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Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn V. Ahmed Rehab:
Cartoon depictions of Muhammad, the great debate

http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2010/04/cartoon-depictions-of-muhammad-the-great-debate.html

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“From the archives, a 2006 debate over the Muhammad cartoons between me and Ahmed Rehab, who now heads the Chicago Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who was not happy with my column headlined, Standing up for message behind cartoons,” writes Zorn on his Tribune blog.

The Debate:

Ahmed Rehab, director of communications for the Chicago Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (pictured) responded in one of the comments areas of this blog to several of my recent posts on the cartoon controversy.

He and I are now entering into an online dialogue that both of us hope  will address some questions and issues and concerns on both/all sides of this issue.

First, his  letter to me.

From:  Ahmed Rehab
To: Eric Zorn

I have been following your numerous Tribune and blog commentaries on the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

I must say I am quite disturbed by the misguided self-righteous tone that pieces like yours are exuding.

Those who construe the drawing and publishing of the anti-Muslim cartoons as “we in the West are in the business of teaching those backward Muslims a crash course on freedom of expression” are missing the point by a mile and doing a grave disservice to the very cause they are attempting to uphold.

I understand that you have indicated that you do not identify with that stance, but you certainly come off sounding as if you do.

Western freedoms of expression are great. Because of them, I can practice my faith freely – just as you can yours.

However, civilized societies in the West have — in recent times — championed freedom of expression while working hard to stifle bigotry. Why speak against maintaining that sensible balance now? Because Muslims are the targets?

There is nothing noble about the ignorant and rabidly generalizing message that all “Muslims are terrorists” just as there is nothing noble about a cartoon that insinuates that “all Puerto Ricans are gang bangers”, “all African Americans are drug dealers”, or that “all Jews are money grubbers.”

Whether or not there are cases in reality that give truth to a stereotype, embracing and peddling bigoted general stereotypes should not be encouraged or condoned under the freedom of the press. None of the latter aforementioned depictions are likely to arouse the same sense of zealous defense of freedoms of expression that the anti-Muslim cartoons have in you.

Why is that, Eric? Please maintain equal standards for all. That is not an exaggerated demand, is it?

One can argue that even bigotry is protected under freedom of expression and have a point – unless you are in Austria. Fine, I can accept bigotry on a freak website as freedom of expression, but for bigotry to make its way into the pages of society’s mainstream press and receive our blessings in the process — under the disguise of upholding freedoms — is an abominable misreading of that license, not to mention an affront to universal ethical journalistic standards.

I am not saying anything new here. Our recent track record in the US indicates that this indeed is our standard: we will allow KKK websites and marches, but we will not allow KKK-inspired cartoons promoting bigotry against African-Americans into the pages of our mainstream press. If we did, protests would ensue – rightfully so.

There was once a time when racist “golliwog” depictions of African-Americans were on Jam labels, let alone newspaper caricatures. But a few civil rights movements later, one would like to think that we in the West have for the most part moved beyond that ocean of ignorance and reached a consensus that all forms of bigotry need to be challenged.

Denmark’s tolerance for bigotry should not be seen as a heroic stance, but rather, a backward stance that we in America have moved beyond. Per American standards, Muslims opposing the bigoted cartoons are not asking for special treatment, but for equal treatment.

Quite simply put: you have awarded the lofty ideal of freedom of the press to a handful of maverick bigots. We can debate their message till the cows come home, but the simple fact is that it is unacceptable to project terrorism -– as practiced by a small though destructive minority of Muslims — unto all Muslims and the very faith that inspires them to goodness. If you fail to understand that, then the issue is much more serious than I initially thought.

Eric, I value your defense of freedoms. You are championing the right cause, but you are attributing it to the wrong flag bearers.

Finally, your commentaries are severely oblivious to the peaceful diplomatic initiatives that American Muslims have espoused as a response to the controversy. Right here in your very backyard, Chicago Muslims have been omnipresent in the press, sharing their efforts with the public. I am disappointed that these efforts have passed you by, even while your own paper — the Chicago Tribune — has published 12 different articles covering these efforts in the past 16 days.

Kudos to the Chicago Tribune, and better luck next time to you.

(the correspondence continues below)

From: Eric Zorn
To: Ahmed Rehab

I welcome your letter very much and have a few responses to it, of course.

First, we don’t “stifle” bigotry– at least we shouldn’t. We should meet it with truth, with counter argument, with messages that clarify and lead to understanding.

I disagree that the message of these cartoons is that all Muslims are terrorists, any more than cartoons depicting pedophile priests send the message that all priests are pedophiles. I suppose you can read into the images the strongest and broadest condemnation you want or the finest point you want — cartoons can be ambiguous in that way and often get people more worked up than mere printed word commentary.

As you well know, cartoons have angered more than a few different groups over time. The reason this particular dust-up is attracting so much attention is that the protests have turned extremely violent and 45 people, at last count, have lost their lives, there is a $1 million-plus bounty on the heads of the artists and some or all of them have gone into hiding, fearing for their their lives.

If this conversation were taking place in the context of picketing, a boycott or other demands for sensitivity, it would be a very different conversation; it would not provoke what you perceive as a “self-righteous” tone from me, certainly.

Further, it is not, in my view “an abominable misreading” of the right to free expression to argue, as I do, that it ought to extend to those with repellent opinions of all sorts.

My reading of the U.S. Constitution is that it does, in fact, extend to just such people, and that it’s errant to ascribe to defenders of free speech the views espoused by all of those who practice it. I make no special exemption for those who criticize Islam.

I believe that it should be legal for an artist to create and publish images that satirize or mock or even suggest untruths about any figure or any faith (short of actual libel as it is legally defined), and that such artists should be allowed to express themselves without fear of physical violence being done to them.

Do you agree? If you were permitted to amend the Constitution tomorrow to criminalize blasphemy or harsh, broad criticisms of religion, would you?

This issue of freedom is independent of the issue of press responsibility, which is itself a valid issue to raise and to hope for.

Yet when the request for responsibility becomes a demand accompanied by a grave threat, yes, I do feel that certain core principles are involved that we must stand up for.

I think it’s important to take a calm, rational measure of the disagreements here as we explore the ways in which they might be reconciled.  I look forward to your response.

From: Ahmed Rehab
To: Eric Zorn

I want to thank you for publishing my comments and affording me the luxury of further responses. I do believe this to be an honest debate that is worthy of a public forum.

While I am being sappy, I want to state on the record that I happen to think that you are a talented writer with a good analytical mind; the fact that I strongly disagree with you on this specific issue does not take away from my assessment of your merits.

To the issue at hand:

You made a few counterpoints, several of which I find to be refutable.

You state that we do not “stifle” bigotry. Eric, but we do.

When a funny but blatantly bigoted cartoon is submitted to an editorial board that refuses to publish it, what we are witnessing is precisely the “stifling of bigotry.”

This is just one crude example, but bigotry is stifled everyday in America, just like public nudity is, and other forms of “unacceptable expressions” are.

The FCC’s introduction of a few seconds delay to Super Bowl half-time broadcasts since Janet Jackson’s live wardrobe malfunction is an example of how we “stifle” unnecessary and out of place nudity. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well whether it is or not is beyond the point, the point is that this is our reality as it stands today.

I have traveled to many countries around the world, and I believe that we have great freedoms in America. But it is futile to argue that these freedoms are unchecked. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our movie rating system, our TV rating system, our corporate company guidelines, and our equal employment opportunity laws are all examples of how our society regulates freedoms and stifles unwanted expressions.

In other words, we in the West do understand the meaning of controlled freedoms and do make judgments of what is acceptable and what is not based on standards we deem appropriate. Senator Trent Lott learned the hard way.

For better or for worse, the key point we need to come to grips with is that Muslim (peaceful) opposition to the cartoons is not an affront to our Western values of freedom but is compliant with the Western track record of preferring responsible freedoms over absolute freedoms and their dangerous consequences.

Education is the answer to bigotry you claim — and it is. As the matter of fact, education is the Prophet Muhammad’s weapon of choice against bigotry and other forms of ignorance.

He used to free hostages for every 10 Muslims they taught how to read and write.

As such, education was CAIR’s preferred response to the cartoon fiasco. I was on ABC 7, and FOX Chicago only two days ago announcing a major educational initiative about the Prophet Muhammad as our response to the cartoons. There was a Tribune article about it.  Over the past week, scores of fellow CAIR activists did the same in cities all over America.

You strongly disagree that the cartoons are making a statement about all Muslims. You refer to the example of a cartoon depicting pedophile priests as not making a statement about all priests. The analogy is not well placed.

A cartoon satirizing Muslim clergy would be a more apt equivalent to your example – and naturally it would not generate the same protests in Muslims. Muhammad however is the symbol of all Muslims. A more apt analogy to Muhammad’s all-inclusive and comprehensive representation of Muslims is Uncle Sam’s representation of Americans in cartoon terminology.

And so, yes, besides defiling a revered religious leader, the cartoons made a sweeping statement that all Muslims are terrorists via the image of the “Bomb-Turban Clad Muhammad”.

I would like to address the issue of the violent protests and the often expressed amazement over how people have died “over a cartoon.”

Of course, it is deplorable without qualification.

But that unfortunate fact is invoked time and again by commentators in shockingly simplistic fashion to score casual political points. Perceptive and seasoned observers will readily realize that what underscore the violence -– though instigated by the cartoons — are much more nuanced socio-economic and geopolitical factors that reach far beyond the cartoons.

Places where riots and deaths have occurred are either war-ravaged areas, occupied territories, or other politically volatile areas where people already live in relative chaos and repression -– at the constant brink of disorder.

After all, if the violent reactions are attributive to Islam itself as some would have us believe, then 45 casualties out of 1,400,000,000 Muslims is an enigma. The fact is almost all major Muslim organizations and institutions around the world have condemned the violence in these troubled areas and have themselves opted for a peaceful and civilized response.

One image that sticks to my mind is from an LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) news clip, of a few Imams in traditional clothing standing tall in the way of a violent mob as they pushed towards a European embassy in Beirut. I would have loved to see those many examples reflected in your various commentaries as well as in general media coverage of the “Muslim reaction”.

I will end with a point of agreement. I agree that personal opinions should not be made illegal -– bigoted as they may be.

I was astounded to hear about the British professor who was sentenced to jail in Austria for denying the Holocaust. It is pathetic to deny the Holocaust, but even more pathetic to be sentenced to jail for harboring a thought or an opinion. I think Austria has just given the modern world a free peek at the Middle-Ages.

It should be legal to hate Muslims, to lie about their Prophet, and to make absurdly generalist statements about their beliefs.

But those who wish to exercise their right to bigotry should not be condoned or encouraged by civilized, self-respecting members of society and their mainstream agencies. It’s not like that hasn’t blown out of control in Europe before! Incitement has real consequences.

Most certainly, I think that these bigoted cartoons should not be celebrated symbols of the sacred Western freedoms we boast and some of us even seek to export.

These are the reasonable expectations of most Muslims around the world, certainly of American Muslims.

Thanks Eric, I hope my inclination to rant does not give me an unfair advantage in the discussion. After all, whereas you get to sound off in the Chicago Tribune daily, I get to talk to my mirror more often than I care to.

From: Eric Zorn
To: Ahmed Rehab

Often the inclination to rant, at least in my own case, comes from a desire to score a quick sharp rhetorical point in a conversation in which you feel as if you are neither being heard nor listened to. I sense that this dialogue has moved beyond that, but at the same time I think it’s important that we continue to explore with great candor our areas of disagreement and misunderstanding.

For example, the issue of freedom of expression and whether or not we attempt to “stifle” bigotry here in the United States.

Socially, yes, we do, of course. Newspapers routinely decline to publish extreme and offensive points of view, racial epithets and the like. And, as you point out, there are numerous examples of institutions — the Motion Picture Association of America; the Federal Communications Commission; every private business I know of and so on– that attempt to impose time-and-place restrictions on certain forms of expression (including swear words and sexual imagery).

I would argue, though, that there is a critical distinction between general obloquy (of the sort heaped upon Trent Lott) and  government sanctioned suppression; between the refusal of institutions to facilitate expressions and the imposition of criminal sanctions upon or violent retributions against those who attempt to express themselves.

There is a world of difference between the Tribune refusing to print a guest editorial from a virulent white supremacist, say, and the government outlawing that same person from speaking and publishing his poisonous thoughts  (obligatory nod to laws forbidding specific incitement to violence, libel, slander etc).

The reason for this — and I don’t mean to seem to be giving you a civics lesson, so pardon my pedantry — is that you can’t have genuine freedom of expression and thought in a society where the government sits in judgment on what is an acceptable expression and acceptable thought, or where those exercising quasi-governmental power enforce such judgments through violence or threat of violence.

The animating notion of our First Amendment is that good ideas and truth ultimately drive out bad ideas and lies. If this notion is wrong — or if it’s so weak it must be buttressed by suppressive acts — then  the American experiment is a sham and doomed to failure.

Where I’m going with this  (a question you’re entitled to ask right about now) is that I am in complete agreement with you when you write that:

Muslim (peaceful) opposition to the cartoons is not an affront to our Western values of freedom….

In fact, peaceful opposition to the cartoons is a magnificent illustration of our Western values of freedom.

Violent opposition, however, is another matter entirely. And you  seem to agree with me there.

So where is our disagreement?

First, the idea that these cartoons were, in and of themselves, out of bounds as socio-political commentary in a Western country — that their medium and message was out of bounds by our standards.

I raised this point before but let me raise it again — artistic depictions of Muhammad are not unheard of in the Islamic world, in art history, in sculpture — and if the Danish newspaper had published a drawing of Muhammad in a flattering context similar to the way  U.S. Supreme Court building features a statue of Muhammad in its frieze of great lawgivers of history, we would not be having this dialogue today.

Islamic groups might have raised formal objections, as CAIR did in 1997 about the Supreme Court statue, but certainly violence would not have erupted.

(I’d like to interject a few questions here if I might: If, as I understand to be the case, Muslims object to depictions of Muhammad because they might lead to idolatry, then why does this prohibition extend to non-Muslims? Why would a Muslim care if a non-Muslim engaged in idolatry? Or, more to the point, why would it be a Muslim’s business if a non-Muslim engaged in idolatry? And in showing these cartoons to Muslims around the world in order to foment unrest, are not certain Islamic leaders perpetuating the blasphemy under these terms?)

The real source of anger, here, seems to be not so much that artists depicted your prophet, but that the message behind those depictions amounted, in your view and  I’m gathering the view of many, to a damnable lie about not only Muslims, but Islam itself.

Please correct me if I’m wrong. This really is an effort in good faith (so to speak) to parse this controversy.

You and I disagree about whether that is the only message or the obviously intended message.

I’m assuming you’ve viewed the cartoons so that we know exactly what we’re talking about?

Anyway, two points, and then I will close in the interest of moving things along and not trying to present my entire point of view in one letter:

POINT ONE: The meta-message of the set of drawings as published first in Denmark was one that said “Whether or not non-Muslim artists should refrain from creating even benign depictions of Muhammad in the interest of  multi-cultural sensitivity, politeness and respect, the fact that they are afraid for their lives, even here, to  create such imagery is intolerable. We defy that fear, and defy any authority or any threat that seeks to impose its particular standards and taboos upon us.”

This does not seem to me on its face to be an artistic statement that falls outside the bounds of decent commentary.

POINT TWO: The micro-message of some of the cartoons was that the Islamic faith and Islamic scripture fosters and even encourages terrorist acts. I don’t need to tell you, Ahmed, that this notion is one that causes considerable anxiety in this country and in the West in general, where understanding of the subtleties off Islam is lacking (I plead guilty!).

And clearly, some Islamic leaders endorse terrorism, find in scripture  the justification for the murder of “infidels,” and so on.

Parenthetically I would not deny that ghastly acts are and have been committed in the name of others faiths and other scripture as well.

A Western observer of those cartoons might well view the cartoons as  satirizing or mocking not Muhammad himself or the religion in general, but simply the fundamental extremists who — for instance and to appropriate the message of one of the drawings — believe that the prophet tells them they will be rewarded in paradise by  the company of numerous virgins if they martyr themselves for the cause of Islam.

I’m assuming from your previous messages that you would join in that mockery and totally disavow any scriptural interpretation that suggests heavenly reward for such infamous acts.

And along those same lines, I’ll suggest that there appears from my vantage point to be an ironic element to murdering and threatening to murder cartoonists who have dared to suggest that Islam is not a religion devoted to peace and to human freedom.
From:  Ahmed Rehab
To: Eric Zorn

Your first few paragraphs seem to be in complete agreement with points made in my last response, so I won’t comment much on them except to reiterate my view on freedom of expression and social responsibility.

I concede that the right to freedom of expression does include the right to bigoted expression, a right that should not be curtailed by any law nor reprimanded by any state enforced punishment so long as it does not result in the physical harm of another.

However, I do not expect a forward-moving society to embrace and reward those who choose to practice the right to bigotry. I believe it is the responsibility of all people of conscience to challenge, with more speech, any expressions of hate and bigotry that rise in their midst.

In the case of the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons, this was not done; Muslims were left to protest the bigoted cartoons alone for the most part. At first, Europe was eerily silent, like a deer caught in headlights. Finally, when European commentators were moved to speak, they spoke in defense of hate, failing to underscore the above distinctions.

This endorsement and not the bigotry displayed by the cartoonists is what troubles me the most.

Muslim protest (not violence) is merited.

But consider this:
The Danish cartoons are not the first time the image of the prophet Muhammad has been disparaged by agenda-driven detractors; however, it’s the first time that the Muslim world has reacted so strongly. Why? What makes this instance so unique?

In the past, when insulting images of the prophet would surface, they would surface on nutty fringe websites; they would quickly dissipate in the dark annals of cyberspace where they were born. Muslims who knew about these cases were upset by them but would reasonably dismiss them as secluded and harmless.

This episode, however, marks the first time where inflammatory anti-Muslim illustrations are embraced and peddled by a mainstream European newspaper: Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. In a sense, Muslim outrage is not a reaction to the mere expression of anti-Muslim bigotry, but the groundbreaking endorsement thereof by a legitimate agency of the European mainstream – a dangerous development for anyone familiar with Europe’s past.

Add to this the other point that you accurately assumed:

The real source of anger, here, seems to be not so much that artists depicted your prophet, but that the message behind those depictions amounted, in your view and  I’m gathering the view of many, to a damnable lie about not only Muslims, but Islam itself.

In other words, bigoted stereotyping and generalizing that work to cement wide-spread sensational perceptions held by average Europeans that Islam and all Muslims are the enemy (rather than terrorism and terrorists). This convolution is at the root of all modern Islamophobia. It is dangerous incitement that should never be tolerated.

In response to your POINT ONE:

I don’t buy the argument that the cartoonists were motivated by the noble quest to challenge the limits of free speech in the face of their being compromised by radical Muslims. Familiarity with the politics of cultural editor and Straussian neo-Con, Flemming Rose, who commissioned these cartoons, is enough to poke a dent in that pretty theory. But less speculatively, I put forth the following arguments:

Had the cartoonists in fact penned “benign” images of the prophet that are more historically responsible, that argument would have stood a chance.

The cartoons instead delved into a whole new area of commentary with no uncertain messages. They sought to make the ludicrous claim that the prophet of Islam – one of history’s greatest men whose legacy spawned scores of effulgent civilizations that enkindled literature, philosophy, arts, and sciences over a period of 1000 years – is synonymous and interchangeable with the leader of a contemporary fringe terrorist group who lives somewhere in a cave on the Pakistani-Afghan border and whose only contribution to the world is destruction.

This audacious comparison lies far outside the realm of reasonable – let alone decent – commentary.

Now I have a question for you: had the cartoonists opted instead for a pro-Nazi illustration as a test to the limits of freedom of expression in Europe, would you have still considered that to be an artistic statement not outside the realm of decent commentary?

There is another point to consider. Muslim extremists, whom our brave cartoonists were supposedly out to defy, do not have exclusive ownership of the Prophet Muhammad’s image. That happens to be shared by hundreds of millions of law-abiding Muslims who share little else with those extremists.

Is it possible for the cartoonists to be so narrow-minded that they not see this? Do they see it and not care? If you wanted to impede Britain’s notorious football hooligans, do you cancel the English Premiership (England’s football league and the bloodline of English society)? Well, not only would you hear from the hooligans, but you would from all of England. Surprising?

Is this not the same moral problem with terrorism: vigilantes who are incensed by the injustices that have befallen their people at the hand of the “imperialists” strike out against anything and everything related to those imperialists including their civilians – and not just their tanks and their army barricades?

In response to your POINT TWO:

Is Islam responsible for the evil practices of some of its adherents?

I wish there was such a thing as religious malpractice. I would be suing a whole lot of people.

That question though is a valid question that really can be asked of all religions: Did the teachings of Catholicism inspire the Crusades and the inquisition in which blood baths were knee high?

Did the teachings of Christian Orthodoxy inspire the rape of 20,000 Muslim women in Serbia a few years ago?

Did the teachings of Judaism inspire the massacres of civilians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila by SLA militias operating under the auspices of the Israeli army?

Do the teachings of Islam inspire terrorism?

I think most certainly not.

In pursuit of legitimacy and credibility, Human beings will attempt to justify barbaric actions they partake in via religion or an innocent quest for survival.

The simple evidence that religious teachings are not to blame is the fact that for every one Muslim terrorist there exists millions of peace-loving Muslims who believe that Islam stipulates that the pursuit of justice never compromise innocent lives.

Also, while Catholic leaders may have administered barbaric campaigns like the inquisition and the Crusades, it was Catholicism that inspired the lives and works of some of the world’s greatest humanitarians like St Vincent DePaul, St. Ignatius Loyola, and Mother Teresa of recent.

A clue that hints at the absolution of the world’s great religions from the dereliction of their self-professed adherents came late last week, courtesy of Monsignor De Paolis.

“Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It’s our duty to protect ourselves,” Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s supreme court, thundered in the daily La Stampa.

Fact: Jesus Christ demanded that people turn the other cheek. Here we see, a Vatican official making a direct and public injunction to overturn this longstanding Christian cornerstone. He seems to hint at its ineptitude at keeping Christians secure, and so he takes the liberty to call for its antiquation.

Consider this: if a veteran Vatican official living in relative comfort could not resist reacting emotionally to current conflict – though it does not threaten him personally – in a way that compromises his own religion and its teachings, why then is it hard to accept that young Muslims living in tense conditions can crack under the pressure of current conflict that threaten them directly, leading them to act outside of the teachings of their faith?

If devout Christians were to take De Paolis advice to heart, and respond to aggression with aggression rather than turning the other cheek – as many have in the past – would that course of action then automatically become “Christian”. No, because Christianity is to be judged by its teachings not the dereliction and belligerence of its adherents who are engrossed in their worldly problems and are reacting selfishly to them.

Likewise, it takes basic familiarity with Islam’s teachings to realize that those Muslims who are quick to burn a flag or attack an embassy are not doing so in compliance with Islam’s teachings but in utter defiance of them. Islam presents rage as one of humanity’s most treacherous foes that must be subdued. The Prophet Muhammad said “the strongest amongst you is she/he who can control herself/himself in a moment of anger.”

Though many Muslim rioters see their passionate rage as a sign of empowerment and the calmness of other Muslims as a sign of meekness, their understanding stands in complete contradiction to the prophet’s own worldview that sees empty displays of rage as a sign of ultimate weakness.

A solution whereby the faculties of the mind are fully employed free of emotional impediment is Islam’s preferred course of action to any conflict. Given the role of ignorance at the root of this conflict, the optimum Islamic solution to this controversy is decidedly a dialogue of understanding and a campaign of knowledge-sharing.

The recent campaigns announced by America’s largest and most active Muslim groups such as CAIR and ICNA are evidence that the bulk of mainstream Muslims – at least in America – understand this and abide by it.
From:  Eric Zorn
To: Ahmed Rehab

Curses! You have artfully eluded two rhetorical traps I set (in the spirit of inquiry of course) in an effort to advance my argument:

The first was an invitation to defend the notion that all images that purport in some way to be images of Muhammad are exceedingly offensive to Muslims—vile blasphemy on its face.

This seems to be a given in the discussions taking place in the media, and I was prepared to challenge you with excerpts from a recently published essay by Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri:

There is no Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with a version of Christianity that was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time when Islam still had an organic theology, issued “fatwas” against any depiction of the Godhead. That position was further buttressed by the fact that Islam acknowledges the Jewish Ten Commandments–which include a ban on depicting God–as part of its heritage. The issue has never been decided one way or another, and the claim that a ban on images is “an absolute principle of Islam” is purely political….

The claim that the ban on depicting Muhammad and other prophets is an absolute principle of Islam is also refuted by history. Many portraits of Muhammad have been drawn by Muslim artists, often commissioned by Muslim rulers.

And Taheri goes on to list examples in great detail.

But instead you focused our discussion on the offensiveness of the message contained in the cartoons, which is fair enough. And still leaves us a lot to talk about.

The second rhetorical trap I set was an attempt to get you to acknowledge that you, Ahmed, have viewed the cartoons for yourself; that you have not simply relied on descriptions offered by others, but have actually examined the primary source material.

But you didn’t acknowledge this directly in your last letter or make note of my aside, “I’m assuming you viewed the cartoons, so that we know exactly what we’re talking about?”

So I’m left to argue from the assumption  that many Muslim leaders have not only viewed the cartoons but shown them to others; the assumption that many of those who are or were engaged in violent street protests have also viewed and been inflamed by the cartoons, not mere descriptions of them.

I know that many American journalists on all sides of the question went out of their way to view them for themselves.

The point being that through our actions we acknowledge that it’s not possible really to understand and to judge these images – – what they may be saying, what they may not be saying, whom they are criticizing and so on — without looking at them.  Not for their humor or commentary value, as such, but for their news value.

If many of us active in this debate felt we needed to view these cartoons in order to have an informed, serious discussion, then on what grounds do you and so many others object to allowing the news-consuming public that same opportunity?

The proposal to re-print the cartoons  not as humor or commentary but as images that are making news has been widely rejected, often with disdain and over-the-top analogies to exceedingly vile depictions of, say, Jesus committing sodomy and spewing disgusting epithets.

These argument says that we can certainly discuss our revulsion to child pornography or murder without showing graphic depictions of pedophiles in action or close-ups of mutilated bodies, so we can discuss our revulsion to these cartoons without letting anyone see them.

And it’s true  that certain imagery is and I hope always will be out of bounds in mainstream publications, but the argument stands or falls on the precision of the analogy.  And in this case it  relies on the fact that many people begin their internal deliberations on this issue with the premise that, even when presented for their news value, the images themselves are so offensive that they violate the standards of taste and decency that apply in most situations.

This presumption forecloses the sort of calm analysis that you and I are engaging in here, which I think does a disservice to everyone.

It ill-serves Muslims because it seems to place that belief system outside the bounds of rational discussion and critical analysis.

I’m sure that you and most Muslims living in America don’t want to be humored or patronized or feared. Yet this no-debate insistence on obeisance to a particular and, to most Westerners, highly unusual taboo forecloses the sort of understanding that leads to genuine respect.

And it ill-serves non Muslims because it effectively puts a “keep out!” sign at the boundaries of this topic.

It’s good we’re talking, in other words.

And one thing I’d like to say is that  American newspapers—including the Tribune – regularly publish imagery and words that some, justifiably, consider vile, hurtful or simply very disturbing.  Just a few weeks ago we published a photo of vandalism at a synagogue that included several abhorrent Nazi swastikas.

We did not, of course, publish these photos to glorify the swastika or the Third Reich, but to illustrate, in a way that words simply cannot, the gut-punch of such vandalism.

We run photos and drawings not simply to break up the expanse of gray that would otherwise result, but because images have a special power and ability for communication. Why run pictures of the cartoons? Why run pictures of anything?

By the latest count in the Nexis database, the Tribune has published 577 stories in the last 21 years that spell out, in all it’s six-letter ugliness, that racial epithet that commonly goes by “the N-word.”

Again, always for illustrative purposes. Similarly we run excerpts from the hateful rants of homophobes and racists, countless images of the controversial Chief Illiniwek and cartoons that take broad swipes at particular groups using arguably unfair generalizations to make the point.

Where, then, do the dozen drawings published in Jyllands-Posten fall in this continuum that ranges from acceptable if pointed satire all the way to explicit child pornography?

And here’s a question to throw into the mix: Do each of them fall roughly in the same place along that continuum?

To my eyes, no. Some of the cartoons, particularly on their own and out of context, are fairly benign. Others in the group seem to be attempting to make a far stronger point.

But do even the stronger ones – the one showing a bearded man (Muhammad?) with a bomb for a turban is one that seems to have excited a lot of comment — amount to “anti-Muslim bigotry,” your words, on their face?

Or are other interpretations reasonable? For example, what about the interpretation that says this cartoon is not aimed at all of Islam, not aimed at Muhammad but at those who have themselves perverted his name and his message? At the “murder the infidels!” kooks who have made Islamofascist terrorism the single biggest threat to the future of the world?

Your contention is that these cartoons communicate the false message that Muhammad himself endorsed or would have sanctioned terrorist acts in his name. And, your contention continues, this insultingly denies the obvious truth that Islam is a religion of peace.

It seems to be common to ask people to accept all such claims for any given religion – not just Islam — at face value, without  pausing to examine them.

But I’d like to get past that. Because I, for one, don’t normally take serious assertions at face value, and I don’t think it’s possible to have meaningful discussions about anything—including and perhaps especially religion –without taking a fearless look at our assumptions.

So allow me to question you on this point.  What, other than say-so and umbrage, tells us that Islam is a religion of peace?

I am not a student of your scripture. Like most Western, non-Muslims I have not read and probably never will read the Koran much less study it with the intensity I’m told is required to understand its subtleties.

So I’d like it explained to me what it is that the terrorists, the jihadists, the Islamofascists and Wahabbists are reading in these words of God delivered to Muhammad that justifies in their minds the murder of innocent people in the name of martyrdom.

Where, for example, does the notion of a reward of virgins in paradise for martyrs come from? Assuming it is a ghastly misreading of a scriptural passage, what is that passage? How should it be read?

You used the term “Islamophobia,” and I understand why. Many westerners, many Americans, are afraid of the radical elements in Islam -– with good reason, I hope you agree –  and not completely soothed by assurances such as yours that “for every one Muslim terrorist there exists millions of peace-loving Muslims who believe that Islam stipulates that the pursuit of justice never compromise innocent lives.”

They wonder -– as I admit I do – just how marginal, how much in the “fringe” (again your word) this strain of Islam actually is in the world.  How committed are the Muslim leaders of the world not only to peaceful and enduring co-existence with Christians, Jews, atheists and so on, but also to human rights?  To substantially equal rights for women? To the sort of freedom and thought and expression that you and I have mutually celebrated in this correspondence?

Andrew Steven-Harris, a former Los Angles Times editor, writes in this essay that

To many Islamic nations, freedom is not a tonic, but a toxin; it’s regarded not just as something that permits a challenge to faith, but is a challenge to faith by itself.

Is he wrong?

News reports tell us that a Jordanian journalist is facing prosecution because he wrote the following:

What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras, or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony?

In Yemen, an Imam has called for the execution of journalists who wrote editorials urging Muslims to avoid violence and to accept an apology from Jyllands-Posten.

In Algeria, officials closed two newspapers and arrested their editors for printing blurred versions of the cartoons.

You may respond as you have responded before, that Christians, Jews and atheists are not and have not been exactly saintly in these regards either.  Your previous letter cited the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, the rape of Muslim women in Serbia by putative Christians and  massacres of civilians in Lebanon.  You could certainly add to that list the abortion clinic bombers in the U.S.

But all told I feel it’s disingenuous to suggest that Christian or Jewish terrorists who claim to find in their scripture justification for murderous acts is a global problem comparable with the problem of Islamic fundamentalists who claim to find such justification in their scripture.

The PBS “Frontline” program on Madrassas said that the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia (Wahabbism) “is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies.”

A recent poll in London found some 40 percent of Muslims living there wished for the imposition of sharia law.

I sympathize with Muslims who love peace and love freedom that they feel constantly lumped in with the extremists, and that they hear constantly demands that they repudiate and disavow terrorism and so suffer constantly the prejudice of non Muslims.

The antidote to that prejudice is reassurance, in dialogue such as we are having now, that we are not, in fact, engaged in a dramatic and potentially apocalyptic clash of civilizations; reassurance that the true clash is between Islamic extremists on one hand and, on the other, peace loving, modern Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists and so on;  reassurance that the mainstream values of Muslims and most non-Muslims are so strong and so similar that we can and will co-exist in peace in the world having marginalized, ostracized and when necessary imprisoned or killed the lunatics among us who threaten that peace.

I don’t sense that middle America truly feels that reassurance yet.

The message Westerners get from the cartoon riots -– not just the killing and the burning but also the vitriolic vehemence with which protesters have demanded that non-Muslims observe Muslim religious taboos or suffer death for it–- is disquieting. It suggests there may be core conflicts in our notions of the ideal society and in the value (or lack thereof) we place on  individual liberty.

Islam is a religion of peace. But is it a religion of freedom? And does an overview of Islamic states and Islamic leaders in the Middle East support the contention that it is? Does it belie the suggestions in the previous paragraph that there may be core values conflicts in play?

Though this may sound like an aggressive challenge, it is actually an entreaty for reassurance. Because if it’s not possible, then peace is not possible.

I’ll close for now by answering quickly a few of your points:

Had the cartoonists opted instead for a pro-Nazi illustration as a test to the limits of freedom of expression in Europe, would you have still considered that to be an artistic statement not outside the realm of decent commentary?

Yes. I tend to be an absolutist about these things, but yes. I would hope that I’d be able to view the image and understand how and why the artist was trying to push people’s buttons.

I’m appalled and embarrassed by the Austrian imprisonment of a Holocaust denier and I believe that a symbolic, protest expression of Holocaust denial (a repellent idea) would be well within the realm of decent commentary in Austria if freedom-loving people there had the spine for it.

I’m appalled by the phony pseudo-patriots in America like our Gov. Rod Blagojevich who support freedom-limiting restrictions on the burning of the American flag in protest.

I feel that if any nations are going to presume to lecture others about about freedom, liberty, democracy and so on, they should be sure their own records are clean.

I don’t buy the argument that the cartoonists were motivated by the noble quest to challenge the limits of free speech in the face of their being compromised by radical Muslims.

But free speech was being compromised in Denmark by radical Muslims. Artists were living in fear. And  now, to underscore this, these cartoonists, last I checked, are in hiding.

Challenge was appropriate. I don’t see a sliver of light between appeasement and defiance when the metaphorical gun is at someone’s head.

The cartoons… sought to make the ludicrous claim that the prophet of Islam … is synonymous and interchangeable with the leader of a contemporary fringe terrorist group who lives somewhere in a cave on the Pakistani-Afghan border and whose only contribution to the world is destruction.

That’s one interpretation, to be sure. But, and I ask this again, where have the street riots been all these years in the Islamic world over those terrorists who not only make this claim, but back it up with deadly violence?  The cartoonist made their claim in pen and ink and the Islamic world erupted with far more rage than when Al Qaeda made this claim with bombs and jet planes turned into missiles, shouting “God is great!” as they murdered thousands.

We see Muslim protesters carrying signs demanding the beheading of the cartoonists and we hear so-called holy men putting million-dollar price tags on the heads of artists who defamed Islam.  Did I miss the photos of Muslims carrying signs demanding the beheading of Osama bin Laden for his blasphemous, infamous truly heretical deed?  Have Imams put a bounty on the head of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that the western media has not reported? Was there ever a Rushdie-like fatwa on Ayman al-Zawahiri for his crimes against Islam and the  grievous insult he makes to the prophet?

If a veteran Vatican official living in relative comfort could not resist reacting emotionally to current conflict – though it does not threaten him personally – in a way that compromises his own religion and its teachings, why then is it hard to accept that young Muslims living in tense conditions can crack under the pressure of current conflict that threaten them directly, leading them to act outside of the teachings of their faith?

As a good liberal I can certainly relate to the idea that circumstances play a role in violent behavior and that those who feel threatened, marginalized and dispossessed are likelier than others to lash out.

But the Vatican official was speaking metaphorically and, last I checked, hadn’t orchestrated any killings or called for any heads to be delivered to him.  What’s the excuse for the Imams and more settled and well-off leaders for fomenting and encouraging this sort of thing?  These are not grassroots protests, after all, fueled by rumors that some cartoonists in a country thousands of miles away has dared draw a picture of Muhammad. They are, it seems to me, tactical socio-political statements deliberately inflamed months after the initial offense. And for what reason?

One last question, with no hidden rhetorical trap:

Where do we go from here?

From: Ahmed Rehab
To:
Eric Zorn

Commenting on the United 93 flight transcript, you note that, 24 times the hijackers invoke the name of Allah as they are preparing to murder as many people as they can, per instructions from Osama bin Laden. Is that a blasphemous act, you ask?

I hope that is a rhetorical question, Eric, and that you do not really possess an inkling of a doubt that Islam prohibits the mass murder of innocents – let alone the invocation of God’s name to mark the event.

Is that a fair and reasonable expectation that I hold you to?

Most certainly.

Islam is not a cult that was started in the back of a garage in Idaho in 1978 and it is high time it not be assessed as such.

Islam is one of the world’s greatest faiths, and you don’t achieve greatness by harboring such insipid beliefs as postulated in the question.

Islam is studied everywhere from Al Azhar to Harvard and Oxford. There are entire departments in top notch US universities dedicated to exploring Islamic studies in a most rigorous academic fashion.

Islam is not a secret kept up in some exotic bottle, only to be opened up by the lanky Bin Laden and his henchmen in September of 2001.

Islam’s spiritual teachings that provide comfort and guidance to hundreds of millions of people of every race and class are not a secret. Islam’s legacy that has offered the world dozens of resplendent civilizations from Spain to China is not a secret. Islam’s outstanding contributions to humanity in the arts and sciences are not a secret. Islam’s intellectual works that dominate libraries from the library of Alexandria to the library of Congress are not a secret. There is really no valid excuse for anyone in the information age to lack elementary knowledge of such a globally and historically important entity.

But just in case, let me emphatically resound in the affirmative. Yes, ”invoking Allah’s name as you are preparing to murder as many people as you can” is surely blasphemous.

Perhaps I should interject here and also state that “murdering as many people as you can” is in itself blasphemous. As the matter of fact, the Holy Qur’an teaches that killing one innocent soul is akin to killing all of humanity whereas saving an innocent soul is akin to saving all of humanity (5:32).

Which brings us to your question, why doesn’t the Muslim world cause an uproar and take to the streets in demonstration of the 9/11 hijackers’ blasphemy as they did with the Danish cartoons?

There is a certain assumption in your question that worries me. You seem to assume that “terrorists” are an operative part of our mainstream Muslim fabric such that we have an open line of communication with them; wherein we can actually harbor expectations and seek compliance from them. Later in your message, you affirm my suspicion by explicitly concluding that terrorist leaders are not marginal kooks but, in fact, so nearly mainstream that their outrageous acts are not seen as blasphemies.

The exact opposite is true.

Terrorists operate in Muslim countries as unwanted outlaws in every sense of the word. There is a reason why Bin Laden sought permanent residency in the rugged terrains of war-ravaged Afghanistan, and did not set up camp at the downtown Cairo Hilton. There is a reason why his agents lurk under the threshold of Muslim societies leading undercover lives (except in a few limited territories dispersed throughout war torn regions). There is a reason why their identities are secretive and their movements elusive.

Terrorism is an irrational and extreme tactic that can never find mainstream support in Muslims because it is anti-civilization, whereas Islam possesses 1400 years of demonstrated civilization.

Terrorism is as foreign and surreal a concept to the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims as it is to you. Muslims are just as intrigued and just as appalled by terrorism as you are. When your average Muslim switches on the TV set, he or she is learning about terrorism from the same exclusive sources you are. There are no special Muslim mailing lists through which Muslims get the insider perspectives of terrorists, nor are there neighborhood focus groups where Muslims get to secretly interact with them.

The Muslim world does not rise in uproar against the misuse of the name of “Allah” by the lunatic fringe because we bear no expectations from the lunatic fringe. We expect no concessions from the lunatic fringe, nor do we think the lunatic fringe is interested in what we have to request of them.

There is a world of difference between how people react to blasphemy imparted by a lunatic fringe – a lost cause – and how they react to blasphemy imparted by credible, mainstream entities that ought to know better.

Americans do not gawk at the use of the N word by the KKK. After all, they’re the KKK. However, Senator Trent Lott makes a crude joke referencing slavery and that instigates loud protests causing enough controversy to choke his long-standing political career. That is because a mainstream agent is held to a much higher standard than the lunatic fringe.

Naturally, Muslims do not expect any better from a gang of criminals who hijack commercial planes with hundreds of innocent souls and then fly them into buildings where hundreds of other innocent souls dwell. Muslims however do harbor expectations of decency and civil behavior from the world’s mainstream newspapers.

It is within that same line of reasoning that the Muslim world does not take to the streets and rise in an uproar when lunatic fringe websites depict Muhammad in an insulting manner, though many examples of that abide. It took “mainstream” blasphemy, courtesy of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, to cause the uproar.

Hopefully that addresses your question.

I want to devote the second part of my response to the following statement:

“Now, here, we have two dozen invocations of Allah that not only suggest Islam is not a religion of peace, but that back up that suggestion with mass murder.”

I am glad you said that because it gives me an opportunity to address the fallacious logic that lies at the heart of all Islamophobic remarks.

I should predicate what I am about to say with the disclaimer that it is in no way my position that you are an Islamophobe, evidenced by your gracious hosting of this forum for your own learning benefit and that of your readership.

I appreciate that you do not sugar-coat your statements nor pepper them with political correctness so as to render a more accurate and realistic representation of what many out there are thinking and saying.

So what is the problem with that statement?

Well, how can two dozen invocations made by a dozen or so Muslims, all of whom belong to an underground extremist group, suggest anything about Islam or its one billion plus adherents – let alone that it is not a religion of peace?

Making the outrageous leap from the limited and particular domain that is terrorism to the globally diverse and rich domain that is Islam is a common mistake at the root of all Islamophobic remarks – so common I have given it a name: “the quantum leap of folly.”

Consider the following:

How many people subscribe to the Islamic faith?

1,400,000,000

How many of our fellow Americans subscribe to the Islamic faith?

8,000,000

How many Muslims hijacked civilian airplanes and rammed them into the World Trade center?

19

How many of them were American Muslims?

0

What percent of Muslims have committed suicide bombings or conducted terrorist attacks against civilian targets in the past?

0.0000714%.

What percent of American Muslims have committed suicide bombings or conducted terrorist attacks against civilian targets in the past?

0%

Yet despite these compelling numbers, some of us feel justified using “terrorism” and “Islam” interchangeably; “terrorists” and “Muslims” interchangeably.

It is beyond me why we do not set scope when it comes to our commentaries on Islam and the Muslim people. Why can’t we limit our disdain against terrorism to terrorists, our dislike of extremism to extremists? Why must we expand the domain of discourse to pull in all Muslims putting them and their faith on trial for the beliefs and acts of a lunatic fringe?

Many of your questions, though well-intended am sure, are party to the infamous leap of folly, namely, the insinuation that since Muslim terrorists claim Islam as a faith, then Islam and all those who subscribe to it should stand trial.

Promulgators of the leap of folly can be found everywhere these days, from the senate floor to the world of cyber blogs, and from the evening cable newscast, to AM radio. Some cases are mild, others are much more severe.

In 2004, Jay Severin, a Boston-area radio talk show host offered the following solution to the problem of terrorism on his afternoon program, “I’ve got an idea, let’s kill all Muslims.”

Popular conservative American commentator, Ann Coulter, who frequents FOX, CNN, and graces the cover of TIME magazine offered a more tempered piece of advice: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

The leap of folly operates on the following disturbingly simplistic logic: “Terrorists are Muslim” so “Muslims are terrorists.” It renders Islam and terrorism as interchangeable entities.

Religious leaders are party to the fallacy as well.

Popular American Evangelical leaders continue to make sweeping statements about Islam and Muslims, exploiting the public mood of fear, suspicion, and paranoia in post 9/11 America.

Pat Robertson described Islam as a “violent religion that wants to dominate and then, if need be, destroy.” Franklin Graham called Islam “a very evil and a very wicked religion.” Jerry Falwell claimed that Muhammad was really “a terrorist.”

These men are not marginal figures in American life. Collectively, they provide spiritual guidance for millions of Americans. Though they continue to incite hatred against all Muslims in their private sermons and public television statements, they were neither condemned nor challenged by anyone, including those who consistently criticize Muslims for intolerance and extremism. They continue to be received by the White House, and they continue to rake in government funds to support their “good work”.

A classic demonstration of the leap of folly comes courtesy of a US Congressman, no less. In a radio interview, US Representative Tom Tancredo said that if the terrorists nuke us, “we should nuke Mecca.” In his mind, terrorists and the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims are interchangeable entities – precisely the logic behind the leap of folly. Franklin Graham poignantly underscores this when he says, “it wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith,” or when he says, “Muslims haven’t sufficiently apologized for the terrorist attacks.”

The Guardian reports that General Boykin, US deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence regularly preached that the US was in a holy war as a “Christian nation” battling “Satan.” Boykin was working Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison at the time.

The quantum leap of folly that has permeated American discourse on Islam and terrorism is not without real consequences.

It is because of the leap of folly, that long-standing Muslim charities have had their assets frozen and their names tarnished.

It is because of the leap of folly that Mohamed and Khaled Zamzam’s elderly mother cannot obtain a visa to come visit them in Chicago.

It is as a direct result of the leap of folly, and nothing else, that Dr. Rubai, a law-abiding, tax-paying American neurosurgeon gets to spend an extra 3 hours at O’Hare every single time he flies “home” to Chicago.

It is as a direct result of the leap of folly that Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), a cultural pop icon and world renowned peace activist was booted off our shores hours after landing.

It is with thanks to the leap of folly that Dr. Tariq Ramadan, a prospective Notre Dame University professor and popular European Intellectual was banned by Homeland Security from coming to the US to assume his new job without being afforded any reasons.

It is because of the leap of folly that my downtown Chicago civil rights office is inundated with hundreds of cases of civil rights abuses, leveled against innocent and upright American citizens simply because they are Muslim. These cases range from employment discrimination, to law enforcement abuse, to citizenship delay cases.

In closing, I would like to pose a challenge to you and your readers. I ask you that you sharpen your leap of folly sensors and be on the look out. Assess statements made about Islam and terrorism against my simple theory and judge for yourselves.

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2 Responses to “Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn V. Ahmed Rehab:
Cartoon depictions of Muhammad, the great debate”

  1. Mohamad Abdallah says:

    Very nice job Ahmad Rehab

  2. Malik says:

    Great work Mr. Rehab! Also Mr. Zorn for actually having a debate. I really believe that this is excatly what we need to clear the misconceptions. I agree and strongly support Ahmad Rehab with his inituitive to educate our fellow citizens about Islam and Prophet Mohammed(PBUH).I think we as muslims have opporunity to try to show people the life of the Prophet. This way some Americans do have misconceptions would be more educated. Inshallah!

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