A brand new controversy is blazing on the “Islam versus West” front. Many people on both sides are busily throwing fuel into the fire, trying to keep the flames of this sizzling dispute going as high and as long as possible. If you have not been keeping up with this story, check out Wikipedia’s entry here. Details are uncertain and identifying the characters is irrelevant. The phenomenon, however, is real enough to be observable.
Given this background, I would like to explore the following questions: Why is it that some individuals can find nothing better to do than draw caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)? Why is it that some Muslims can find nothing better to do than get the world’s attention focused upon what they consider blasphemy?
I would also like to examine some related issues: Why would some people deliberately act in ways that they know would trigger unpleasant reactions in others? Why would some people react in unpleasant ways when they know that these reactions are precisely what their tormentors are trying to elicit?
And while we are at it, let’s also figure out why Muslims have no sense of humor and what makes them so easily offended by harmless jokes. What’s the big deal, anyway, with making light-hearted fun of some guy who lived fourteen hundred years ago? In a time when every community’s holy people have been repeatedly depicted in a variety of ways, why should Muslims remain exempt?
Or, alternatively, why is it that the oppressive and hypocritical West is trying to destroy Islam by desecrating what is most dear to Muslims?
Since these are all why questions dealing with the esoteric subject of intents and motives, I must reveal in advance my view of human nature. Let’s start with three working assumptions: first, human motivations are ultimately rooted in universal human needs; second, there is potentially an indefinite number of ways in which human beings can try to fulfill their needs; and third, some strategies for meeting human needs are more effective than others, while several may be entirely useless or even counterproductive.
Leaving the task of unpacking these assumptions for another day, I will now proceed with the topic at hand.
Those who initiated and organized the campaign, and those who enthusiastically contributed their drawings, were obviously trying to meet one or more of their needs, but which ones? Perhaps they were trying to meet their need for artistic expression. This need, however, could have been met much more satisfactorily through any of the virtually infinite number of other subject matters, several of which may have been more suitable for their artistic talents. So why did they choose this particular subject, knowing perfectly well that it will trigger unpleasant reactions?
Perhaps they were trying to meet their need for making a positive contribution; if so, they may have believed that Muslims were too uptight about pictorial representations of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and so they decided to break the taboo once and for all in order to get these over-stressed Muslims to chill out. The strategy they used, however, did not help them achieve their purpose. Instead of chilling out, a large number of Muslims reacted to this public breaking of the taboo by turning even more hostile–more suspicious, angry, cynical.
Or perhaps the campaign really was a protest against the tendency of certain Muslims to issue death threats and/or carry out violence against those who depict their Prophet in ways that they would judge to be less than appropriate. If so, then perhaps these individuals were genuinely feeling unsafe and insecure, in which case they were only trying to fulfill their needs for safety and security. Their strategy, then, was based on the idea that the threat of extremist violence could be eliminated by raising the number of possible targets to a ridiculous height.
At least in theory, the idea seems quite risky to me. It is true that if millions of people were to participate in the campaign, Muslim extremists cannot possibly threaten or kill all of them (assuming, of course, that all Muslims are not extremists). And yet, the possibility remains that these extremists will threaten or kill at least some of these “artists,” or–if they were to feel sufficiently irritated–perhaps a great many of them. A strategy like this, I suspect, would hardly bring safety and security to those seeking freedom of artistic expression; quite the opposite.
But there is one more possibility. Perhaps these individuals were suffering from some kind of intolerable pain, and the unconscious purpose of their campaign was to overcome their own pain by making sure that they would seriously hurt other people. The need to reduce or overcome one’s suffering is genuine enough, but the futility of this strategy is also equally obvious. Hurting others does not diminish one’s own pain but only makes it many times worse; it also escalates and accelerates the cycle of mutual hurting.
As of today, I am inclined to believe that the last explanation is closest to the truth. Initially some individuals may have been motivated by a passionate desire to defend the First Amendment rights, but they obviously lost control when this semi-serious and half-baked suggestion caught the attention and ignited the imagination of certain reckless characters. The phenomenon then took a life of its own, as so often happens in the volatile realm of cyberspace. It then became a world-wide channel that was used by an increasing number of individuals to express their respective sufferings; unfortunately, most of them expressed their pain in the most unhealthy manner possible, i.e., by deliberately hurting “others.”
And the Muslim reaction? While there have been a few sane voices here and there, the most strident ones dominated the airwaves . . . reinforcing the stereotype of the “Muslim Mind” as irrational, medieval, fanatic, ready to murder at the slightest provocation.
Like the cartooning campaign itself, the Muslim reaction is most likely a tragic expression of pain. Taken in isolation, the extent and intensity of the Muslim rage may appear to be out of proportion to the supposed insult. What is rarely appreciated in the United States, however, is that sarcasms and other forms of ironic humor that are deliberately designed to humiliate and hurt Muslims on account of their well-known religious sensibilities are by no means a laughing matter, for they add insult to injury. The insult may be slight, but the fact that it happens on top of a long series of injuries makes it a highly sensitive and potentially explosive matter.
There is widespread grief among Muslims that remains unrecognized in the Western world, grief that has been caused by the experience of political subjugation at the hands of European colonialism–not only political subjugation but also social disintegration, economic deprivation, cultural collapse, institutional destruction, and intellectual mutilation. In the postcolonial period, the memory of this violence and the resulting sense of undeserved loss still lingers in the Muslim psyche; the pain of this wound is frequently exacerbated by neocolonialism’s thinly disguised attempts to continue the exploitation initiated by classical colonialism.
Since the end of the Second World War, and even more so after the end of the Cold War, the United States has been rising not only as a self-proclaimed benevolent leader but also as the inheritor of all the darkness perpetrated by the former European empires. In the background of the US hegemony in world politics, trade, and culture–most of which is neither earned by fair means nor employed for just causes–a demeaning series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) could hardly have been received as a harmless joke.
A single straw does not break the camel’s back. It is a single straw added on top of an intolerable burden that cracks its spine.
For those unfamiliar with the history of European violence in the Old World, perhaps a reference to the history of the New World would be helpful. Consider this: Why is it that many older Hollywood movies about Cowboys and Indians are now considered offensive? The nature of their offensiveness cannot be understood merely by watching these movies. To appreciate why they are so objectionable, we must watch these movies in relation to the history of the destruction of American Indians at the hands of European invaders and settlers. The films in question are not repulsive in themselves; they are repulsive because they add insult to injury. Had there been no injury in the first place, these movies would have offended no one.
Let us look more closely at the Muslim reaction. Our angry reaction to the perceived desecration of the image of our beloved Prophet may be understandable, but did it constitute an effective strategy?
I am inclined to believe that those who were angrily protesting in Muslim countries across the globe were suffering from intolerable pain, and, as such, they were trying to reduce or overcome their suffering through these protests. Questions still remain. What was the nature of their pain? What kind of strategies did they use to meet their needs?
Perhaps they were feeling powerless to control their own destiny, and decided that this was as good an issue as any to experience some empowerment. They chose a poor strategy, if this was indeed their goal, for it was one that disrupted normal life and business, distracted them from more immediate and practical problems, and allowed their leaders to gain political advantage by making a public display of piety.
Or perhaps they were feeling unhappy because their need for fairness was not being met. They may have thought it was unfair that the Western ideal of free speech was frequently used in a selective manner–that it was invoked to protect all varieties of speech that may be hurtful to Muslims but was never invoked in defense of their own right to freely express their viewpoint. Whether or not this strategy of public uproar and angry protest would help them achieve their goal of establishing fairness remains to be seen, though this is unlikely to happen. The unfairness in question has roots in the massive asymmetry of power and economic advantage that defines the present global reality–a reality that does not respond to sporadic and explosive displays of resentment. If anything, such displays of resentment only accentuates a win/lose mentality and, as a result, tends to elicit identical reactions from the “other” side; just as violence breeds violence, resentment only produces more resentment.
Or perhaps they were not trying to change anything; perhaps they were feeling upset at their relative weakness and disadvantage, and were only trying to vent some of their anger so that they could feel better. This, again, was an ineffective strategy, for anger does not dissipate by its uncontrolled expression, nor does such an expression help remove the underlying causes of this unpleasant feeling. These demonstrations only increased the total amount of anger, frustration, and hate in the atmosphere of the planet.
It seems that neither side was able to get any degree of analgesic relief from this entire sordid affair. Part of the reason was a lack of willingness, or ability, to grasp the deeper issue.
As the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade has taught us, the reality of the “Sacred” must be taken into account if we are to appreciate the nature and intensity of religious sentiments. The ability to experience the Sacred–as distinct from the mundane, the ordinary, and the profane–is the very essence of human religiosity. The Sacred, while mysteriously hidden and beyond human reach, can nevertheless manifest itself in any part of the experienced reality. A place, a time, a person, a book . . . virtually anything can be a locus for the manifestation of the Sacred. For example, Mt. Sinai and the Temple Mount are sacred places for the Jewish people and Easter is a sacred time for Christians. Eliade argued that the “modern man” (by which he meant the secular viewpoint of Western modernity) has become incapable of experiencing the Sacred; this is a new and unfortunate development in human history, for the entire period of human existence prior to the advent of modernity shows unmistakable evidence that all human cultures everywhere did recognize the Sacred as such. The everyday lives of those who recognize the reality of the Sacred necessarily revolve around specific manifestations of the Sacred, also known as “hierophanies.” And yet, this profound truth makes little sense to the “modern man.” From a modern, secular viewpoint, the Temple Mount is no different from any other piece of real estate, Mt. Sinai is no different from any other hill in the desert, and Good Friday is no different from any other day of the year. According to Eliade, the “modern man” is tragically incapable of appreciating, let alone personally experiencing, the power and glory of a particular hierophany. This ability, of course, is natural and native to the “religious man.”
Two of the most important manifestations of the Sacred for Muslims are (1) the Islamic Scripture, or the Holy Qur’an; and (2) the Arabian prophet named Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). When we approach either the Qur’an or the Prophet, we ought to remind ourselves that we are approaching a glorious hierophany that has had a tremendous impact on the course of human history. We ought to exercise supreme caution and extraordinary care as we move closer to these manifestations of the Sacred. For Muslims, it is obvious that the holiness, power, and significance of this particular book and this particular person can never be matched by anything else in the entire cosmos. For non-Muslims, if they hope to understand and appreciate the faith of world’s 1.5 billion people, it is highly advisable to take the Muslim perspective with utmost seriousness and respect, even if–or, rather, especially if–it makes little or no sense to them. They may take the Muslim perspective seriously, not because there is any legal or moral requirement that Muslims must remain exempt from offensive humor, for there is none, but because they may want to develop real and authentic connections with the adherents of a monotheistic tradition constituting no less than one-fifth of humanity.
As for Muslims, what would be our best strategy in the face of deliberate attempts at the desecration of what we hold most sacred?
First, we must win the inner struggle before we can carry out any outer struggle successfully. More specifically, we must win back our inner freedom, so that, whenever we are provoked or attacked, we do not react automatically in pre-conditioned ways but are actually able to choose our response. Being offended, for instance, is not an event but a choice. If we develop inner freedom, we may choose not to be offended.
Second, we must establish channels of communication with a wide range of other communities with whom we share this planet. More specifically, we must have ongoing exchange of ideas with open-minded individuals and organizations in the Western world, so that, whenever a moment of crisis occurs, we do not have to take to the streets but are able to get our point across in a more civil manner.
Third, we must do everything possible to get over the win/lose mentality. More specifically, we must recognize that all human beings have the same needs as we do, and that understanding the viewpoints of “others” is at least as important as getting them to understand ours.
Fourth, we must communicate our grievances in a manner that has the greatest possibility of resonating with “others.” Instead of demanding special treatment or exemptions, we must defend the right of all religious communities to be free from insulting and humiliating speech. In this respect, it is obvious that we have to clean up our own house first.
Fifth, we must learn to disregard the behavior of immature individuals; so that, instead of arguing with the ignorant and focusing on their worst deeds, we may choose to direct our attentions elsewhere, towards more virtuous and beautiful pursuits. Controversies like these thrive on public attention; Muslims can choose to withhold their attention from unpleasant things, thereby allowing them to wither away into oblivion. As the Qur’an teaches, the best response to people who act in childish and provocative ways is to simply peace out:
وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا
My final thought on this subject is as follows.
Muslims should remember that cartoons and caricatures are nothing more than attempts at representing some aspect of reality. Representations do not perfectly mirror particular aspects of objective reality as much as they reveal the inner lives of the individuals who produce the representations. Artists can only show us what they themselves are able to see; and, as is well-known, we do not see things as they really are but we see things–to a very large extent–as we are. This means that disrespectful portrayals of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) convey very little about his real personality or his actual teachings; they do say a lot about the sad inner lives of the “artists” who draw such portrayals.
While this understanding may give us some consolation, it can also open the doors for a grim and critical analysis of our own lives and deeds. All that some immature individuals can accomplish is produce a few transient and ultimately inconsequential images; in the larger scheme of things these images will count for nothing substantial. Muslims, on the other hand, are in a much more serious predicament simply by virtue of claiming adherence and loyalty to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Through our actions and inactions, it is we who most powerfully represent the Prophet to the judgment of history. We are his heirs and the self-appointed defenders of his honor; as such, our lives and deeds are the only substantial clues that the world is going to use for making judgments on the Prophet’s personality and teachings. The world has every right to look at our characters and behaviors, and wonder as to what kind of seed would have produced such fruits? We are–for the most part–representing our Prophet in ways that are less than honorific; unlike the creators of disrespectful cartoons, however, we do so while claiming to be his most loyal followers.
We have seen the culprit, and it is us.