Why Muslims shouldn’t be angry about cartoons (and why they should)

Raahim Zafar

I shouldn’t have to begin with this disclaimer, but given the political climate in which we live, I think I have to. Murder is, of course, absolutely wrong, criminal and unjustifiable. I’m also not going to address all the points that come up in this free speech debate; I aim to shed light on just one perspective that I believe isn’t adequately understood, if it is ever considered at all.

Assume you are Muslim. In fact, let’s go a step beyond that and assume, for sake of argument, that Islam is objectively “true.” Imagine God exists and he sent Muhammad as his guiding light to the world. Imagine the purpose of sending him was to show people the best way to live their lives– we won’t get into specifics about historic details for sake of brevity. Now assume that model human being has been maligned and lied about and defamed. That person who shows the best way to live one’s life is slandered and, consequently, his message is distorted. Not just the best way to live morally, but the way that takes you on the road of ultimate meaning and purpose: towards the infinite and absolute reality of Divine beauty, majesty and proximity. The actions of these defamers prevents Muhammad’s message from reaching the masses. It prevents humanity from learning from him, ameliorating itself, and reaching its true potential. You can replace Muhammad in this context with Jesus, Moses, Buddha etc., alter a few details and it would still be the same.

If we assume the above to be true, as much of the world in fact does, the mockery would elicit a great deal of righteous indignation. Lies about a truthful person, slander against an upright individual evoke anger in even a bystander. Add into it the metaphysical dimension of eternal salvation and you get a further level of analysis. Unfortunately though, many human beings lack self awareness and the aforementioned righteous indignation emerges or morphs into something quite distasteful, including immature displays of rage and even manifestations of vigilante violence. This is, again, not something I find acceptable and against the ethos of the Muhammadan message, for as the Quran says:

“Repel evil with what is good; the one whom you have enmity with will become as if he was a close friend.”

–Quran, 41:34

If you believe the earlier assumptions to be true, you would be greatly saddened and angered that the ideal model of living one’s life is being twisted and maligned and humanity is, ultimately, suffering as a result. That is what would make it wrong on at least one level. Unfortunately, the form of emotional self-awareness is not widespread. Instead of loving for another person that which is good for them and feeling sad when they revile it, people blame one another and go to war because their intentions aren’t based on compassion and desiring good for others, but rather desiring conformance. It’s the ego at the root of it: you want people to admire you, agree with you blindly, and not challenge you. 

The Prophet Muhammad in the Quran is recorded to have wept over people because they didn’t follow him. They mocked him, boycotted him, threatened his life, and forced him out of his home, but out of his love for them he prayed for them and forgave them once he had power over them. Why? Because he wanted what was good for them. It wasn’t about him. It was about them. 

“A Messenger has come to you from among yourselves. Your suffering distresses him: he is deeply concerned for you and full of kindness and mercy towards the believers.”

–Quran, 9:128

Moreover, they rejected it out of sheer arrogance– they had no reason to believe he was lying or insane; much to the contrary they had every reason to believe him to be a Prophet, but their egos prevented them from accepting it. The Quran says to “respond with that which is better [lit. more beautiful]” and that is why many accepted him- they wanted to kill him, they disgraced him, but he still demonstrated kindness, generosity and mercy to them. Wild displays of anger only push people away from you and what you represent.

It is due to mercy from Allah that you [O Muhammad] deal with them gently, and had you been rough, hard hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you.”

–Quran, 3:159

Finally, as a brief side point, the issue at hand is not so much the depiction of Muhammad itself that is particularly worrisome (faithful and intelligent Muslims would likely say that the individual displayed is not Muhammad by any stretch of the imagination), but rather the inflammatory nature of the cartoons depicting him and the lack of respectful dialogue that precludes community cohesion and rather incites social discord. If France wants to create a society that is integrated, it should encourage mature, intelligent dialogue through free speech, not mockery. Free speech should be a means to a better world, not an end in and of itself. For a more comprehensive take on this that highlights conflicting ideals with real life practice, with references also to foundational enlightenment philosophers, I recommend you watch this video.

Raahim Zafar is a co-founder of Interfaith Exchange. He is a recent graduate of the University of St. Andrews where he studied International Relations, Arabic and French.

Cover photo courtesy of Pok Rie on Pexels.com

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