By Nihad Awad
I will be the first to defend anyone’s right to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it may be to me. The US has prospered because Americans value and respect diversity. But freedom of expression does not create an obligation to offend or to show disrespect for the religious beliefs or revered figures of others.
In apparent reaction to the recent controversy over a depiction of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in an episode of the animated sitcom South Park on the cable network Comedy Central, a Seattle-based cartoonist, Molly Norris, created a cartoon poster depicting images claimed to be likenesses of the Prophet.
She has since distanced herself from the event, saying she never intended to launch “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” And on her website, she has since posted a statement that reads in part: “I did NOT ‘declare’ May 20 to be ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.’ … The cartoon-poster, with a fake ‘group’ behind it, went viral and was taken seriously … The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out, of people who only want to draw obscene images, is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place … I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.”
Jon Wellington, the creator of a Facebook page dedicated to the day, also repudiated the “inflammatory posts” it inspired. He said, “I am aghast that so many people are posting deeply offensive pictures of the Prophet.”
Despite Norris and Wellington’s seemingly sincere attempts to distance themselves from the event, Muslim-bashers and Islamophobes made sure the call to “draw Muhammad” went viral on the internet. Most Muslims believe visual representations of prophets are inappropriate as they might distract from the worship of God alone and even lead to idol worship, which is forbidden in Islam.
So how should Muslims and other Americans react to this latest attempt by hate-mongers to exploit the precious right of free speech and turn 20 May into a celebration of degradation and xenophobia?
Before I answer that question, it must first be made clear that Muslim Americans value freedom of speech and have no desire to inhibit the creative instincts of cartoonists, comedians or anyone else.
The mainstream Muslim American community, including my own organisation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has also strongly repudiated the few members of an extremist fringe group associated with the website RevolutionMuslim.com which initially appeared to threaten the creators of South Park. That group, the origins and makeup of which have been questioned by many Muslims, has absolutely no credibility within the Muslim American community.
I, like many Muslims, was astonished to see media outlets broadcasting the views of a few marginal individuals, while ignoring the hundreds of mosques and
Muslim institutions that have representatives who could have offered a mainstream perspective.
Next, one must examine how the Prophet Muhammad himself reacted to personal insults.
Islamic traditions include a number of instances in which the Prophet had the opportunity to retaliate against those who abused him, but refrained from doing so. He said, “You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness.” And a verse from the Koran tells the Prophet to “Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant” (7:199).
This is the guidance Muslims should follow as they express concern about an insulting depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, or of any other prophet of God.
Instead of reacting negatively to the bigoted call to support Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, Muslim Americans – and Muslims worldwide – should use 20 May, and every other day, as an opportunity to reach out to people of other faiths and beliefs to build bridges of understanding and respect.
The best and most productive response to bigoted campaigns like Everybody Draw Muhammad Day is more communication, not less – and not by restricting the free flow of ideas with measures like banning Facebook.
Research, including a 2010 Gallup poll gauging US attitudes toward Muslims, has shown that anti-Islam prejudice can go down when people interact with ordinary Muslims and have greater knowledge of Islam.
Therefore, the best reaction to those who would mock the Prophet Muhammad (or the religious leaders and symbols of any faith) might be to host a mosque “open house” for the local community, a community service activity organised by Muslims and involving people of other faiths, or a newspaper commentary describing the life, legacy and personal character of the Prophet, which is the opposite of the calumny some people fabricate about him.
We will all benefit if each of us – whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu – exhibits the common human decency required by our respective faiths.
Nihad Awad is Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim American political and civil rights group.