A Muslim Response to 'Draw Muhammad Day'
By Nihad Awad
I will be the first to defend anyone's right to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it may be to me. Our nation has prospered because Americans value and respect diversity.
But freedom of expression does not create an obligation to offend or to show disrespect to the religious beliefs or revered figures of others.
In reaction to the recent controversy over a depiction of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in an episode of Comedy Central's "South Park," a Seattle cartoonist apparently declared May 20th to be "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day."
I say "apparently" because cartoonist Molly Norris -- the creator of the cartoon showing many objects claiming to be a likeness of the prophet -- now says she never intended to launch "Draw Muhammad Day."
On her web site, she has since posted a statement that reads in part: "I did NOT 'declare' May 20 to be 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.'...The cartoon-poster, with a fake 'group' behind it, went viral and was taken seriously...The vitriol this 'day' has brought out, of people who only want to draw obscene images, is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place...I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this 'day' be called off."
Norris even visited a mosque at the invitation of the local Muslim community.
The creator of a Facebook page dedicated to the day also repudiated the "inflammatory posts" it inspired. He said, "I am aghast that so many people are posting deeply offensive pictures of the Prophet...Y'all go ahead if that's your bag, but count me out."
Despite the cartoonist's and the Facebook page creator's seemingly sincere attempts to distance themselves from the fake event, Muslim-bashers and Islamophobes made sure the call to "draw Muhammad" went viral on the Internet. They are hoping to offend Muslims, who are generally sensitive to created images of the Prophet Muhammad or any prophet.
[The majority of Muslims believe visual representations of all prophets are inappropriate in that they distract from God's message and could lead to a kind of idol worship, something forbidden in Islam.]
So how should Muslims and other Americans react to this latest attempt by hate-mongers to exploit the precious right of free speech and turn May 20 into a celebration of degradation and xenophobia?
Before I answer that question, it must first be made clear that American Muslims value freedom of speech and have no desire to inhibit the creative instincts of cartoonists, comedians or anyone else.
The mainstream American Muslim community, including my own organization, has also strongly repudiated the few members of an extremist fringe group who appeared to threaten the creators of "South Park." That group, the origins and makeup of which has been questioned by many Muslims, has absolutely no credibility within the American Muslim community.
I, like many Muslims, was astonished to see media outlets broadcasting the views of a few marginal individuals, while ignoring the hundreds of mosques and Muslim institutions that have representatives who could have offered a mainstream perspective.
Next, one must examine how the Prophet Muhammad himself reacted to personal insults.
Islamic traditions include a number of instances in which the Prophet had the opportunity to retaliate against those who abused him, but refrained from doing so. He said, "You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness."
Even when the prophet was in a position of power, he chose the path of kindness and mercy. When he returned to Mecca after years of exile and personal attacks, he did not take revenge on the people who had reviled him and abused and tortured his followers, but instead offered a general amnesty.
In the Quran, Islam’s revealed text, God states: "Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance." (16:125)
Another verse tells the prophet to "show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant." (7:199)
This is the guidance Muslims should follow as they express concern about an insulting depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, or of any other prophet of God.
Instead of reacting negatively to the bigoted call to support "Draw Muhammad Day," American Muslims -- and Muslims worldwide -- should use that and every other day as an opportunity to reach out to people of other faiths and beliefs to build bridges of understanding and respect.
The best and most productive response to bigoted campaigns like "Draw Muhammad Day" is more communication, not less communication -- including not restricting the free flow of ideas with measure like banning Facebook.
Research has shown that anti-Islam prejudice goes down when people interact with ordinary Muslims and have greater knowledge of Islam.
Therefore, the best reaction to those who would mock the Prophet Muhammad (or the religious symbols of any faith) might be a mosque open house for the local interfaith community, a community service activity organized by Muslims and involving people of other faiths, or a newspaper commentary describing the life, legacy and personal character of the prophet, which is the opposite of the calumny some people fabricate about him. This should be of concern to all decent and objective people.
We will all benefit if each of us -- whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu -- exhibits the common human decency required by our respective faiths.
[Nihad Awad is national executive director for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties organization. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org ]