The twelve cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten have sparked tremendous debate about freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity. The international press coverage of the riots, protests, boycotts and embassy-burnings has been extensive. However there has been a major gap in the coverage that I would like to point out.
The coverage has identified the “Muslim Reaction” as one of extreme anger and in some cases, violence. Invariably, a news story on any subject will include generalizations about groups. However, the coverage of the cartoons that I have seen has not presented a generalized view about the cartoons but has accentuated the nationalist rhetoric of government officials seeking to legitimize their rule in religious authority, and the reactions of extremists, as though the views of these groups were representative of all Muslims.
There are many Muslims who denounce violence in the name of Islam and many who value free expression. These views are not incompatible with opposition to the content of the cartoons. Just as Jewish or Black individuals in this country can value freedom of speech but oppose offensive depictions and misrepresentation of their groups, Muslim and Arab individuals can oppose the content of the cartoons without opposing a newspaper’s right to print them. Valuing freedom of speech and freely practicing religion are not mutually exclusive.
This view, and other Muslim perspectives have been lost in the rhetoric of opportunistic governments, extremists and religious leaders. As someone raised in a Muslim household, I know that there are a wide range of perspectives among Muslims despite what the popular media seems to indicate. Freedom of expression is something many Muslims value highly and is one of the reasons members of my own family immigrated to this country.
Living in the West affords us freedom of expression, a freedom that is often taken for granted. Although it is easy to lapse into the mindset that freedom of expression is inherent, in predominantly Muslim countries freedom of expression is often the exception.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, anti-Westernism is practically the only outlet for political expression and individuals are silenced for speaking out against the government or the clergy. Last November, Human Rights Watch reported that high school teacher Muhammad al-Harabi was sentenced to three years in prison and 750 lashes for expressing opinions about religion and terrorism in the classroom. In Turkey, a country often seen as the progressive model for other Muslim countries, novelist Orhan Pamuk was sharply criticized for commenting on the Armenian genocide and was nearly prosecuted by the Turkish government for his remarks. Although in the latter case, the censorship was inspired more by nationalism than by religion, both examples indicate that there are significant institutional barriers to free expression throughout predominantly Muslim countries, from the most conservative to the most liberal.
Last Thursday, the Jordanian paper, al-Shihan, published three of the cartoons. Editor-in-chief Jihad Momani, explained that he published the cartoons so that Muslims could know what they were protesting about. Momani asked what brought more prejudice against Islam, caricatures or a suicide bomber? In response, Jordanian officials announced that they were suing the paper and the owners fired Momani.
While the Western media purports to value freedom of expression, it has failed to appropriately convey that individuals and the media in Muslim countries are often denied freedom of speech by their governments. What is conveyed by Western media outlets as the “Muslim Reaction” is the reaction that Muslims living under authoritarian, often theocratic rule are allowed to publicly express. There is not one “Muslim Reaction” to the cartoons or any other event just as there is not what Christian or Jewish, black or white, Democrat or Republican reaction.