Free Press and the Cartoons
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA

Once an American columnist wrote: “No part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us than that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam”. And to Huston Smith, a renowned world religions scholar, “Of all the non-Western religions, Islam stands closest to the West-closest geographically, and also closest ideologically; for religiously it stands in the Abrahamic family of religions…yet despite this mental and spatial proximity, Islam is the most difficult religion for the West to understand”.
The publication of the Danish cartoons, lampooning Prophet Muhammad proves the veracity of both the statements. The world actually finds itself sitting on a keg of powder, the eruption of which, as the developments indicate, is a matter of time.
And the world is in no short supply of people who are willing to show match to this keg of powder, and are sweating hard to keep the flames of hatred burning on both sides of the aisle. The Danish cartoonist knew the respect and love the Muslims have for their Prophet and the Holy Qur’an. He knew that most in India and Pakistan even do not change in a room that contains a copy of the Qur’an. A vast majority of Muslims while performing their Hajj in Makkah, deem it incomplete if they fail to say 40 prayers in the city of Medina where Prophet Muhammad is buried. Stuck with the image of Muslims as terrorists, the Danish cartoonist knew how he could make them match that image in one stroke, under the cover of free press. He is vacationing now and is amusedly watching the world in flames.
Clearly, the Danish cartoonist chose to caricature the Prophet, not to test the strength of free press, or the solidarity of those who would stand by him in the hour of need; he did it to measure the level Muslims could be provoked to, because, as would say Gandhi, those who can be provoked, they can also be controlled. The publication of cartoons is “a trap of self-destruction” for the Muslims. Whichever way they react, it is bound to backfire on them. Mild protests would earn them the ire of the extremists; violent outbursts would further tarnish their image in the West. In a short period of time, the world will forget who played the original mischief; what it would remember would be the fanatic infatuation of the Muslims, and their mad reactions to, “mild cartoons”. Fourteen deaths, and burning of embassies, banks, cars and properties are just the beginning. New theories and themes are getting inducted in the cartoons controversy every day. The Iranians have found an opportunity in this controversy to launch an international competition for Holocaust cartoons; the Pakistan’s Islamic opposition parties have begun a rolling campaign of protests ahead of a visit by President Bush. They are inwardly thankful to the Danish cartoonist for having supplied them the right material to “get rid of Musharraf”, an agent of the West, as they think of him.
This reminds one of the year 850 when the Qazi of Cordoba begged Pefectus, a Christian fanatic, to renounce insulting the Prophet Muhammad again and again. The Qazi knew Perfectus was doing it with a view to attaining martyrdom, but he did not. The Qazi hated the blasphemy law, but had his hands tied. Six other monks from his monastery delivered yet another venomous attack on Prophet Muhammad, in solidarity with Perfectus, and to attain martyrdom. By the end of that summer, some fifty martyrs had attained “martyrdom” though all of them were denounced by the Bishop of Cordova, and by the Mozarabs who themselves were alarmed at this cult. Then jumped in two fire-brand priests, Eulogio and Paul in the foray declaring the martyrs as “soldiers of God”. Diatribes against Prophet Muhammad uttered by the Cordovan martyrs became an integral part of the apocalyptic biography, a fear-ridden fantasy. 250 years later, Europe re-dug the stories that Muhammad was basically “the great enemy of the emerging Western identity, standing for everything that ‘we hoped we were not”. Finally by 1095 under Pope Urban II, the call came for the first Crusade, and the rest of the story is known to all. The matter is reported by Karen Armstrong in her book, Muhammad.
The 21st century is resonating the story. Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist in his article, “culture wars will be Long”, (Feb.8), and Kathleen Parker in her column, “We shouldn’t appease radical disciplines of Islamic faith”, (Feb.12) mention the differences between the Muslims and the liberal West re-echoing the theme of the 9th century Cordoba, when they pronounce that these differences are much deeper than a mere “clash of two civilizations”, or “two cultures”. The gap is as wide as between the 21st century and the Dark Ages of the 7th century, and that Muslims’ God appears to have “commissioned” them to exact judgment on the world, while our God offers man grace, along with freedom to choose or reject it, reserving judgment for Himself. Both predict in no wavering terms that it is going to be a long, long war. To them, Muslims are a backwater of civilization.
The biggest fallacy, or the deadliest mischief that is being espoused and fashionably propagated is the theory of the clash of civilizations. Prof. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate Economist, extolling the plurality of identities warns those who hold this, “impoverished vision” of the world, and who tend to stuff the world into “boxes of civilizations”. For him recognizing the plurality of different peoples identities, and according them due respect is the only sure way to harmony and peace in the world.
Rene Ciria-Cruz of New America Media is right when he points out, “Why are some Western commentators casting the controversy over the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad as a challenge to freedom of expression and of the press?” They should instead view the controversy as a challenge to journalists to renew their sense of respect for different cultures and religious beliefs”. President Bush also reiterates similar views when he says: Freedom of press is a great virtue, but it should not be without a sense of responsibility or without thoughtfulness to other people’s sensibilities. A timely discredit of the cartoons would have ended the matter there and then. Instead, what the world is reading and witnessing is a charade of finger-pointings with new labels emerging: Muslims getting classified as “Islomafascists”, and the West as “Islamaphobic”.
Are there any solutions that can defuse this stand-off? Strategic outreach to other groups and communities and educating each other are indispensable imperatives now in this mixed-up world of ours. Prof. Akbar Ahmed aptly points out, “Muslim civilization will be central to understanding where we will be moving in the future. 1.3 billion and growing in 55 Muslim States and about 25 million living permanently in the West and many of them now making an impact on social, political, and economic life; and a religion that comes with commitment and passion”, are facts that are hard to be ignored in the present-day world. Any one wanting to make sense of living in the twenty-first century must make efforts to understand Islam, too. Clichés , and stereo-tying and label-sticking are not a civilized way of understanding others.
Free speech, no doubt, is the oxygen of all other freedoms, but we learn to exercise it, notwithstanding the presence of anti-Semitic Laws, Hudud/Sharia Laws and Patriot Acts, to name only a few. Simple voluntary restraint, a self-imposed discipline, a journalistic discretion and an adherence to the written and unwritten laws that govern the journalistic conduct in the press-rooms, in the larger interest of harmony, peace, and understanding in the world are hardly a compromise on free speech.
Dr. Agha Saeed, AMA chairman puts it right when he says, “Bigotry is fought and defeated through public consciousness and rational analysis. Public rebuke is to bigotry what sunshine is to germs. No one is calling for censorship, nor is it the freedom of speech which is under discussion. What is needed is to separate wheat from chaff. The issue is increasing lack of tolerance against Muslims and Islam in the West. No one defends similar insults against any other group in the name of free speech. Deliberate defamation and willful humiliation of any culture and people, including Islam by way of repeated provocations must be discredited by those who stand for free press. Respect, rather than disregard of different cultures and religions can alone restore peace and mutual understanding in the world. Deliberate destruction and denigration of a faith and culture can be very detrimental and disturbing; it can produce and in a way it already has germinated in our modern day world, a defiant spirit of religiosity as a means of asserting the beleaguered self, says Karen Armstrong.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.