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Strife over cartoons clouds Islam’s image

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Tensions over whether Islam is a religion of peace or violence continue to fester, as anger and violence over a set of political cartoons continues worldwide.

“This cartoonist has done with a drop of ink what [Satanic Verses author] Salmon Rushdie was not able to do with hundreds of pages of material,” said Emir Caner, dean of The College at Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas, and coauthor of the book “Unveiling Islam.”

A Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, originally published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad in September. Anger and violence erupted in numerous countries in January when the cartoons were republished, initially in a Norwegian newspaper followed by other European papers. Though the Danish paper apologized for any offense caused to Muslims, it defended the printing of the drawings as legitimate freedom of speech.

Among the cartoons is an image of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. Muslims are traditionally barred from any depictions of Muhammad in order to prevent idolatry.

The reaction to the cartoons has gone a long way to prove exactly what the Danish creator intended to illustrate, Caner said. “He wanted to demonstrate to some extent that … Islam is militant in nature, and they have fulfilled the prophecy themselves,” Caner said. “Fairly or unfairly, they have done so.”

The underlying question of the Danish cartoons, Caner said, is not whether they are offensive but, rather, whether they are profane. A distinction exists, he noted, between the provocative that offends and the profane that defiles.

“If you have seen the cartoons, they are offensive, but they are purposefully offensive,” Caner said, “They are provocative, not profane.” Caner said he believes the Danish cartoonist intentionally wanted to create a discussion on the nature of Islam.

Caner pointed out that in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther used political cartoons as a tool to instigate provocative discussion about the Catholic Church, in what was at that time a vastly illiterate Europe.

“[Our response] has to consider the question of whether there is any truth in there, and any purpose in drawing such a cartoon,” Caner said.

Central to the heated debate is the question of freedom of speech, which European media have cited in response to ongoing violence and threats of violence against them. Mideast analyst Daniel Pipes, in a Feb. 7 article in the New York Sun, argued that “peoples who would stay free must stand unreservedly with Denmark.”

Caner was raised as a Muslim in America before he accepted Christ in 1982 and he noted that American Muslims currently find themselves in “the most difficult of situations,” on the one hand defending the freedom of speech and religion they are given in America and on the other hand defending their Islamic faith.

Yet American Muslims aren’t the only ones facing difficult questions. Media throughout America have had to make critical decisions relating to the cartoons, particularly whether to broadcast or print the cartoons themselves. Caner noted that some networks were willing to broadcast images of Andres Serrano’s image of the cross soaked in urine years ago — something obviously offensive to Christians — yet the media have been unwilling to broadcast the cartoon images that are so offensive to Muslims.

“What is that going to teach someone who incites violence on the Muslim side, the more militant Muslims, but that they can get their way if they burn enough embassies or incite enough violence?” Caner asked.

For what is perhaps the first time, western media has had to deal with freedom of speech and its clash with Islam, Caner said.

“The question now becomes to the secular media, ‘Do you have the guts to stand for what you believe, as we believe as Americans — freedom of speech — and are you willing to pay a costly price in order to secure that value?’”

Caner believes Islam will now be touted more than ever as a religion of peace, but careful thought should be given to whether Muhammad himself was a peaceful man and whether he began a religion that is peaceful.

“I think the ultimate answer to that is, on both counts, no,” Caner said. “Muhammad was in charge of at least 83 military expeditions. When Muhammad dies in 632 A.D., all of his disciples go to war.”

The more literally the Koran is read and followed, Caner said, the more militant its Muslim reader should become. By contrast, the more literally the Bible is read, the more peaceful its Christian reader should become.

“The fundamentalist Christian, the one who believes in the fundamentals of the faith, did not react in the same way to the urine-dipped cross, as it were, as a fundamentalist Muslim did [to the cartoon images],” Caner said.

Caner recalled the response to the NBC show, “The Book of Daniel.” Though Christians were upset by the show’s irreverent depiction of Christianity, they reacted by writing letters to NBC and to the show’s sponsors, prompting the show to be pulled from the NBC lineup.

“We exercised our right without forbidding their right,” he said.

Pipes noted in his Feb. 7 article that Muslims routinely publish cartoons far more offensive to other faiths than the Danish cartoons were to the Muslim faith.

“Will westerners accede to a double standard by which Muslims are free to insult Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, while Muhammad, Islam and Muslims enjoy immunity from insults?” Pipes asked.
Olivia Tulley is a Dallas-based freelance writer who lived two years in Northern Africa before pursuing a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies.

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