[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Alas, it happened again. An extremist Muslim attacked a Westerner to punish him for “mocking Islam.” This time, the victim was the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose controversial caricature of the Prophet Mohammed had sparked a worldwide storm five years ago. A 28-year-old man of Somali origin broke into the cartoonist’s home last Friday, wielding an axe and a knife. “We will get our revenge,” he reportedly yelled, before being shot by the police and taken under custody.
Mr. Westergaard, who had the chance to run into the “panic room” in his house, luckily survived. And I hope he will not face anything like this again. As a Muslim, I, too, had found his caricature, which depicted the Prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a fuse, offensive. But I also believe that being offended by someone does not give you the right to attack him or her.
Some Muslim nationalism?
Yet a minority among Muslims think differently. After the publishing of Westergaard’s caricature in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, along with 11 other ones with similar themes, some Muslim reactions proved to be quite militant. Danish embassies in Damascus, Beirut and Tehran were set on fire by protesters. Other protesters marched in London carrying posters with bold suggestions such as, “Butcher those who mock Islam,” or, “Slay those who insult Islam.”
Well, there is a strange irony here, right? First, some non-Muslims depict Islam as a violent religion. Then some angry Muslims go violent to protest against it. Their very actions, in other words, prove the very criticism raised against them.
Therefore, it is necessary to sort this issue out not only for the lives of people like Mr. Westergaard, but also for the dignity of Islam. So, let me offer a few thoughts.
First, here is a question: Why are those angry Muslims who wish to “butcher those who mock Islam” obsessed with the mockery of the Prophet Mohammed, but not other prophets (such as Abraham or Moses), and, more importantly, the mockery of God?
Yes, contemporary Western culture is, unfortunately, full of themes that make fun of God, and the prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition who are holy for Islam as well. From a strictly theological point of view, the most offensive among all these should be insults raised against God. As for the prophets, they should all be equally revered, because the Koran describes Muslims as “those who believe in God and His messengers and make no distinction between any of the messengers.” (4:152)
I am not trying to say that mockeries against God or other prophets should be replied to with militancy, too. I am just wondering whether the zeal behind the exclusive focus on the Prophet Mohammed is really rooted in faith. To me, it seems to be more rooted in some form of Muslim nationalism – a defense of “us” and “our religion” against “them.”
Secondly, let me ask this: How do those militant Muslims who wish to “slay those who insult Islam” know that this is the Muslim thing to do?
The common answer is given by referring to a few narratives about the life of Prophet Mohammed, which reports things like the execution of two specific prisoners of war, who were satirical poets, after a battle the early Muslims had with pagans. But there are other narratives telling that the Prophet forgave such anti-Islamic propagandists of his time.
Moreover, all these narratives about the life of the Prophet, the earliest of which were written a century and a half after his death, are full of puzzles, contradictions and myths, and it is often very hard to put them in the right context. What they will mean for the context of the modern world is another challenging question. (The Prophet, after all, was a man of his time.)
What the Koran says
On the other hand, the Koran is the only single disputed source for all Muslims, and it has nothing that suggests an earthly punishment for the mockers of Islam. Moreover, it has an interesting verse that commands Muslims the following:
“When you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.” (4:140)
What I see here is a civilized form of disapproval: Muslims are not supposed to be a part of a discourse that mocks Islam. But all they have to do is stay away from it. And even then, that is only until the discourse changes. Once mockery ends, dialogue can restart. (By the way, this verse is from a “Medinan” chapter. It, in other words, comes from a phase in which Muslims had military power.)
If we apply this principle to the modern world, we can say that Muslims can boycott anti-Islamic rhetoric by refusing to join conversations, buy newspapers, or watch films and plays that mock the values of their faith. But that’s it. Disapproving and boycotting is the Muslim thing to do, whereas violence and threats are not.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of Muslims already take this peaceful way. The problem is with the extremist minority who believe in glorifying Islam with violence. Little do they realize that their mindless militancy mocks our faith more than any cartoonist ever could.