In 2005, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, made the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, the subject of an assignment for 12 editorial cartoonists. The result was a variety of images, some of which included violent motifs, including one in which Muhammad’s turban is represented as a ticking bomb, lit fuse and all. The result was immediate outcry and oppositional organization by much of the European Muslim population. However, after a refusal to apologize from the newspaper for its “defamation” and “insult” to the leading religious figure, the story began to spread elsewhere, including Egypt, where violence erupted and several embassies were bombed. This further complicated the issue, leading many Westerners to believe that the elicited response in fact reinforced the stereotype of Islam as a fundamentalist religion in all its sects.
While this is certainly not the case, it has expanded the debate on the conflict that seems to, at least in some areas, exist between Islam and the Western world (the U.S. and western European states).
Traditionally misunderstood and commonly misperceived, Islam is a gentle religion, based on devout adherence to principles which promote generous donations to the poor and ritual prayer on a regular basis. Unfortunately, because of extremist elements within the Middle East, Islam has come to symbolize a fearful threat to the existence of a progressive form of life, which many Americans find to be implicit in a worldwide ideology.
In reality, jihad means a significant battle, an internal struggle. It is one’s own effort to conquer whatever inhibits their religious path. To call someone a jihadist is actually a compliment, as it refers to one who is striving toward personal betterment. It is this pervasive misunderstanding which has contributed to such a negative separation. Additionally, Islam is a religion grounded in politics. Muhammad created the first Islamic state as an attempt to unify moral precepts into a working political system in which adherents could practice their faith and still operate a successful municipal institution.
It is this last aspect that seems to directly confront the values of the West, which has long separated religion from governance. The Middle East has in turn been plagued by governments that have imposed strict limitations on free speech and expression. The publication of these cartoons has unfortunately contributed to the stereotype. In the U.S., religion is often criticized, yet very few react in the manner seen during the protests to the Danish printing of these illustrations.
However, in a region where democratic governance is limited, outspoken violence has become a norm. But members of the Western world need not view this as a universal attribute of religion. There was no initial violence in Europe, and many Muslim representatives have spoken out against the violence that continues to shape negative American views of the religion. This is in no way intended to condone such reactions, but in order to provide perspective.
The Western world has long regarded itself as a symbol of correct and progressive adaptation. It has provided freedom and opportunity that was formerly unseen throughout much of the world. But as a part of these inherent rights, certain responsibilities are involved. These images have now become an equally strong example of condemnation from the West. The world is filled with misunderstandings and misconceptions. To contribute to these without ample explanation is to misappropriate this responsibility. Future publications of the same cartoon warranted no response, indicating that an evolution in acceptability is slowly occurring. But before outward critiques are thrown in the future, the public needs to consider that the basis of satire is usually that one is a part of the community. By belonging to a certain group or organization, jokes are often self-deprecating without consequence. It is when these images and words contribute to a generalized lack of understanding that they become dangerous. In a world filled with conflict, it is this greater understanding and effort toward expanding it which is most necessary.
Matt Boaz is a senior political science major from Edmond, Okla.