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Last Updated: 03/15/2006
We're not Laughing
Madiha Anas

The author was recently asked how she felt as a Muslim regarding the cartoon issue and was asked to put her religious beliefs aside and expound on it in the context of freedom of speech and civil rights. Following is an excerpt from her email in response.

What I am going to tell you right now is my opinion of the situation, and it’s possible that some Muslims might disagree with me, but here goes honesty.

I remember something somebody once told me, that I was an ‘anti-stereotype’ Muslim. I assure you, I am not the only one. Most of the Muslim population does NOT represent what the media has carved out for the west as the stereotypical image. Since 9/11, Muslims all around the world, especially those living as a minority, have been on the defensive. We’ve been answerable for a lot of extremism and have been abused, from our own extremists and the ‘others’. Whether it’s the transit at Germany or Dubai – at both places my passport was checked with an air of hmm-now-lets-dig-something-out-of-this. But this is not something I can sue anyone for - these are inflammable times and one has to maintain silence. Don’t speak until spoken to.: That was the rule of the game.

I don’t even blame that average European for these attitudes - this is social conditioning through media and we are all susceptible to it. But back to the question at hand: the cartoons.

I understand the importance of freedom of speech in Western culture. It’s something that your predecessors have fought to achieve, at least that’s what my understanding says. Your heroes have been individuals who sacrificed for “freedom of speech” and to tell you honestly, I admire those men and women and it only makes sense that you continue to defend “freedom of speech”. But the context in which “freedom of speech” is being used here, in my opinion, is almost comical. The purpose of “freedom of speech” should be the development and critical progress of human civilization, it should not mean regressing back to cave ages. It should not stimulate anarchy! As a British journalist said, “We do not go about punching people in the face to test their commitment to non-violence. To be a European should not involve initiation by religious insult.” .

For the longest time now, what you’d call “enlightened Muslims” and even many broad-minded Westerners, have been struggling to convey to the world, despite dim-witted tactics of policy makers around the world, despite irresponsible journalism, that Islam is NOT a religion of violence.

It’s a religion of discipline and commitment, yes.

It’s a religion that does not encourage passivity, yes.

It’s a religion that does not condone persistently bearing injustice without a cry, yes.

But its fundamentals are not bombs and fire..

So, here we are, putting up a defensive fight, trying to make the loose ends meet. We are nervous, out of breath, sensitive and we’re struggling. And what do we get?

A cartoon of our Prophet.

You have to understand that the Prophet, for a Muslim, is not like a leader of some political or national movement. The concept is very large and I don’t think I can express all that in language. To make caricatures of Muslim leaders or fanatics who profess Islam is different - we put up with it all the time and don’t blame the West for that.

But there is a difference between an academic discussion on the subject of religious discord– and a cartoon. There is a difference when some kid cracks illogical, insulting remarks about someone’s faith over the internet – and when a national newspaper prints caricatures and defends that publication and other newspapers around Europe reprint those drawings.

This was below the belt..

I didn’t believe in the so-called “clash of civilization”. I thought it was just sensationalism from academic Americans. But the way I see it now, this is a deliberate clash, and it’s hurtful. This event may go down in Western history as a test of civil liberties but it is doing terrible damage to our motivation as goodwill ambassadors..

I know this is not what you wanted to hear – you wanted me to speak outside my role as a “Muslim,” and this is the point of discord that the West fails to understand about Muslims. To ask a practicing Muslim to set aside her religious beliefs and “speak” is like me asking you to set aside your limbs and shovel snow. And this is not something I would ever be apologetic about because my religious beliefs don’t limit me or make me hostile – being tolerant and understanding is an integral part of my beliefs..

And now, I’ll tell you what is not part of my faith: to look at a caricature of my Prophet and laugh with you over it. Or worse yet, to say, ‘Hmm, you’re allowed to throw around such filth, it’s a free country, free continent, free world!’.

I will ask you a question now, perhaps I don’t understand “freedom of speech” correctly. If I start tailing you around Poland, swearing at your father or mother or someone you hold dearly, would that be permissible under the “freedom of speech” slogan?.

If no, well, there you go.

If yes, then, I am curious why “freedom” is considered an absolute term?. Are these the times to ignite a population that’s already quite reactive and victimized? If I were to support the publication of those cartoons under the banner of Western “freedom of speech”, then I would have to accept the burning up of embassies as an Arab version of “freedom of speech.”

But the truth is, I denounce both. If the freedom of one individual threatens the freedom of another, can you justify it as a civil act of equality?…

I am sorry I went on and on about this. It’s just that I am quite disappointed, perhaps even disillusioned. It’s like building a match-stick house for peace, that’s blown away - that too, because of someone’s black humor.

Madiha Anas is a lecturer of psychology at Beacon House National University, Lahore, Pakistan.