Sunday, June 6, 2010

Moderates, Conservatives, and Extremists

Sunnipath has an interesting position on the Danish Cartoons. They say it comes from another Website called (although this link doesn't connect correctly to it) and is signed by about 40 Islamic scholars throughout the world. The Sunnipath website contains many teachings which definitely press my limits of toleration, but also many others which have an internal consistency and basic gentleness which occasionally inspire my respect. If I thought there was any danger of these principles becoming the way I had to live my life, I would be very worried, as would most Muslims I know. Many Muslims came to America precisely so they wouldn't have to live by these kinds of social restrictions. Nevertheless, this declaration shows that this conservative Islamic establishment is equally out of step with both liberal Muslims and violent extremists. That is why it is dangerously simpleminded to divide the Muslim world into The Good Guys who agree with us, and the Bad Guys who disagree with us. The position advocated in this paper is one that needs to be debated. Nevertheless, it clearly denounces the attitudes that make Islam seem completely incompatible with Enlightenment values. It is clearly inflammatory and misleading for the Western media to report only on riots and violence, and ignore reasoned and careful documents like this one.

My biggest problem is with these sentences:

"We call upon the Danish government and the Danish people to yield to the large number of objective and sincere voices emanating from within their society, by apologizing, and condemning and bringing an end to this attack. "

Sorry, this isn't going to happen, and it shouldn't. As vile as some of those cartoons were, they were within the limits of acceptable free speech. If the Danish Government were to "bring an end to this attack", this would be the worst sort of censorship. The doublespeak that is used to justify this is worthy of either George W. Bush or the most extreme forms of Politically Correct Liberalism (who says the Muslims haven't learned anything from the West?)

This is to ensure that Denmark is not isolated from the global community, a community that upholds the kind of freedom that prevents it from attacking and desecrating religious symbols or provoking animosity and antagonism towards any religion or race.

The reference to "a freedom that prevents" is worthy of Orwell. My point here, however, is that this kind of doublethink is, unfortunately, not out of sync with modern western thought (would that it were.) That is why they have a point when they say:

there is no society today that advocates an unaccountable freedom without putting in place measures of regulation so as to prevent harm to come to others. Of course, societies differ in their levels of regulation.

Our society bans hate speech and holocaust denial, their's bans pictures of Muhammad. Their ban appears irrational to us and vice versa. I'm willing to accept the ban on holocaust denial, with considerable reservations that make me unwilling to expand the ban further. I've got no problems with their protesting the content of the cartoons, that's their right to free speech. But because "societies differ in their levels of regulation", the Islamic world is going to have to accept that there is a difference here.

However, the thing that makes most Islamophobes feel that there is an irreconcilable difference is the willingness of Muslims to violently attack the cartoonists and other westerners vaguely associated with them. It is important to recognize that these very conservative Imams condemns such attacks in no uncertain terms.

3. We affirm here that freedom of ideas is a right guaranteed by the teachings of our noble religion to those who seek clarification or desire to engage in dialogue provided that no abuse is intended, in consonance with the Quranic directive: 'And argue with them in the most courteous way'. This point has been agreed upon by all rationally-minded people and is stated clearly and categorically in the agreements on human rights.

4. We appeal to all Muslims to exercise self-restraint in accordance with the teachings of Islam and we reject countering an act of aggression by acts not sanctioned in Islam, such as breaking treaties and breaching time-honoured agreements by attacking foreign embassies or innocent people and other targets. Such violent reactions can lead to a distortion of the just and balanced nature of our request or even to our isolation from the global dialogue. The support that we give to our Prophet will not be given by flouting his teachings.

Again I ask: Why aren't statements of this sort being given the same kind of coverage as the riots?

P.S. I've tried to start a Beliefnet thread over the issue of whether Islam in fact requires Muslims to protest non-Muslims making pictures of Muhammad. Muslims are banned from making pictures of Muhammad, according to certain sources, but I can see no basis in the Koran or the Hadith for saying they should force this position on non-Muslims. The issue of insulting vs. non-insulting pictures has been blurred here, creating a lot of unnecessary confusion.


  1. I think you should put things in perspective---by the way---you can double check as I did not have the time---but from what I remember----the sequence that started the Danish cartoon protest---the first one (there have been others since) is 1)There was a general attitude of xenophobia and fear of Muslims as the "other" before the cartoons. 2)When the cartoons came out, peaceful protests/complaints were made to the Danish minister and other authoritites who ignored these complaints siting "freedom of speech"---3)when that same newspaper apparently had been willing to withdraw unfavaourable cartoons of Jesus Christ(pbuh) and Danish law punishes those who are holocaust deniers and takes complaints of anti-semitism seriously.
    Therefore---clearly, the Danish government was abusing the concept of "freedom of speech" for its own political purposes.
    (It is precisely this type of inherent xenophobia against the Jews that created the neccessity for having laws that protected Jewish interests in the first place.)

    There is nothing in Islam that forbids drawings of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)---however, Muslims do not make depictions or statues of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) because it LIMITS our "Freedom of speech"---that is, we have a rich tradition in Islam of respecting and glorifying Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) through words---biographies, songs, poetry, myths....etc. This can be severly compromised when there are (positive or negative) depictions of the Prophet(pbuh) because it (images coupled with the already existing tradition of glorification) can lead to idolatry---which is a serious offence for any Muslim to make. That is why Muslims make this fine balance between respecting the Prophet(pbuh) without any images.
    However, today...there is a lot of intolerance, in Muslim countries as well as non-Muslim is a problem that all of us have to solve together.......

  2. forgot to mention---Many Muslim governemnts who do not allow public dissent--allowed the protests (against the Danish cartoons) to deflect public anger from themselves to the "other" (or the "West").

  3. Thanks for these comments. It wouldn't surprise me if these were true. I believe that most westerners underestimate the dangers of Islamophobia,not realizing that it is at least as dangerous as anti-Semitism. That's the main reason I write this blog. Nevertheless, there's an important distinction here. Did the paper withdraw the Anti-Semitic cartoon voluntarily or because the Govt ordered them to? If the former there is an inconsistency, if the latter, there is merely a difference in strength of private pressure groups.

    I'm glad to get some more confirmation that there is no official condemnation of non-Muslims making pictures of Muhammad. I've yet to find even a conservative Imam quoting anything from the Koran or Hadith backing this up. This should be better known, because this is the issue that bothers Westerners the most.

  4. I don't remember well---but the withdrawn cartoons were anti-Christian and the government may not have been involved at that point.....

    The Quran speaks about "shirk" which is creating partners with God.(a sin)---and it is this that Muslims are concerned about.---That is why Mosques do not have any statues or depictions of humans or animals in their artwork/decorations. Arabic calligraphy (verses from the Quran) or geometric designs are preferred. (but Muslim children happily play with dolls and animal toys and Muslim adults own photographs, paintings, scultpures of animals and humans.....etc)So why the fuss about Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)? It has to do with Christianity.....Muslims believe Jesus Christ(pbuh) was a Prophet(messenger)of God, Yet Christians (Roman Catholics) have made statues and portraits of him and worship him as "Son of God". Apparently Hinduism also fell into a similar trap---the Vedas speak of One Supreme God, yet today Hinduism has a plethora of "avatars" of God worshipped as idols/statues. Therefore Muslims have this balancing act where we freely express our love and respect for Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)in words yet stay true to guidance by refraining from depictions/statues of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)that may lead us into "shirk". Hopefully, adjustments to this policy will be made to accomodate the needs of Non-Muslims....once both sides learn to co-operate and live together peacefully......
    For example, there is a statue of Prophet Muhammed in some courthouse in the U.S. Some American Muslims wanted it removed---but it is part of an (old)artwork depicting/honoring four "lawgivers" (If I remember correctly). After deliberations, the Muslim group who looked into the issue, decided to leave the statue untouched.---my apologies for not having more details about this......

    Criticism of Islam can be accomplished (even in cartoons) without involving the Prophet(pbuh). Honest criticism (as opposed to simply malicious criticism)can be a force for good/improvement.

  5. All of the arguments you give are reasons why Muslims should not make pictures of Muhammad. None of them justify stopping non-Muslims from making pictures of Muhammad. I think you are aware of this, but I wanted to make it clear.

    The Courthouse with the statue of Muhammad is the U.S. Supreme Court Building. I have link in an earlier post on this blog to the statement by the group who decided to accept this image.

    I agree with you that most reasonable criticisms of modern Islamic practice do not require criticizing Muhammad, and an awful lot of contemporary attacks on Muhammad are based on misunderstandings, and sometimes lies. But it is important, I think, to remember that Muhammad was both human and a man of his time. Often he rose above his time, other times he didn't. Muslims shouldn't feel that their religious beliefs are threatened by this fact.

  6. You are correct---
    "All of the arguments you give are reasons why Muslims should not make pictures of Muhammad."---at this point in time-----the point of the Quran (shirk) isn't about making or not making statues (by or of Muslims)---rather "worshipping" a man-made creation as Divine/making partners with God.---this notion has been interpreted a certain way at this point in time with regards to Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) and its interpretation may change.......

    "Muhammad was both human and a man"---since the Quran (gently)scolds Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) on a couple of occassions---it would be hard to forget he is human---though, I think we try.....
    (Even in his biographies he comes across as very human....yet, in the traditions, there are also a lot of myths and legends)

    "Muslims shouldn't feel that their religious beliefs are threatened by this fact"---Muslims might say that Westerners should not feel their "western" beliefs are threatened...when Muslims protest the drawing of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)---after all, Muslims are only protesting this one issue---they are not protesting (fact-based)criticisms of Islam/Muslims....I suppose ignorance makes us all feel insecure--so the solution is to pursue knowledge.....

  7. Shirk---a flaw in my argument against depictions leading to shirk---is the presumption of a link between a phenomenon (depictions)and its consequences (shirk). ---that is---depictions causes shirk.---this presumed linkage is based on observation of other religions that have this situation. Yet, the phrase in the Quran, "creating partners with God", is not limited to the visual alone. Thus, there are many ways to shirk....I hope that we, average Muslims will be able to contemplate on this issue to arrive at a deeper spiritual understanding of shirk....

  8. even in Buddhism---here in the East, many worship the teacher instead of following his teachings.......I suppose, shirk is a concept all of us, regardless of religion, can contemplate on.....?

  9. Yes, excessive devotion to the Guru is a problem in religions that grow out of the Hindu-Buddhist lineages. I think it's especially a problem in those "Cults' transported to the West, whose teacher is still alive. I've made a study of a fair number of those, and was involved with a couple of them. There are certain patterns that pop-up repeatedly when an organization of this sort is in the process of turning into a cult. Most of them involve the Guru spinning off into Meglomania because he starts to believe that everything he says is right. One of the things that impresses me about Muhammad is that I don't see those patterns in his relationship with his community, even though he was subject to the same temptations and pressuresas Rajneesh, Jim Jones, Chuck Deidrich, Da Free John etc.