Don’t Ignore the Quiet Majority of Muslims
Most Muslims — and especially American Muslims — cannot fairly be accused of hypersensitivity when it comes to the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. That’s because most Muslims have not overreacted, despite the stereotypic images served up by the media. In fact, most Muslims have hardly reacted at all — even those who are profoundly offended by the images.
To put this in perspective, consider for a moment the frieze of Muhammad installed inside the picturesque building that houses the U.S. Supreme Court. Muhammad is pictured there to pay homage to his role as a significant lawmaker in world history. His statue stands next to that of Moses.
In a 1997 court case, some Muslims raised concerns about the religious insensitivities demonstrated, but Chief Justice William Rehnquist upheld a lower-court decision to preserve this artistic rendition of Muhammad as a major contributor to jurisprudence.
Muslim Americans did not go out on the streets to protest. In the cost-benefit analysis, American Muslims felt that the acknowledgment of Islam’s contributions to Western Civilization outweighed the concern over insensitivity.
Maybe it’s because of such experiences that American Muslims are not getting as riled up as some in other parts of the world. It’s also true that U.S. media outlets have acted with responsibility and restraint, while the American Muslim community has had the opportunity to voice its position through mainstream media channels and a few peaceful demonstrations.
But this civilized Muslim response also should not be misinterpreted. Many peaceful Muslims reject the idea that this controversy is about defending freedom of expression. The same editors who decided to run caricatures of Muhammad demonizing him as a sex-driven and a bloodthirsty terrorist rejected caricatures of Jesus.
While they dared cartoonists to draw the most vile images of Muslims and Islam, they were not ready to deal with a Christian outcry over their own beloved symbols. And while there is anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiment in the Muslim world, it has never reached the point of defiling the images of Jesus and Moses.
Instead, Islam accepts Jesus as the word of God and Moses as one of the most honorable messengers of God, equal to Muhammad. In fact, hundreds of millions of Muslims will fast the next few days in honor of Moses and the exodus of the Children of Israel from the oppression of the pharaoh.
The Quran documents the verbal assaults against Muhammad, as well as those against Jesus and Moses, and embraces their decision to turn away from the insults, the same action that the vast majority of Muslims have done today. The Quran further demands that its adherents follow the free exercise of religion clause in Islam: “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256).
Free thinking is a cornerstone of Islamic law, and securing freedom of faith and expression are paramount goals in classical Islamic law. What some Muslims do, however, can and does contradict Islamic principles.
A handful of reckless Muslims who riot over the caricatures have ruined the case for Danish Muslims and European Muslims in general by distorting what is rightfully an issue of injustice and double standards. But this handful, which represents a fraction of the Muslim world, are countered by the overwhelming majority of Muslim institutions worldwide that have called for calm and restraint.
The world’s leading Islamic body, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference, also condemned the violence, saying, “Over-reactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts … are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world.”
In reality, it is Europe that has not accepted Islam and Muslims as an integral part of pluralism. Instead, European governments apply double standards not only in journalism, but in the workplace and everyday life, where the Muslims of Europe live in de facto ghettos and are part of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.
I attended a conference in Brussels with the U.S. ambassador to Belgium in November, and in that setting, the overwhelming response from Belgian and European Muslims was that they want to be integrated into their society, what they call home. Indeed, the issue is one of integrating Muslims into Western culture by moving beyond tolerance and dialogue to co-existence and partnership. We view the lampooning of Muhammad as a dehumanization of Muslims in Europe similar to the dehumanization of Jews in Europe that acted as a precursor to their persecution.
We, Muslim Americans in particular and Muslims of the West in general are in the midst of two struggles, one for the soul of Islam and one for the soul of the West.
For the soul of Islam, we battle Muslim extremists on our cultural front lines — the mosque and Muslim community gatherings, through books and other publications. For the soul of the West, we battle racism and bigotry, whether it’s blatant or disguised as freedom of expression or even democracy. We work for mutual acceptance and building mutual trust as a means of countering mutual fear and prejudice.
Salam Al-Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (firstname.lastname@example.org.