Islam from news cycle to protest cyclone

By Peter Gottschalk No Qurans burned, no “Ground Zero mosque” built, so time to move on. The op-ed pieces have … Continued

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.

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  • ThomasBaum

    Peter GottschalkI find it rather interesting in that you seem to think that it is up to people that are suppose to report the “news” to do the “thinking” for the people that will either read or hear the news.It is not up to the “news” reporter to justify or interpret the news but to report it.When the “news” reporters become the censors of the news then there is no such thing as “news” reporting going on, is there?There is a difference between giving one’s opinion about the news and simply reporting the news and there is a place for both.Sugarcoating reality does not in fact change reality and as history has pointed out many times, sugarcoating reality may in fact alter the ongoing reality into something much worse.Do you believe that people should throw away their God-given rights, which I would like to point out that many people around the world do not enjoy, just because others think that they should not have them?Seems as if there are those, and they may have the best of intentions, that can’t throw away their freedoms fast enough for a little of what they perceive to be “security”.As it has been said before, one day they will wake up with neither freedom nor security.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • WmarkW

    “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.”And there’s a BIG problem. A lot of what he did strikes modern people as highly unsavory, and criticism of it is equated in Muslim’s minds as religious bigotry.Do we have to respect a pedophile, polygamous warlord who raided neighboring tribes on any pretext and had “visions” that (by the admission of one of his own wives) were extremely convenient to his interests, and the belief that his example is a model for all mankind?

  • abrahamhab1

    Gottsahack says:No depiction will denigrate the Muslim prophet any more than what he had denigrated himself through his actions. Read his story according to his Muslim biographers. There are many instances when his associates displayed a much higher moral and ethical standard.

  • Secular

    Mr. Peter Gottschalk, are you throwing your hat in the ring for the position of Mr. John Esposito – Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding? After reading this sycophantic piece of nonsense I had to go back and check and recheck the author’s name. I was almost 100% certain it was John Esposito. Hey John watch out you are getting a lot of competition here, hurry up start sharpening your pencils, so to speak.Am I the only one who sees this total disconnect here this guy Gottschalk and the Stedman guy in Eboo Patel’s column instead of condemning the muslim extremists are writing articles lamenting how islam is getting a bad wrap from us the westerners. He draws false equivalences between protests against Martin Scorsese and Andre Serrano and actual acts of violence against movie maker Van Gogh, or violent riots in each of the OIC paradises protesting teh Danish Cartoon, literal hiding of Salman Rushdie, and that selfless courageous heroine of mine Taslima Nasrin of Bangla Desh and the list goes on unabated. Moreover Mr. Gottschalk you have the gall to claim that the danish News paper brought it upon itself by soliciting the cartoons be drawn. Or else the paper was goading the Islamists to do what they did. Claiming to be professor of whatever, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for bringing such shame to Wesleyan University. Stop coddling these muslims with sch thin skins. MO is perhaps is a very endearing figure to them – I cannot fathom why – but that does not mean rest of the world needs to admire this unsavory character. This nonsense he is revered by them so we should tread carefully. In case of Scorsese & Serrano, people protested and then moved on. No one got killed no store owner had file for damages with any insurance company and no insurance company had to pay out any claims. This is an utter piece of trash. If this were really on newsprint it would have ended in my regal room where perform my regal duties, every morning.

  • AKafir

    Peter: “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.”I really would like to hear Peter’s opinion on this Sheik using Muhammad’s example as the exemplary Muslim:Exemplary Muslim’s example of marrying a girl at six and having sex with her when she was nine results in millions of child brides across muslim countries and millions of these young brides having to live with medical problems like fistula for the rest of their lives. Peter, no one needs to demean Muhammad’s character. His muslim hagiographers have already done that. All people have to do is to read the darn books. Just read the Quran. Just read the Hadiath. Just read the life of Muhammad. Just quote the words of the Muslims themselves and Muhammad stands demeaned. Wafa Sultan: “it is impossible – impossible! – for any human being to read the biography of Muhammad and believe in it, and yet emerge a psychologically and mentally healthy person.”One does not have to draw Cartoons to demean Muhammad. One merely needs to tell events detailed in Muhammad’s biography. This is THE reason why Muslim countries can never produce healthy societies because their exemplar human is a monster by their own telling.