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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2006, pages 65-66

Muslim-American Activism

American Muslims React to the Danish Cartoons

Aziz Shafi (r) discusses the cartoons with Hady Fakhourey at a Washington, DC gathering (Photo M. Abdul Rahman).

IN February e-mails and social gatherings, the controversy surrounding the 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper was the main topic of discussion for Arab- and Muslim-Americans. According to Kamal Ugali from Senegal, who has applied for U.S. citizenship, “Overall, Muslim-American reaction to the cartoons has been fairly understated and logical. Our discussions have lacked the passion that we have witnessed in other countries,” he explained, “because the U.S. media and government have had a much more respectful approach to this issue.”

The editors of major U.S. media outlets, including the The Washington Post, The New York Times and CBS, decided not to publish the cartoons. The New York Times called that a “reasonable choice...especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe.” Only a few U.S. publications, including a Seattle alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger, and neocon William Kristol’s The Weekly Standard, opted to reprint the offensive cartoons.

Reuters quoted State Department spokesman Curtis Cooper as saying, “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”

These initial U.S. media and government reactions were well received by the Muslim-American community. The U.S. debate next focused on the rights and responsibilities of freedom of speech and the reaction of the Muslim community abroad.

Dr. Hind Jarah, a Palestinian-American activist who heads the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, and who has lived in Dallas, Texas for more than 15 years, told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that it is important for Americans to explore this matter logically. “We have to look at the publication of the cartoons as one issue and the reaction of the Muslim world to the cartoons as another,” she argued, asking, ”Why were the cartoons published? Why was there no cartoon depicting Jesus Christ in a disparaging manner in the same Danish paper? Did they fear that it may offend their Christian readers? Is it OK then to offend Danish Muslim readers? Clearly it is the double standards used by the press that have upset Muslims.”

On Feb. 9, Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), appeared on CNN’s “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer, and echoed the same sentiment. “The policy of the Catholics during the Inquisition is not synonymous with my church,” he explained, “nor is the policy of the Islamic extremists synonymous with the Prophet Muhammad. Let’s be fair and use one standard.”

Aziz Shafi, a nuclear physicist who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh more than 12 years ago, told the Washington Report that it is important to examine the reaction of the rioters. “Do Muslims have the right to protest?” he asked. “Absolutely. Do they have the right to boycott? Certainly. But do they have right to endanger their lives and the lives of others? Absolutely not.”

Hind Jarah agreed: “As Muslims we are instructed by Prophet Muhammad to put our best foot forward.” Citing the Qur’an, in which Muslims are urged to “Repel evil with that which is best,” she added, “Muslims should be able to protest and voice their concerns without hurting anyone.” The media’s insistence on describing the publication of the cartoons as insignificant, she noted, is nearly as wrong as the reaction of the masses.

“In the West we often miss the opportunity to understand each other. The world has become one global village,” Jarah said. “We need to have better understanding of each other as people of faith instead of creating the impression there is a clash at every corner. Islamaphobia is not the answer to a better understanding.”

Kamal Ugali agreed. “The press wanted to whitewash the whole entire affair as Muslims ”˜overreacting’ to a small insignificant cartoon,” he pointed out. “It is much more than that. It is the attempt by Muslims to earn some respectful deference to their core beliefs. It is one thing to speak of Bin Laden and his followers as responsible for the acts of extremists. It is quite another to speak that way of the Prophet.”

“Muslims want the world to make a distinction between the faith of 1.4 billion Muslims and the politics of a few,” Hind concurred. “Frankly it helps all of us to make those clear distinctions.”

“The Jyllands-Posten of Denmark, the Norwegians, Germans and the French have the right to free speech,” Shafi insisted, “but free speech also has consequences.”

Crediting the U.S. respect of American Muslim beliefs to the ongoing relationship underway in the United States, he added, “It takes time for a culture to adapt and understand the belief of their most recent immigrants. Here in the U.S. I think we have gained a better understanding of each other. Americans have become more sensitive to what offends a Muslim, and in return we have become more sensitive to what offends other faiths.”

Mai Abdul Rahman