Professors React to Muslim Cartoons
Cartoons spark Muslim frustrations
February 9, 2006 8:56 PM
Controversial caricatures of prophet Muhammad, published in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September, have sparked outrage in many Muslim nations from Afghanistan to Nigeria. Violence erupted in Iran last week whan some Muslims, angry at the political cartoons, threw stones and firebombs at Danish, French and Austrian embassies.
Mohammad Salama, SF State assistant professor of foreign language and literature, said most of the pictures were distasteful. But the picture depicting Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban was the most offensive, Salama said.
“It says ‘you are all Bin Ladens'", said Salama. "In Islam, if you do not defend your religion then there is something wrong with your faith".
Salama calls for cultural sensibility and a dialogue between religions. He said violence and flag burnings are snap reactions, and that Muslims should avoid such responses.
“Muhammad during his time was persecuted, his friends were persecuted, but he reacted peacefully and only resorted to violence when necessary,” Salama said. "Islam is a religion of peace. It is time we prove to the rest of the world what this religion is made of."
Fred Astren, director and professor of Jewish Studies at SF State, teaches a class on Judaism, Islam and Christianity. He said the conflict stems from the differences of each value system.
“With the printing of these cartoons a very tough question emerges in the space between these (Muslim and liberal) points of view,” said Astren. “In western liberal societies freedom of the press has sanctity; the press is understood to have an important function. Freedom of speech does not mean you can yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater.”
Nicole Watts, who teaches comparative and Middle Eastern politics, said, “When you see these headlines (of violent protests), they are the tip of a wave, on an ocean of ordinary peaceful people.”
Watts says the setting for these protests are repressive regimes where the limitations on the way that grievances can be expressed builds frustration. While criticism of their local governments is suppressed, protest against the western world is allowed.
She says that cultural understanding is important, but the root of the anger is political.
“There is a pervasive sense of lack of respect which stems from U.S. policies in Iraq and in Israel,” said Watts. "Public relations will not do the slightest bit of good until we are seen as actively resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a way satisfactory to both sides."
Both Salama and Astren have stressed the historical prohibition of representing the prophet in art and film.
“Islam is vehemently against visual representation," said Salama. "Idolatry or image worship represents all the dogmas that Muhammad taught to work against.”
Salama explains that although historic pictures of Muhammad from Islamic cultures show respect in the representation, they also were a religious mistake. As Islam quickly spread through Asia, new followers could not read the Koran and innocently made illustrations of the prophet to approximate the religion.
Salama said the negative stereotypes in the west began during the renaissance in Europe, in Dante’s Inferno, where “Muhammad is receiving the worst torture ever.” After Dante, this written description was adapted by William Blake and Salvador Dali into paintings.
Salama said European writers and artists undermined the validity of Islam, but it went unnoticed by the Muslim world.
“Now that we are in the post modern era, and post 9/11 -- and given globalization, it was not an innocent mistake,” said Salama. “At a time we are trying to rid ourselves of terrorist misinterpretations of Islam, this is reinforcing stereotypical misunderstandings, and the (Muslim) reactions are reinforcing them as well.”
In March of 1977, during a period of fundamentalist Islamic revolution in the Middle- East, a group of black Muslims took 149 hostages in Washington D.C. demanding that the film “The Message,” an epic film about the founding of Islam be halted from release. The film, directed by Syrian-born Moustapha Akkad, was carefully scripted to avoid any image or dialogue representing the prophet Muhammad or his immediate family. The actors spoke directly to the camera and pretended to hear the commands of the prophet. The terrorists misunderstood this, thinking that an American actor was playing the prophet. The hostage crisis ended two days later, “The Message” was released as planned and was disappointing at the box office.
“Some used this incident to advance their own agenda of violence at that time,” said Astren.
He also pointed out that many offensive cartoons depicting Jews and Israel have been printed in newspapers in the Muslim world. An Iranian newspaper is responding to the Jyllands-Posten pictures with a contest for pictures demeaning the Holocaust.
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