It is the controversy that refuses to die - the now infamous Danish cartoons about Prophet Muhammad that caused much furor in the Muslim world a few years ago have appeared in the media spotlight again after Yale University Press decided not to print the caricatures in an upcoming book about the very same controversy.
Yale removed the images from The Cartoons that Shook the World by Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen, scheduled to be released next week, after deciding that they could incite violence from Muslim extremists.
As a practicing Muslim and as an artist and author, let me state unequivocally that Yale is wrong to practice this kind of self-censorship. The cartoons should be available for readers to make their own judgment.
Now that I have said that, let me share with you my own judgment about what the Danish cartoon controversy is really about.
The caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, including one depicting Islam's founder as wearing a bomb-shaped turban, first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Over the next several months, Muslims throughout the world protested the cartoons as an insult to Islamic civilization. Islam traditionally prohibits any depiction of the Prophet (even favorable ones) to prevent idolatry. Images of the Prophet are nonetheless common in Islamic art, although he is nearly always shown as veiled.
Once Muslim protests began, other newspapers in the West reprinted the cartoons as an embrace of freedom of expression, which only exacerbated the controversy. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were attacked by extremists, and a boycott of Danish goods was put in effect in many Muslim countries. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark's worst international crisis since World War II.
To many people in the West, Muslim reaction to the cartoons reflected a fundamental intolerance toward art and debate in the modern Islamic world. And to many Muslims, the West's embrace of these caricatures of their most revered holy figure reflected bigotry and profound hatred for Islam as a religion and a civilization.
And to a very tragic degree, both groups are right about their perception of the other.
As a Muslim, I can admit (with deep regret) that freedom of speech is curtailed in most of the Islamic world. And art, once central to Muslim culture, has been neglected and disrespected in many Islamic societies today. Muslims were once the world's most respected and creative artisans. From the Mughal architects of India who built the Taj Mahal, to Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez whose words brought wonder to the human heart, to the musicians of Moorish Spain who gave birth to the troubadours of Europe, Muslim art thrived for centuries. Art was embraced by the Muslim community as an act of spirituality, a way of honoring God through reverence for the beauty of His creation. As long as art played a central role in Islamic civilization, it thrived. And when fundamentalists began devaluing art, Muslim civilization began to decline.
So, yes, there is some truth in the Western critique that Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons reflects a cultural mindset against artistic expression, although I would suggest that this resistance is a modern development and not inherent to Islamic civilization or history.
And I have experienced that resistance personally. My novel, Mother of the Believers, has ruffled a great many feathers in the Muslim community. The book tells the story of Islam's birth from the perspective of Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. Some of my fellow Muslims have expressed outrage that I would tell the Prophet's story through the lens of historical fiction.
And yet my response to them is that what I have done is nothing new. Muslims have always used art, including fiction, to spread the message of Islam. We have just forgotten our own heritage. The Modern Library recently published The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a wonderful collection of legends and stories from the Islamic world about the Prophet's uncle Hamza. These were fictional tales used as wisdom stories throughout the Muslim world, more popular and influential in Islamic culture than The Arabian Nights - and yet they are largely forgotten by Muslims today.
In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, Islam was spread through Sufi mystics, merchants and artists, not by any invading army. Indeed, one of the most colorful means of Islamic proselytizing in these once predominantly Hindu islands was the use of puppet shows to depict the victory of Allah over the local gods. These forms of popular art were tailored to the indigenous culture by Muslim teachers and were phenomenally successful in spreading the message of the faith.
In modern times, cinema has begun to play a role in spreading the message of Islam, despite the resistance of fundamentalists to this artistic medium. Moustapha Akkad's epic movie The Message about Prophet Muhammad caused riots in parts of the Islamic world when it was released in 1976 (similar to Muslim reactions to the Danish cartoons almost thirty years later).
And yet when Muslims actually saw Akkad's film, they were deeply moved by its reverence for the Prophet, and it is now a staple DVD in Muslim homes throughout the world. In 2004, an animated movie called Muhammad: The Last Prophet was released and has become a beloved children's film throughout the Islamic world.
My novel was written in the same vein as these cinematic works, and is frankly more honest and true to the historical sources, as these movies tend to present an idealized vision of Islamic history and shy away from issues of controversy today, such as polygamy in the Prophet's household and the Muslim conflict with the Jewish tribes of Arabia. But I chose to explore these issues that other Muslim storytellers avoided because they are part of Islam's history and heritage. Even if some Muslims wish to ignore things that appear troubling in the historical record, non-Muslim critics and Islamophobes raise these matters incessantly to attack Islam, and my novel presents a rebuttal to those critiques.
Mother of the Believers utilizes the artistic medium of fiction to strengthen and spread the message of my faith, which I love and take very seriously. And Muslims who have bothered to read the book have almost unanimously said that they found it deeply moving and that it strengthened their own faith. I have received emails from readers all over the world who said that my novel made them fall in love with Prophet Muhammad in a way that no dry history textbook has ever accomplished. And I have even been contacted by non-Muslims who are considering embracing Islam after reading my book and being inspired to learn more about the faith.
And yet despite all these positive reactions from the general community, there remains a vocal Muslim minority that has condemned my book as sinful, usually without having read it. This kind of anti-intellectualism is a real problem in the modern Muslim world, and reflects a deep insecurity and lack of faith among some people. Islam has survived countless attacks over the centuries, both by the sword and by the pen, and continues to grow and thrive. Neither my book nor the Danish cartoons will be able to injure the eternal message of Islam - that there is One God and life's purpose is to surrender to Him.
Now, with all that said, let us take an honest look at what the Danish cartoons are really about in the West. The truth is that the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons, Jyllands-Posten, holds a right-wing agenda that is fundamentally inimical to Islam and Europe's Muslim immigrants - and to the very values held by many who embraced the paper's publication of the cartoons.
Let's take a closer look at the newspaper that is being heralded as the champion of Western values. Jyllands-Posten endorsed Mussolini as 'exactly what the misruled Italian people need." It was sympathetic to Hitler's suspension of democracy in Germany, saying in an editorial in 1933 that "...democratic rule by the people, as we know it, is a luxury which can be afforded in good times when the economy is favorable. But restoring the economy after many years of lavish spending requires a firm hand."
And on the Nazi anti-Semitic pogrom known as Kristallnacht, this is what the newspaper had to say: "When one has studied the Jewish question in Europe for decades, the animosity towards the Jews is to a certain extent understandable, even if we look past the racial theories, that mean so much in the national socialist world view [...] We know, that tens of thousands of Jews condemn the Jewish business sharks, the Jewish pornography speculators and the Jewish terrorists. But still, it cannot be denied, that the experiences which the Germans - as many other continental peoples - have had with regards to the Jews, form a certain basis for their persecution. One must give Germany, that they have a right to dispose of their Jews."
Is this newspaper really the voice of Western values that people want to endorse?
And if we look at some of the loudest voices speaking out in favor of the publication of the Danish cartoons today, they are people with deeply troubling agendas. Most prominent among them in the United States is former United Nations ambassador - and raving neoconservative pit bull - John Bolton. An alumnus of Yale who has signed a letter to the university condemning its failure to publish the cartoons, Mr. Bolton has said that "the whole episode was an example of intellectual cowardice."
Coming from a man who supported the neoconservative cabal that lied us into war in Iraq, the statement "intellectual cowardice" carries a great deal of irony. Had he and his neoconservative comrades been more intellectually cowardly (rather than just cowardly in the draft-dodging sense), thousands of American soldiers and millions of Iraqis would still be alive today. (Mr. Bolton's one moment of intellectual honesty perhaps came in his Yale 25th reunion book, where he remarks on why he chose to join the Maryland Army National Guard during the Vietnam War: "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.")
The fact that a cowardly warmonger like Mr. Bolton is one of the most prominent voices in support of the cartoons reveals a painful truth in the Muslim critique of the whole issue - that deep down, the cartoons are not about free speech and never have been. That those who embrace them really do so out of a general hatred for Islam and a desire to humiliate Muslims.
Indeed, a quick search of the blogosphere will find that the websites that are most loudly trumpeting the news of Yale's decision are Islamophobic in nature. The anti-Muslim vitriol and racism on some of these sites is deeply sickening. Let there be no doubt -- these are the champions of the cartoons and these are their loudest proponents.
So I ask the reader to consider - would you so fervently support cartoons mocking the lynching of African Americans published and championed by racists? I have no doubt that the American Civil Liberties union would support Ku Klux Klan members' right of free speech. But would the general populace also rush to their defense, calling the KKK courageous and heroic for standing up to the blacks (and whites) who would voice outrage at such cartoons?
In Iran, the crass "International Holocaust Cartoon Competition" was enacted to show the double-standards of Westerners championing the Danish cartoons. Cartoons meant to question the historical scholarship on the Holocaust were published by the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which challenged Western newspapers to publish them with the same fervor as they did caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. Most media outlets refused to do so.
For the record, I reject this stupid and destructive effort to compete for the lowest common denominator. But ugly and offensive as many of the Iranian cartoons were, the refusal of most respectable Western news outlets to face the truth - that every culture has its sacred cows and emotional trigger points - is one that should force us all to reflect. It is easy to say that someone else has no right to be offended by free speech - until that free speech is directed at us and those issues that matter to us on a deep, foundational level.
Although this may be hard for non-believers to truly grasp, Prophet Muhammad is an archetypal figure that transcends any specific issue or controversy around Islam today. He represents the entirety of a civilization, of 1.5 billion people's sense of their own personal ideal. He is the Prophet for both Muslim extremists we condemn, and the Prophet of Rumi, the Muslim poet beloved in the West. And Prophet Muhammad is the role-model for courageous Muslim reformers, including Muslim feminists, who are challenging the anti-intellectualism, misogyny and violence that is rampant in parts of the Islamic world today.
Prophet Muhammad is more than a historical figure - he is a symbol. And when we choose to mock a symbol, we must accept that we are mocking everything that symbol represents. And that we are hurting people we love and admire as well as those we hate. If we choose to do so, let us at least be honest about our motivations - which are to smear an entire civilization - and not gild them in the pretenses of nobility.
To conclude, I remind my fellow Muslims what the Holy Qur'an says: "Good and evil are not equal. So repel evil with what is better, and your enemy will become an intimate friend." (41:34)
So let these cartoons be published by Yale and anyone else who wishes to do so. And let Muslims respond as God has commanded us, with acts of graciousness and dialogue. Let us use this incident to have a discussion about why Prophet Muhammad matters and why we love him so much. Perhaps that dialogue will change a few hearts along the way.
And I am not alone in this belief. One of the most beautiful moments in the storm of controversy around the cartoons came at the behest of a quadriplegic Muslim artist who chose to respond to the caricatures of the Prophet with good rather than evil.
Houssein Nouri, a man who had lost both arms and legs in the Iran-Iraq war, sat in his wheelchair outside the Danish Embassy in Tehran, using his mouth to paint a stunningly beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary, who is beloved in both Islam and Christianity as the mother of Jesus.
In that one moment, Mr. Nouri showed the true beauty - the art - of being a Muslim.