Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So a Prophet, a Bear, and a Dog Walk Into a Free Speech Lecture...

While browsing through my usual internet hot spots today, I came across a video on showing a violent display of a public protest in Sweden. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, was giving a lecture on free speech at a local university after being widely attacked for composing a drawing of Islam's Prophet Muhammad head on the body of a dog. Many Muslim protesters attended the lecture and things quickly turned sour when an unidentified individual jumped up and possibly head-butted Vilks (it was unknown if the attacker actually made contact or if Vilks collided with a security officer during the scuffle). He was rushed from the room as protesters, many wearing keffiyahs were chanting and becoming more disgruntled in the seminar room. It took several minutes for the police to settle the crowd. Watch below.

The battle of cartoons and Muhammad began years ago when a British cartoonist drew a picture of the prophet with a bomb sitting atop his turban. Death threats ensued, violence commenced, and there was scandal rocking the Middle East and Muslims everywhere. More recently, the shock-thriving cartoonists at South Park were censored for attempting to create a cartoon teddy bear named Muhammad, poking fun at a situation in the Middle East where a teacher lost her job for allowing children to nickname a classroom stuffed animal after the prophet. They too received death threats for the fiasco.

As an individual who is torn between multicultural and religious respect and the rights to freedom of speech and expression, it is difficult for me to pick sides here. I do not agree with the blatant disrespect shown to Muslim belief and what you might call one of their "commandments" to never compose drawings or images of Allah or the Prophet. However, a fan of the first amendment, it is very difficult to draw the line in terms of what should be allowed and what should be restricted, without falling into the clutches of a slippery slope. If we can't draw a religious cartoon now, tomorrow we can't write a sign protesting a detrimental religious cult.

I do, however, hold a strong position on violence. Especially when it comes to sucker-punching (or rather, sucker-head butting) a random person during a peaceful seminar expressing not only his opinion, but his legally protected right, no matter how offensive his action. Likewise, I am not particularly thrilled at getting what I consider to be a spit in the face by individuals in the Muslim community.

Many of you know, some may not, that I was an active advocate on Queen Rania of Jordan's Youtube channel. The channel was created to bridge the gap between the east and west and shatter falsely held stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. I created videos in support of Islam, carried on discussions and debates in the chat section of the channel, got into heated arguments with family members, and even sounded off angry emails to anti-Muslim friends and acquaintances who sent propaganda to my inbox. It's safe to say it wasn't always welcomed, I took a lot of flack for my efforts, being called names, verbally abused and hassled on the net, and souring a few relationships. Unfortunately it's also safe to say that a good chunk of the west is still utterly convinced that Muslims are angry, violent individuals fueled by a hostile religion. Now imagine the slap in the face I feel when I click on the net and find Muslims, groups of individuals I consider mutually exclusive from hate-mongering terrorists, acting out in anger and violence, attacking people, affirming stereotypes, and reinforcing the walls we've been working so hard to break down for nearly two years.

The reaction to the cartoonist was not only detrimental to the individuals who were consequently arrested for the attack, or the man the attack was aimed at, but detrimental to the cause as a whole. Now I am not defending this man's cartoon or his disregard for other people's religious values, however, as Viktor Frankl once stated, we cannot avoid the actions of others, but only we can control our reaction, and that's what defines us as swine or saints. It's hard to find any successful social movement that thrived from violence and anger. The Civil Rights Movement, albeit slow, came to succession after decades of discrimination upon the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to avoid violent displays. The Nazi Party fell to ruins when using violence and anger to further their hateful agenda. As frustrating at this situation can be, and I do understand the emotions it's eliciting from Muslims, I hardly think it's beneficial to anyone to start assaulting people.

What needs to occur here, as QR would suggest, is open discussion, starting a conversation. Perhaps using calm, collected letters, emails, phone calls to individuals who create offensive pieces of artwork explaining why they are viewed as such, describing the importance of the religious practice to leave images of revered individuals undrawn, rather than death threats, cries for violence, and foul language. Hostility is the antidote for constructive communication, it spreads the animosity from the outraged victim to the haughty suspect, and fuels the disdain that drives their destructive behaviors. Now, granted letters and gentle requests for respect don't always work. One requires a psychological predisposition for reason, understanding, and just plain common courtesy in order for rational discussions to penetrate that encapsulating bone about their brains, which, sadly, is a dying quality in people. However, if you don't get the response you're hoping for, reverting to violence is still not allowed. Peaceful demonstrations, legal action, calls for boycotts are all viable means of fighting.

It seems important to point out that many people supporting the various aforementioned cartoonists are not anti-Muslim in nature. The majority of people I've spoken to are more concerned with their freedom of speech rights than insulting any particular religion or mocking holy figures. To see the point, one only has to review the offensive material we westerners have churned out on our own Jesus Christ: cartoons of Jesus smoking and drinking, making light of his crucifixion, even comic suggestions that Jesus was gay. And no one's made a death threat yet. Muslims, don't shoot yourselves in the foot, we're working hard to get where you need to be, and some of you are just pulling everyone down with you.

1 comment:

Siva said...

Very good piece of writing with excellent analysis. Keep posting.