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Much Ado, But Not Always About the Cartoon -Ruth Nasrullah

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I’m not going to tell you what I think about this cartoon. What I think isn’t the point.

Apparently at least 25 newspapers that carry the comic strip refused to print last Sunday’s “Opus” for fear of offending Muslims. I’m not familiar with the cartoon, but it appears to be wry political and social commentary along the lines of “Doonesbury.”

The papers’ self-censorship raises obvious questions about issues such as freedom of speech and of the press, religious sensitivity, even the state of today’s media. More importantly, how these issues impact western Muslims is an issue of great concern.

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When major newspapers refuse to print cartoons that they believe may offend Muslims, they reinforce the polarization of Muslims and non-Muslims. “We’re afraid of ‘them'” is their message, with “them” being very vaguely identified. When an editor cites concern for a “Muslim backlash” without distinguishing which Muslims and what kind of backlash they fear, every Muslim, myself included, becomes part of “them” – a scary group of bearded and scarved, mostly brown, unpredictable, volatile and ultra-sensitive men and women.

I’m currently making my way through Western Muslims and the Future of Islam by Tariq Ramadan. One of the things he stresses is that Muslims must not accept or encourage, even among themselves, the idea of Muslims as “the other.” Ramadan notes:

It is a question of defining who we are and what our religion expects of us as Muslims. At first sight, these two questions may appear simple, but they are crucial: by setting a general framework for the Islamic identity, beyond the contingencies of a particular setting such as Europe or North America, they permit us to decide what is already acceptable and what is needed by way of reforms and improvements in order to create both a balanced existence and a positive coexistence. [Emphasis added.]

He reminds readers that Islam is a universal religion, accessible to and intended for all people at all places in all times, and that believers who follow its tenets and traditions will thrive in any culture.

Muslims in countries that view freedom of speech and the press as virtually inviolate have an obligation to seek the “balanced existence and positive coexistence” Ramadan writes about by respecting those fundamental freedoms. Must we be vigilant of deeply offensive speech and speak out when the line is crossed, as it was with the Danish cartoons? Of course. Should we expect and support the media withholding publication of a cartoon, article, or ad for fear of “offending Muslims”? Absolutely not. And tinkering with freedom of speech is not the answer.

At the time the lampoons of the Prophet (SAWS) were published in Europe, some Muslim groups here proposed passing laws banning speech “offensive to religion.” Now there’s a slippery slope – under a law like that, Jewish groups could assert that anything anti-Israel offends their religion, and our good but poorly-thought-out intentions would be thrown back in our face.

Before we propose legally preempting offensive words, we should also bear in mind that speech creating a “clear and present danger” is unprotected in the US. Some Islamophobes persistently advance the idea that all Muslims are “jihadists” just waiting to happen. If we try to limit freedom of speech, we’re laying our own words open to the risk of being unfairly labeled as evidence that we’re plotting evil.

Publication of offensive material should provoke measured protest when necessary and da’wah and education wherever possible. But censoring something like the Opus cartoon makes a joke of the press and pushes Muslims one step farther from positive coexistence with our non-Muslim neighbors.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. iMuslim

    August 31, 2007 at 10:37 AM

    Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah

    Interesting piece.

    I can’t help but think that the surname “Struggle” was actually a form of self-censorship by the cartoonist. I think Jihad was the original word of intent, but yeah… perhaps they thought that would be pushing it? Hmm.

    Wa’salam

  2. ruth nasrullah

    August 31, 2007 at 12:05 PM

    Walaikum asalaam. Good point, iMuslim. I hadn’t thought about that.

  3. Ibrahim

    August 31, 2007 at 10:54 PM

    Much ado about . . . whatever will surface. There is always more than one way to look at these matters. The first reaction should be to remind ourselves that this is
    Allah’s will and a test that reflects the times we live in that have been manipulated by men to focus on fear, suspicion and hatred – among Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike.

    Of course, many Muslims will be offended immediately, as was the case of the Danish cartoons, and many other “cultural slights” that have occurred even before the events of six years ago. However, before we go on our rants, we must remind ourselves that Islam as a life system, and Muslims as members of the world societies are subject to the same types of social comment, satire and outright ridicule that other cultures have been subjected to over generations.

    Do you think that living in and becoming more visible as a sub-culture in the west will leave you immune to this type of treatment in the media, entertainment or other expressions? A cursory view of some contemporary urban films over the past 10 years or even more will reveal the presence a “Muslim-like” character, who was either an inmate, an ex-con, or had some other social or personal issue. But there was not a whole lot of outcry then.

    While we should be understandably disturbed at the continuing media “mis-treatment” of Islamic life and Muslim, we must also ask ourselves what have we done to help minimize or diffuse the ignorance that has been rampant in western societies, especially the U.S. for so many years. How do we carry ourselves and conduct our affairs now so that people will come to understand and appreciate the commitment that a Muslim makes when he or she actively practices the Islamic life system?

    Before we go shouting about our rights and integrity being bruised or offended, let’s take a moment to and reflect on what we are doing with, to and among ourselves that either help clarify the misconceptions, or in fact perpetuate and reinforce them.

    And let’s pray that we will become stronger in our spiritual growth and faith, and the individuals to issue these commentaries in the movies, comics or other media find a place deep in there hearts that begins to grow a seed of longing for the truth and guidance.

  4. Nasir

    September 2, 2007 at 7:25 AM

    assalamu alaikum,

    Sister let me ask you, if the cartoon was offensive to Jews would the media allow it to be printed?

    The media is very careful not to say or print anything that may be “offensive” to Jews.

    What about if someone were to print an article mocking homosexuals? Would the media allow a cartoon like this?

    So if its not acceptable to Mock Jews or homosexuals why do you think should be treated different?

    (Ironically these same people condemn Islam as being intolerant of Homosexuals)

    And while muslims respect freedom of speech, under no circumstances do we approve or allow the mocking of Allahs Deen.

    And in my opinion if the muslims were to raise hell (non violently) this would be enjoining the good forbidding the evil.

  5. ruth nasrullah

    September 2, 2007 at 8:12 AM

    Walaikum asalaam. Maybe I didn’t highlight the point sufficiently, but I did write, “Must we be vigilant of deeply offensive speech and speak out when the line is crossed, as it was with the Danish cartoons? Of course.”

    While I understand what you’re saying, a couple weeks ago that cartoon actually did run a strip that was mildly offensive to homosexuals and I’m sure the comic has offended many people over time. The thing is that they didn’t censor that one, and the point of this post is that by singling out Muslims as a group that’s so sensitive they can’t bear to be offended makes us look scary, foreign and scornful of democracy.

    This post isn’t about the cartoon. It’s about the impact of censorship.

  6. Umm Zaid

    September 3, 2007 at 6:48 AM

    People self-censor all the time, and the republik goes on. The only difference is that we should not allow them to play the Hate Card and blame it on Mozlems. Did anyone bother to ask the Mozlems before they took this action and then said it was because of da Mozlems?

    My money is on no.

    That is because we are not real people to them, who might actually be capable of carrying on a conversation about something.

    Of course, that is probably our own fault that they think that… I mean, it isn’t hard to imagine what on Earth would give people the idea that Mozlems are overly emotional…

    I don’t want to protest self-censorship — if they want to do it, more power to them. Who am I to tell someone they have to say whatever they want? No, I protest misassigned blame. Claim your self censorship, claim your bigotry. Don’t say you did it in my name.

  7. Pingback: muslimmatters.org » On Veils, Voting, and More

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