Violence Spreads Over Cartoon Controversy

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.
Research Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; 12:00 PM

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D. was online Wednesday, Feb. 8, at noon EST to discuss the controversial cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, which are prohibited by Islam, that have led to violent protests against Denmark and other European nations in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Many Muslims are offended by the depictions and are opposing a lack of religious respect, while newspapers defend their publication as consistent with a free press.

The transcript follows.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't it fairly clear, given this level of reaction, that it's not about a cartoon in a Danish newspaper, but it's really about the West disrespecting Islam and Muslims in general. As for their cartoons mocking Anne Frank, very few people remember or care.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Muslims have the right to express sadness and even anger over the cartoons. Nevertheless, some expressions went way beyond the bounds of mainstream Islamic teachings. The violent demonstrations and the breaking of embassies violate Islamic teachings.


Washington, D.C.: Our leaders need to stand up for the freedom of expression. This is an excellent time for the western world to demonstrate how a tolerant society functions.

As a Roman Catholic, I've been offended many times over the years by gratuitous portrayals of Catholic priests in books and movies and offensive artwork at publicly-funded museums, but I respect the right of free expression and I treasure the open exchange of ideas that results from such expression.

Note that no one is discussing the substance of the cartoons. They were particularly poignant in pointing out that Islam has engendered a culture of violence unlike any other contemporary religion, and many Muslims refuse to confront this reality. (I fully recognize that my own Church has been guilty of similar problems in past eras, but the contemporary Church has renounced and apologized for these past abuses.)

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: This is not a balanced view. Our leaders need to say America respects Islam and Muslim sensitivities and acknowledge that the violent responses do not represent the majority mainstream Muslim opinion.


New York, N.Y.: Sir, how will this in your opinion affect the long term U.S. goal of establishing peace in the Middle East?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: It depends on how U.S. government officials do. So far their responses have been a lot more tempered than those of the Danish government. Officials of that government failed to acknowledge that they recognize the offense. They sounded like suggesting to Muslims that the cartoons were some sort of respectable pieces of art. They should have said the cartoons were offensive, but even bigots have free speech.


Gordonsville, Va.: Thanks for the talk! I found myself defending Muslims this morning, and was having some difficulty. Like it or not, those people who are rioting are the ambassadors for Islam. My question is, who are their counter-parts? Where are the Gandhis, or Martin Luther Kings?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: The problem is this: Those who are rioting are getting the big headlines. If you look closely, here are the facts: Most Muslims who responded have done so peacefully


Chantilly, Va.: This whole thing makes me so sad. I see this sort of violence as a direct slap at the Prophet, spitting in the face of his teachings. Also, I would ask Muslims why they apparently see nothing wrong with Muslims killing other Muslims, and why they hate Jews so much, even though it's not Jews who are strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up everyone (including Muslim children) in the area (which, I believe, explains the cartoon's bomb-shaped turban). Why doesn't this meet with the same sort of outrage? It's not necessarily an attack on the Prophet, rather it points out that some actions taken by Muslims are directly against the teachings. There are acceptable ways of handling it: protesting, writing letters to the editor, boycotting. This is how Christians handled The Life Of Brian, which many thought blasphemous. You have a golden opportunity to show the West that you're not just tempers on legs, so eager to burn, loot, destroy, and kill that you make anything an excuse. You do not have the right to demand tolerance and respect while denying it to others.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: I agree. As a Muslim, and this is only me, I did not feel angry at the cartoons. I felt sad, and somewhat frightened, that some people would go to this length to incite hate. But I felt angry at the violent responses of SOME Muslims. They have done wrong to Islam.


Grants Pass, Ore.: Sir. Which is more important -- respect for human life and dignity or respect for religion??

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: I see your point, but to many Muslims the dichotomy you're assuming is baseless. It is an essential part of Islamic teachings to respect human life.


Ft. Belvoir, Va.: Dr. Nimer: I have one question. Is the prohibition against picturing Mohamed in the Koran or did it come about through teachings and tradition?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: The real offense here is not about the artistic depiction. It is the way the prophet was depicted -- a man of great violence.


Alexandria, Va.: Good afternoon, Mr. Nimer. There are thousands of images of Muhammad available for sale in any market square in Islamic countries, so why are benign images of him considered acceptable, but other images are not? Isn't an image an image, regardless of content? Thank you.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Hateful speech must be condemned as something outside the bounds of civilized society, regardless of the victims or perpetrators. Experience of Muslims in America show that hateful depictions are associated with incidents of hate crimes and discrimination. This is serious stuff.


Rockville, Md.: How come so many people are named "Mohammed?" Why don't parents show some creativity? Is there some law that says everyone has to be named that?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Thank you for implying my parents should have chosen another name for me. But I don't blame them. I'm proud of my name. Many great non-Muslims have said great things about the prophet of Islam.


Ohio: The statement that "most Muslims have responded peacefully" does little to change the fact that tens of thousands have responded violently. This seems to indicate a cultural mental block against the idea of free speech, wouldn't you say? Going hand in hand with Salman Rushdie's treatment, why the cultural bias towards violence rather than peaceful response? On the flip side, I didn't see anyone in the U.S. burn down buildings or threaten to kill captives in response for being offended at, say, the film "Last Temptation of Christ."

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Yes, in those areas where the responses were violent people need great lessons in restraint and civilized discourse. Maybe if their governments would pay attention to freedom of press, things will improve.


Baltimore, Md.: "The problem is this: Those who are rioting are getting the big headlines. If you look closely, here are the facts: Most Muslims who responded have done so peacefully."

True, but when a radical Western religious "leader" like Pat Robertson calls for the assassination of a foreign leader, our citizens either ignore him, condemn him, or inch him a step closer to the insane asylum where he belongs by now. When a radical Islamic religious "leader" calls for a jihad, fatwa, or actions against the West , there seems to be no shortage of people actually willing to listen to them and act. Any ideas on this disparity?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: This one of the examples of inaccurate broad generalizations. Ever since Sept. 11, how many times did Osama bin Laden call for strikes inside the U.S.? In every tape he and his aides released. How many attacks occurred in the U.S.? Zero. There are millions of Muslims in the U.S. Clearly Osama's message is not appealing to them. For attacks outside the U.S., Osama could not depend on random volunteers, he had to depend on his recruits. This is time when passions are high. But let's not forget the facts.


Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Dr. Nimer,

The American artist Jose Serrano exhibited a crucifix in a bucket of urine. He called the work "Piss Christ." Serrano's deliberately blasphemous and offensive act provoked outrage among Christians, but no one rioted, no one was killed. Why are Muslims so intolerant of blasphemy?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Christians, as your comment suggest did not like that anti-Christ depiction. They exercised the right of opposing him. Most Muslims in the world did. Some did so violently. It would be unfair on your part to say those who opposed the offensive anti-Muhammad cartoon are intolerant. It is accurate to say those who did so violently are. But it is inaccurate to say the violent responses represent Islamic culture.


Arlington, Va.: I am fairly ignorant of most religions. But, if the prophet were alive today, how would he react to the cartoons ?

Based on on my limited knowledge of Jesus, Christians might say that he (Jesus) would turn the other cheek.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: There is a narrative in Islamic history that goes like this: The prophet had a neighbor who used to throw their garbage at his door. One day Muhammad comes out finding no garbage. He goes to check on the neighbor out of concern for him. Impressed by the great character, that person then converts to Islam. Obviously some Muslims need to be reminded of this lesson at this time.


Galveston, Tex.: I find this whole cartoon episode ridiculous. A civilized society should be able to cope with criticism, whether in a cartoon or in a important news story. The cartoonist made a valid point, and rather than discuss the merits of his point, the Muslim world has gone "crazy" about the cartoon picture itself. I understand that the depiction of Mohammed is against Muslim custom, but the broader point is being missed. I ask you, would a western society riot over a cartoon to this extent? I think not.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Let's see. The most violent riots are happening in Afghanistan. is it possible that the opposition to the offensive cartoon has been tangled with politics? Is it possible that the Taliban sympathizers, who lost a great deal when the U.S. overthrew them from power, are trying to make a come back, using religious sensibilities that appeal to mainstream Muslims. The news today says rioters in that country tried to storm a U.S. base. The U.S. media actually stayed clear from the cartoons. and U.S. officials expressed distaste for the cartoons. But that did not stop some Afghanis from channeling the legitimate public outcry for their political purposes.


Washington Grove, Md.: "There are millions of Muslims in the U.S. Clearly Osama's message is not appealing to them"

So we should be thankful that America's Muslims are not rising up and murdering their fellow citizens? I thought the point of the question is the relative silence of the majority moderate Muslims. Why have the violent radicals seemingly intimidated the silent majority from speaking out forcefully.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: You're missing the whole point. Actually, a number of Muslim organizations and leaders, including CAIR and imams across the country came out saying the cartoons are wrong and the violent responses are wrong. And this time the media covered moderate Muslim responses. So there should be no excuse for saying "I don't see moderate Muslims opposing the violence." They HAVE.


Munich, Germany: Is it fair to say that al Qaida will benefit from this cartoon altercation?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: Yes. Al Qaida leaders must now be telling other Muslims something like "We told you so, they hate us. Look what they think of our prophet."


Monroe, Mich.: Will the West see caricatures as freedom of speech if the Iranian newspaper follows through with its contest to promote cartoons critical of the Holocaust?

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: I believe if the Iranian newspapers show insensitivity to the human suffering of Jews, all people should express opposition. I'm doing so now before the fact.


Oklahoma City, Okla.: Once or twice a week I see an editorial cartoon that I don't like. I do not rush out and burn down the newspaper office or try to behead the cartoonist. Frankly, to heck with so called cultural differences; there is civilized behavior and their is barbarism, and what we are seeing in these eruptions is the latter.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: I agree. The question is what are we going to do about them? Blame it all on an amorphous Muslim menace? We should act with restraint and balance.


Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,

As much as I support the indignation that has been expressed over the depictions, I have a difficult time being able to support the depths of response to non-parties in the depictions.

All Danes are not involved in the depictions. All French are not involved in the depictions. All Norwegians are not involved in the depictions.

Is the response to the embassies and other non-parties in the depictions part of the response of the people who are used to a model where religion and state are more intermixed, or am I reading the scenario incorrectly?

For background: Although I am an evangelical Christian, I have not sought out the depictions out of respect to Muslims around me whether or not they would know that I have done so. I approach the situation in the same way that I treat a printout of the Judaic Mourner's Kaddish -- respect to a fellow Person of the Book's practices.

Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D.: I agree with you.

_______________________ Thanks for all of your questions. You can get all of the Post's cartoon coverage as well as commentary and opinion on the controversy here.


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