The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Cartoon controversy: an inevitable predicament

By Talha Khan

Recent news of carnage, disruption, violent protests and emergency meetings in the Muslim world have raised many eyebrows, mostly expressing disbelief at the drastically evolving and escalating nature of the cartoon controversy. Many students at Macalester have approached me, expressing bewilderment at what could possibly have caused such an outrageous (not to mention bloody) expression of sentiments. “After all, they were merely cartoons depicting a non-living individual,” some would say. “Satire is a common theme in the West, and Jesus is made fun of in caricatures in the media all the time,” others would add. Indeed, for the average reader of this article, the recent events would at worst be an affirmation of the numerous stereotypes that exist about “those Muslims,” and at best, be highly disturbing to their imagination.

Most people following the events (including Fleming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published these cartoons first in September 2005) are constructing the dialectic on the conflict along the lines of freedom of expression and speech in the West versus the non-existence of it in the Islamic world. According to Rose, “. . . I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” He contends that he is confronting these dogmas and challenging the moderate Muslims to speak out against the hijacking of their religion by extremists who find reasons to denounce freedom of expression. My response: brilliant idea, horrible execution.
I believe that even the most apolitical and non-religious of Muslims around the world feel offended to some extent by the content of these cartoons. The act of drawing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad himself, although considered sacrilegious by most conservative/traditional Muslims, was probably not the central cause of the angry outburst that we are witnessing in the Muslim world today. Rather, I contend that the unquestionably offensive and derogatory message being expressed through the publication of these cartoons is what troubles most Muslims around the world.

Showing the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban is an affirmation of the widely growing belief amongst many in the West that Islam is synonymous with terrorism. What better a way to reinforce those widely held notions than to show the Prophet that all Muslims revere as a ticking time bomb. This cartoon is just one example of what the nature of the caricatures of Mohammad were like—nothing short of provocative and instigative.

The fact remains that most Muslims (including myself) are merely saddened by the short-sightedness and irresponsible nature of these publications. Not only is drawing caricatures of any religious figure considered sacrilegious by the majority of Muslims, but in the post 9/11 world, many Muslims have felt deeply marginalized—politically, culturally and religiously. Some might argue that my contention is an overarching generalization of the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today, but while I recognize the diverse interests, ideologies and political undertones that certainly play a substantive role in this conflict, I am certain that those factors cannot override the genuine dismay being expressed by millions of Muslims.
Freedom of speech, I contend, does not and should not entail freedom of provocation and instigation. What are those creating and printing these caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad trying to achieve? Do they want the moderate Muslims to come out and condone the satire and the message it portrays as but merely playful western tradition that must be respected and appreciated at all costs? I certainly do not think that purported purpose succeeded in winning any substantial supporters amongst the moderates. There are many other ways of encouraging the so-called “dialogue amongst civilizations”—and certainly less overtly symbolic ones.
I do believe that if there is one thing that this tragic episode has brought out, it is the existence of two narratives: 1) the hugely paranoid and racist ideology that persists in Europe to this day vis-à-vis its growing number of immigrants, most of whom are Muslims: 2) the absolutely archaic, intolerant, illiterate and savage nature of those few Muslims who went on a rampage, ironically killing fellow Muslims while supposedly protesting the Danish cartoons. Their barbaric behaviour has cast a grim shadow on the majority that have been protesting peacefully and certainly deserves criticism.
But that is not a new development, is it? We often hear the media focussing on “Islamic extremists” or “Muslim Jihadists” so much so that one would believe that the whole nation of believers is among them. I also think that the lack of character and civility in the Muslim response has shattered an impeccable opportunity to shift the discourse away from its perceived backwardness and onto the more pertinent issues of stereotypes against them in the West.

Talha Khan ’08 is a columnist for The Mac Weekly Opinion section. Contact him at [email protected].

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