By Peter Gottschalk
No Qurans burned, no “Ground Zero mosque” built, so time to move on. The op-ed pieces have embraced other matters and new concerns wrought today’s handwringing. Unfortunately, the larger story doesn’t disappear so easily. In fact, within a week after the news of belligerent Christians and insensitive Muslims became passé, The New York Times demonstrated that a basic impulse driving both issues remains undiminished.
Under the headline “Cartoonist Hiding Due to Threats,” a Times article reported how the promoter of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” cartoonist Molly Norris, went underground after a Yemini-American cleric promoted her murder. The newspaper bet, probably correctly, that its readers didn’t need the headline to explain why Ms. Norris hid. After successive cartoon scandals involving the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad both in a Danish newspaper and in the South Park television show, the article’s editor knew that “cartoon” and “threat” immediately imply “Islam” in many American minds. Indeed, since the 2005 Danish cartoon fracas, the reporting in the Times-and other new outlets-has perpetuated this misleading connection, even as it includes facts that prove its own misdirection.
The Times article notes that Anwar al-Awlaki, explaining his anger toward Ms. Norris and other Westerners, stated that they “are expressing their hatred of the Messenger of Islam through ridicule.” The article then dismisses al-Awlaki’s explanation by flatly declaring “Islam forbids depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.” Obviously, threats like al-Awlaki’s cannot be condoned. But he made clear that his objection derives not from a prohibition against Muhammad’s portraiture, but from efforts to publicly disparage the Prophet. For many Muslims, Muhammad represents the exemplary Muslim, a figure to be closely emulated. To demean his character is to demean the practices and beliefs of all Muslims. Nevertheless, the Times and other news outlets consistently have misleadingly declared that the trouble stems from unyielding rules against visually representing the Prophet.
The distinction is important, not because it justifies the threats (it can’t). Instead, the difference between an objection to all images of Muhammad and an objection to his public vilification means the difference between non-Muslim Americans seeing Islam as an alien religion characterized by rules counter to U.S. constitutional rights and Americans viewing Muslims as a group sensitive to malign directed toward their cherished leaders, like other communities are. When Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, threats dissuaded many theaters to not show it. Armed guards protected the one that I attended. Similar outrage followed Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ, which photographed a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. Yet despite these protests, no one stereotypes all Christians as inherently against the freedom of artistic expression.
Also revealing is how the response to Ms. Norris differs from that to editor Fleming Rose five years earlier. He sparked the Danish controversy by soliciting depictions of the Prophet after hearing that no artists were willing to create an image of Muhammad for a children’s book. The subsequent Muslim outrage derived from only a few of the cartoons: the ones portraying Muhammad derogatorily. Similarly, al-Awlaki’s threat stemmed from Ms. Norris’ campaign that everyone portray Muhammad in response to a South Park decision to omit reference to Muhammad in an episode. As his statement demonstrates, al-Awlaki anticipated the campaign would create malicious images. Although representations of Muhammad abound in museums and law courts in the U.S. and European countries (indeed, there is a depiction of him in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers), and none have excited violent protest, it now seems at least some Muslims associate any Western depiction of Muhammad as inherently intended to demean both them and their religion’s exemplary founder.
Overall, therefore, a troubling feedback loop has emerged from the mischaracterization of the various controversies surrounding Muhammad’s depiction. The misperception of a clash between unyielding Islamic rules against all such images and inviolate principles protecting freedom of expression has spurred many Westerners to “defend” the Constitution by promoting more cartoons of Muhammad. Meanwhile, many Muslims now anticipate that any such depiction will essentially denigrate the Prophet’s character and, thus, them.
Listening to Muslim objections regarding some representations does not justify the violence perpetuated by a tiny minority of Muslims. Recognizing that those concerns mirror those of other groups alienates Muslims less and opens lines of communication more. Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times was among a number of news outlets that wondered aloud whether its reporting stoked the fires of controversy by publishing the incendiary remarks of a hate-filled, unknown pastor who wanted to burn Qurans. To be truly reflective, journalists and editors need to account for all their reporting that disingenuously equates Islam with extremism.
Peter Gottschalk is Chair and Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. He is co-author of Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy.