The uproar over cartoons depicting Islam's prophet Muhammad provides interesting fodder for contemplation.
The cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper in September and reprinted in European publications recently, have produced a strong reaction among Muslims because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depictions of Muhammad. Indeed, the level of outrage and violence are strongly out of character from what we Americans have come to expect from religious groups.
Thousands of outraged Syrian demonstrators stormed the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus, setting fire to both buildings, and Muslims are calling for executions and setting European flags afire. "We should have killed all those who offend the prophet," said a leader of a peaceful protest group. Although his group did not act on that sentiment, the fact that it is a publicly expressed thought should be both instructive and reason for concern.
While most people are opposed to the violence there is general agreement that the cartoons were over the line. The Vatican, for example, denounced the violence, but also said some forms of criticism are an "unacceptable provocation." "The right to freedom of thought and expression ... cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said.
One cartoon featured Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, among other provocative images. Civilized people honor the personalities and symbols of all religions, even if they do not subscribe to any of those religions, or to any religion. Most of us would be uncomfortable with images denigrating Moses or Jesus, for example, so we sympathize with the aversion Muslims feel. Certainly American Christians have suffered more frequent insults from their own countrymen, and Jews are under continual attack the world over. However, the fact that so many Muslims resort to violent protest says more about Islam than it does about the cretins who created these offensive cartoons.
Muslims, however, ought to be able to process not just the dissing of their blessed prophet, but also the actions of their murderous brethren that provoked these particular images. They ought to be able to see that Islam’s violent and intolerant fundamental faction has seriously stained their religion, and that faction’s uncivilized behavior threatens to turn Islam into a worldwide pariah.