So by now, most of us have either seen or heard about the cartoons originally published by Danish newspapers. We’ve heard the stories from all sides. Quote un-quote Westerners have laid down their claim that it is about freedom of speech. Muslims have rebuttled that freedom of speech should not constitute vulgarities. Who’s right and who’s wrong? As usual, we’re both suspect.
What is freedom of speech? As we see here in an exerpt,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
It looks pretty good, right? No one from the United States would even think of criticizing this amendment. And while I think it’s a pretty good law as well, I think we have to look into eso-and-exoteric forces that may have something to do with how this law is interpreted, implemented and perhaps abused.
I think one of the things that really has to happen with this is that both sides, that being those who feel it is their right to openly question and critique religion as well as those who are on the offended side of such publications, need to realize that there must be some form or space for both of these points to coexist. Many intellectuals and historians would say one of the primary functions in the way this amendment can be implemented is that it serves as a vehicle to criticize religion and politics. This certainly stands true if we look at how we are, for the most part, express our own individual opinions on every and all subjects from urban economics to the Iraq War to the Danish cartoons. It should be noted, for those Muslims who have been offended by the recently published cartoons (including yours truly) that we have often rode the same vehicle in our own pursuits to criticize our governments, fellow core religionists as well as have interfaith discourse. Without such laws of free speech, we would not be able say such things without terrible repercussions. We use freedom of speech all the time as Muslims here in the West and would be the worse without it.
With that said, does freedom of speech equate a sort of reckless abandon of etiquette? Are we to speak our minds at the cost of others loosing theirs? The laws which govern and protect freedom of speech are held as sacred here in the West – without them we would not be the West (many pro-Westerners often site freedom of speech as one of the key factors which separates us from other parts of the world where despotism rules, preventing freedom of speech). But finally, I will say, I do honestly wonder if such sacred traditions were ever meant to be used as a bludgeoning weapon. With great power comes great responsibility and often as it is with our case in the West, we are abusers of that great power.
It is truly a sad reaction that so much of the Muslim world, or as I would prefer to call it the ethnic Muslim world, as Islam is now most certainly on its way to a permanent foothold here in the West, has lashed out in ignorance, calling for violence against the fashioners of these cartoons. Is our honor, our pride, payable in full only with the blood of those whom we deem offensible? I vehemently say no!, as a Western Muslim. We must bring the discourse to the field in the way it was brought to us – through a free discourse – via free speech. But where are the Muslim intellectuals? The Islamic intelligencia? They are out there, to be sure. But, like rappers in Hollywood, the more dogmatic, hard-liner, anti-intellectual Muslims always seem to find a role to play, while more qualified minds lay muted on the sideline.
Without wanting to sound hyper-paranoid, there is most certainly a reason why more moderate (moderate meaning those willing to take up the fight with pens, paper and tempered words than with guns and bombs) Muslims are disclosed from the discourse. The reasons are many. If it bleeds it leads is certainly a plausible and accurate likelihood. There are also those who do not want the Muslims to be seen in a rational light. It serves very precise purposes to have us seen as a frothing mob, ready to lash out at the infidels at any chance we get. If we are to truly learn as we progress, us middle-of-the-roaders are going to have to get our acts together (and not just rely on Hamza and Zaid – and thanks God for them!!) and get our voices heard or we will only have ourselves to blame when we are framed in unflattering lights.
Finally, yes, I am offended at the cartoons. Many have asked my opinion over the last several weeks and I’ve held off on responding because for one, I needed to really cement my thoughts on it and not give a knee-jerk reaction. I am a Muslim. I am a Westerner – an American. This land is my home and I’ve known no other. But Islam is my religion and Muhammad of Arabia, the son of Abdullah, God’s final Messenger to mankind, is my most holy and beloved prophet. Make no mistake of that. And to see such a portrayal of him is insulting and upsetting. Muhammad and Islam are two very misunderstood figures in the Western mind. Like many things here in America, we are woefully ignorant (present company included) of the ways of the world but I can honestly say I would have been just as upset at seeing Jesus, Moses, Noah or even Buddha depicted in a light that would be degrading – and there’s my point. The authors of these cartoons most certainly had to have known that they would have been highly insulting to the practitioners of this dignified religion. So what was their point? Could it have been expressed in a way that would not have caused so much damage? And we live now in times where we really can’t afford to waste what little capital of understanding we have between the “uses” and the “thems”. I hope we can only have a true discourse as we move forward, allowing all sides to present their criticisms without scathing offense.