Dave Ward

Dave Ward

Posted on 10/17/2007

Photo taken on February  4, 2006

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The controversial cartoon of Muhammad

The controversial cartoon of Muhammad
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This is the highly controversial cartoon of the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb on his head. It was drawn by Kurt Westergaaard and was published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, and then republished in about 20 other newspapers across Europe.

The cartoon has sparked many protests and much controversy, chiefly because Islam considers any representation of Muhammad to be blasphemous.

The real question, however, is whether any one religion can demand that the entire world follow its rules. It's not only whether Muslims can require the entire world to follow Islamic law, but also whether Christians, Jews or any other religious group can require the world to follow its rules.

To me--and, I'm sure to all other rationalists like me--the answer is obviously an emphatic, resounding NO.

People of all faiths tend to forget that their faith is not universal. But one thing that is universal to all of the world's major faiths is that they all teach tolerance and non-violence. And that's something that seems to be getting lost in all the reports of Muslim protesters attacking embassies and issuing fatwahs.

Forbidding representation of divine figures is hardly exclusive to Islam. In the Bible and the Torah, the Judeo-Christian God commands that we must "make no graven image" of God. And yet, God has been routinely depicted for centuries, including Michaelangelo's 16th century painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Buddhism, too, has a history of forbidding the creation of any image of the Buddha. Although few sects of Buddhism still adhere to the ban, there still remains a divide between Buddhists who honor Buddha through statues and other depictions, and those who believe it is wrong to honor such a representation as an idol.

My own feelings about the Muhammad cartoon are mixed. I sympathize with both sides. My spiritual aspect completely understands the value of rejecting depictions of something which is divine. Isn't it inevitable that any depiction of something sacred can never do it justice, and thus can only be detrimental?

And yet, my practical and artistic aspects also understand the value of having depictions of the sacred in art. It is helpful for focus and understanding in religious practice to have an image to hold in the mind, so long as you understand that the image is only symbolic, and is not actually the divine being it represents.

And finally, there's that aspect of me that believes that this is really an issue of free expression, and therefore anybody who doesn't like the cartoon is free to ignore it. No Christian or Jew can tell me not to draw Jesus Christ or God. No Buddhist can tell me not to post images of the Buddha on flickr. And no Muslim can tell me not to depict Muhammad. The rules of your religion apply to you, and not to me. If you think others should--or must--follow the rules of your religion, then you are setting yourself up for an inevitable grave disappointment.

It's not that I like the cartoon of Muhammad. In fact, I find it offensive. It appears to me that the cartoonist is suggesting that all of Islam--including Muhammad himself--is violent and explosive. In the wake of September 11, 2001, a great deal of work was done to help people to understand that Islam is a non-violent religion, that Muhammad explicitly forbade violence, and that the Muslims who use violence and fear are a very small, very radical minority who are not accepted by mainstream Islam. Now that we are seeing some Muslims attacking embassies and issuing fatwahs just because of a cartoon, I'm wondering where are the people who stood up after 9-11 to condemn violence and explain that the people who commit it are rejected by mainstream Islam?

I think the cartoon is offensive as well as incorrect. I don't believe Islam condones violence, and I don't believe Muhammad would be happy to see people committing violence because of something as trivial as an offensive, racist--and yes, blasphemous--cartoon.

I just hope Muslims will begin standing up and condemning the attacks on embassies and the threats that are being made, and pointing out the obvious: that the laws of any religion can only be applied to those who practice the religion. That is, after all, the very essence of tolerance.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."—Evelyn Beatrice Hall

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