Parvez Ahmed: The flap over Danish cartoons could have been avoided

02:47 PM CST on Sunday, February 12, 2006

As deplorable as the cartoons about Prophet Muhammad
in Denmark's Jyllands Posten have been, the violence
that ensued is also condemnable. The cartoons depicted
Islam's most revered personality, Prophet Muhammad, in
a way that was inaccurate, intentionally derogatory
and provocatively inciting. Other than demonstrating
visceral hatred toward Islam, the cartoons achieved
little else.

Muslim outrage over the cartoons has led to boycotts
of Danish products across much of the Middle East.
Protests across the Islamic world have been mostly
peaceful, but some have, unfortunately, turned
violent. Once again, the barbarism of a handful of
Muslims has overshadowed the peaceful voice of the
overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide.

This flap was entirely avoidable, had all sides
approached the issue with wisdom, tolerance and

At the core of the reactions in the Muslim world are
fears about Western motives, bolstered by lack of
redress of ongoing grievances. On the other hand, lack
of understanding about Islamic culture explains why
many in the West seem perplexed at how a mere cartoon
could draw such an emotional response.

A tasteless caricature of a religious personality,
whose life has informed and guided billions of people
for more than 1,400 years, is neither funny nor
satirical. On the other hand, burning flags,
destroying embassies and threatening innocent people
are hardly appropriate responses.

The Prophet Muhammad, who preached repelling evil with
kindness, would not approve of such violent acts. He
would have responded by educating the ignorant.

Joining the chorus of peaceful protests, former
President Bill Clinton strongly criticized the Danish
cartoons, comparing historical anti-Semitism in Europe
with anti-Islamic feeling today: "So now what are we
going to do? ... Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice
with anti-Islamic prejudice?"

In a show of "solidarity" with Denmark, newspapers in
Norway, France and other European nations republished
the cartoons, which prompted British Foreign Minister
Jack Straw to say: "I believe the republication of
these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been
insensitive, it has been disrespectful, and it has
been wrong." The U.S. State Department concurred with
this sentiment.

Free speech, like every other freedom, comes with the
responsibility of good judgment. Newspapers ought to
have the freedom to speak the truth, but a cartoon
that defames does not further debate.

Islamophobia is on the rise worldwide. This should be
of concern to all people of conscience, regardless of
their religious affiliation. Only recently,
Islamophobia led to Bosnian Muslims becoming targets
of a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Even in America, prominent personalities denigrated
the Prophet Muhammad using language no different from
the sentiments expressed in the Danish cartoons. Talk
show hosts coast to coast regularly fill public
airwaves with anti-Islamic comments. Unfortunately,
such hatred has not been widely repudiated by our own
political leaders.

It is time for Europe and America to adopt the same
zero tolerance for Islamophobia as has quite rightly
been adopted toward anti-Semitism.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe sponsored conferences in Vienna and Berlin
recognizing anti-Semitism as a fundamental violation
of human rights. The Global Anti-Semitism Awareness
Act, signed by President Bush in October 2004, asks
governments to take note of and respond to instances
of anti-Jewish propaganda.

These steps are indeed laudable. Why not broaden them
to fight Islamophobia as well?

At the same time, we Muslims should challenge the few
among us who hold extremist views. Just as we ask
others to respect Islam, we should continue to condemn
anti-Semitism. The cartoon contest on the Holocaust by
an Iranian newspaper is not keeping with the
traditions of our beloved Prophet Muhammad  who out
of respect stood up as the bier of a Jew passed by.
Only responsible people can demand the same
responsibility from others.

As a global community, we all need to do whatever
possible to avoid plunging the world into the downward
spiral of a clash of civilizations.

Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is board chairman of the Council
on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest
Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. He may be
contacted at 


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