Muslims who tried unsuccessfully for prosecution under a Danish law which “prohibits any person from publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark.” The Danish regional prosecutor found no criminal offense in the newspaper article and cartoons.

The cartoon crisis went global in December of 2005 when a group of Danish Imams (Muslim religious leaders) traveled to Egypt with a 43-page report hoping to invoke outrage among Muslims in other nations.

As news of the controversy spread, so too did republication of the cartoons. Newspapers were closed in Jordan, Yemen, Malaysia and Algeria in response to editors in pre-dominantly Islamic nations reprinting the images.

In the past two weeks protests have ignited around the Muslim world, resulting in what rightly headlined as “Mutual Incomprehension.” Muslims can’t comprehend our apathy in the face of blasphemy. The rest of us have trouble comprehending the ongoing riots and deaths touched off by editorial cartoons of all things.

I thought Christians were pretty thick skinned, and we probably are. We have dealt with films like “Monty Pythons Life of Brian” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” both of which offended some Christians and either bored or amused others.

But there are boundaries for what we care to see or hear too. I can be offended by jokes in genuinely poor taste which feature my own faith. Turn Jesus’ suffering and death into the subject of a tasteless joke and you can turn my stomach. I'm not ready to riot, but I don’t like it either.

I usually shrug my shoulders and move on. I don’t laugh at offensive jokes, I don’t go see every movie but I don’t protest either, knowing that such protest would only encourage the very thing I would rather not promote. That’s my solution, but it’s not going to work when some would use this tempest in a teapot to fan the flames of anger against what many Muslims see as the decadence of the west.

So how do we move forward? On the one hand, free societies depend upon a free press and other forms of free speech. On the other hand, we do already set boundaries on protected speech. One is not permitted to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, so we do already acknowledge the need for responsible boundaries to free speech. As picturing Mohammed at all goes against Islamic faith, perhaps the harsh cartoon depictions of a beloved religious leader are appropriately self censored when no good comes from publication.

What purposes have been served by the cartoons? An author and a newspaper have received a lot of free publicity. Lives have been lost, property has been damaged, and division between many Muslims and the rest of us have widened.

Note that I suggest self censorship. I do strongly believe in a free press and feel that the Danish prosecutor acted wisely in not punishing the newspaper or artists for rightly protected free speech. However, a free press must always weigh the cost of publishing something against its benefits.

For example, journalists recently struggled with whether or not to show dead bodies in photos of post-Hurricane Katrina devastation. Similarly, a newspaper should weigh the benefits of publishing a cartoon against the wider effects of that decision to publish. Needless disrespect should be avoided.

I know that as a Boy Scout, I was taught to be reverent, which meant not just respect for my own faith, but respect for those of other faith traditions as well. Reverence for the religious traditions of others should be a factor in making the decision to publish.

Perhaps we can never fully comprehend the deep offense taken by the Muslim faithful any more than they can understand our apathy in the face of what appears to them to be obvious blasphemy. But I don’t think it is too much to ask that we do try to understand where their anger is coming from and to attempt to not create more division needlessly. As Paul wrote, “Live in peace with all if possible, to the extent that it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).

Mostly, I want to join the Danish cartoonist in saying to angry Muslims, “Relax friends, at the end of the day, it’s just a drawing by an infidel.”

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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