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