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Images Have Power: Handle With Care

Q U I C K S C A N

Power and Freedom
Protest and Respect

One picture can be worth 1,000 words. But are the images of Muhammad published in Denmark worth the deaths of over 100 people? These illustrations—including one in which the Prophet Muhammad’s turban has morphed into a lighted explosive—have been just that incendiary, sparking protests, riots, destruction by fire and deaths.

As believers, as citizens, as beneficiaries of the First Amendment, Americans are divided about the legitimacy of the Muslim grievance. Some U.S. citizens assert the primacy of freedom of the press. Others champion respect for religious belief as a more fundamental principle.

What is at issue here? And what are the implications for our own response?

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Power and Freedom

Last September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran 12 illustrations of Muhammad, a self-styled protest on behalf of a children’s book publisher that could find no one to defy a generally respected ban on such images.

Danes embrace fiercely what the United States has defined and enshrined in the First Amendment to its Constitution (“Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press...”). The Danish editor apparently judged that honoring a ban imposed by a faith not espoused by most of its readers was excessive self-censorship.

Just because one can publish something, however, doesn’t mean one must. No one needed these fictitious images of the prophet. The children for whom the original biography was intended would have been better served by learning why a book on Muhammad contained no representations of the prophet. Instead, the world continues to experience the violent fallout from a case of journalistic double-dare.

A group of Danish Muslim clerics (imams) protested. Judging Denmark’s response to their complaints inadequate, they shared the images and their own indignation with Middle Eastern imams. They succeeded in generating waves of protest throughout the Middle East, and expanded their influence from London to Auckland as well. At this writing, violent protests and boycotts of Danish goods continue.

Quite a few protesters have included the United States, described as a “leading infidel” by one Afghan protester. The only U.S. daily newspapers known to have published the drawings at this time, however, are The New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, which limited itself to one example.

Protest and Respect

No drawings of Muhammad will be appearing in this magazine, but we know that religious depictions are a delicate matter, even for Christians. For example, we have unintentionally offended with a Renaissance image of an unclothed infant Jesus, a contemporary sculpture of an aging Mary and, most recently, a graphic photo of the dead body of martyred Sister Dorothy Stang.

The first two offended, in the main, because of readers’ strong convictions about reverent representations of Jesus and Mary. The last, we feel certain, offended because of its grim reality. We believe our choices were reasonable and justified while we acknowledge that opinions and judgments differ in such sensitive matters.

While this magazine is no venue for suggesting appropriate Muslim responses, we can pose challenges to the Christian community when our own religious sensibilities—or those of other faith communities—are disregarded.

1. Express respect, expect respect. In Catholic thought, good intention counts for a lot. The Danish newspaper editors knew the drawings would offend. Many Catholics might not have even known that. We need to learn more about our neighbors in the world faith community. Tour a local mosque, read an informative book such as Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians, by Catholic Deacon George Dardess, or visit a mainstream Muslim Web site, such as www.islamicsupremecouncil.org.

When religious belief and tradition are misrepresented, trivialized or disrespected, express calm criticism and peaceful dissent through letters, emails, calls or visits to persons of influence. Organizing a group response, creating a petition or demonstrating can be appropriate and acceptable, but a peaceful purpose and approach are paramount. Violence in the name of the holy will convince no minds and change no hearts.

2. Honor the limits of personal and public freedom. The Danish controversy seems nearly as complicated as the Crusades, yet it hardly seems a worthy test of First Amendment rights. The newspaper exceeded the scope of the presenting problem when it published not merely illustrations but politically charged satirical cartoons.

To their discredit, the Danish imams apparently padded their portfolio with inflammatory drawings that were never published, intending to add fuel to the fire. This was wrong. People of influence are not free to foment misplaced anger, tell lies or insult others.

3. Assume the best rather than the worst. It is easy to take offense, even when none is intended. It is more difficult not to take offense when it is intended, but it is still possible and powerful. Imagine ignorance, not malice. Aim for a constructive exchange.

And mean well. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks....” We could rightly add, “or Muslims.” In this way, we can build connections that move us toward a world at peace.—C.A.M.


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