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Knock, knock. Who?ll dare?

At the World Economic Forum in January, I observed something revealing. In a session about the US religious right, a cartoonist satirised one of America?s most influential Christian ministers, Pat Robertson.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2006 03:32 IST

At the World Economic Forum in January, I observed something revealing. In a session about the US religious right, a cartoonist satirised one of America’s most influential Christian ministers, Pat Robertson. In the audience, chuckling with the rest of us, was a prominent British Muslim. But his smile disappeared the moment we were shown a cartoon that made fun of Muslim clerics.

Since then, a fierce fight has erupted between the European Union and the Muslim world over caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. Months ago, the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons that showed Islam’s messenger wearing, among other things, a turban-turned-time bomb. Although the paper has apologised, the controversy has metastasised. A Norwegian magazine and French paper recently reprinted the drawings, as have other broadcasters and publications while covering this story.

In response, Muslim rioters torched Scandinavian missions in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Bomb threats have hit the offices of more than one European newspaper. Various Arab countries have recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen. Boycotts of Danish products are sweeping across supermarkets in the Arab world, and Muslims as far away as India and Indonesia are pouring into the streets to burn Danish flags — which feature the cross, among the holiest of Christian symbols.

Last week, thousands of Palestinians shouted ‘Death to Denmark!’ Copenhagen has evacuated Danish citizens from the Gaza Strip and has sternly warned nationals in the West Bank to get out as well. Muslims themselves are getting pummelled in the riots: four died in Afghanistan on Monday alone.

To judge the root problem here, let us first determine how the cartoons became an international incident. Last September, these comics ran beside a story about the hurdles encountered by a Danish author in finding someone — anyone — to illustrate her children’s book about the Prophet. Every artist she approached declined the job out of fear of having to contend with Islamist extremists.

As if on cue, two of the people who produced these cartoons received death threats in October 2005. We Muslims love to lecture about the need to assess touchy matters — such as offensive Quranic verses — ‘in context’. The context in which the Muhammad cartoons first appeared suggests that frustration, not malice, was the motive.

Regardless, the cartoons met with howls of protest from Danish Muslims. Ten ambassadors of Muslim countries issued a letter demanding that Denmark’s prime minister punish Jyllands-Posten. Apparently, it didn’t occur to them that in a free society, media are generally independent of government. The paper continued to operate. Thus, the controversy continued to simmer.

Then a group of Danish imams took the cartoons to West Asia. Complaining of press bias, they distributed the drawings — and, some say, fabricated a few of their own to ensure that unrest would be sown. One of the extra sketches, for example, portrays the Prophet with a pig’s snout.

All hell soon broke loose. From missionary manipulation, the imams achieved in the Arab world what they couldn’t accomplish from exercising their democratic freedoms in Denmark.

But it’s not just the Danish imams who choreographed this passion play. Arab elites also got in on the game. Why wouldn’t they? Such controversies provide convenient opportunities to channel anger away from daily crimes. No wonder President Lahoud of Lebanon insisted that his country “cannot accept any insult to any religion”. That’s rich. Since the late Seventies, the Lebanese government has licensed Hezbollah-run satellite television station al-Manar, among the most viciously anti-Semitic broadcasters on earth.

Similarly, the justice minister of the United Arab Emirates has said that the Danish cartoons represent “cultural terrorism, not freedom of expression”. This from a country that promotes its capital as the ‘Las Vegas of the Gulf’, yet blocks my website — muslim-refusenik.com — for being “inconsistent with the moral values” of the UAE. Presumably, my site should be an online casino.

Muslims have little integrity demanding respect for our faith if we don’t show it for others. When have we demonstrated against Saudi Arabia’s policy to prevent Christians and Jews from stepping on the soil of Mecca? They may come for rare business trips, but nothing more. As long as Rome welcomes non-Christians and Jerusalem embraces non-Jews, we Muslims have more to protest than cartoons.

None of this is to dismiss the need to take my religion seriously. Hell, Muslims even take seriously the need to be serious: Islam has a teaching against ‘excessive laughter’. I’m not joking. But does this mean that we should cry ‘blasphemy’ over less-than-flattering depictions of Prophet Muhammad? God no.

For one thing, the Quran itself points out that there will always be non-believers, and that it’s for Allah, not Muslims, to deal with them. More than that, the Quran says there is “no compulsion in religion”. This suggests that nobody should be forced to treat Islamic norms as sacred.

Fine, many Muslims will retort, but we’re talking about Prophet Muhammad — Allah’s final and, therefore, perfect messenger. However, Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet was a human being who made mistakes. It’s precisely because he wasn’t perfect that we know about the so-called ‘Satanic Verses’: a collection of passages that the Prophet reportedly included in the Quran. Only later did he realise that those verses glorified heathen idols rather than God. According to Islamic legend, he retracted the idolatrous passages, blaming them on a trick played by Satan.

When Muslims put the Prophet on a pedestal, we’re engaging in idolatry of our own. The point of monotheism is to worship one God, not one of God’s emissaries. Which is why humility requires people of faith to mock themselves — and each other — every once in a while.

Here’s my attempt: a priest, a rabbi and a mullah meet at a conference about religion, and afterwards are sitting around discussing their different faiths. The conversation turns to the topic of taboos.

The priest says to the rabbi and the mullah, “You guys can’t tell me that you’ve never eaten pork.”

“Never!” intones the rabbi.

“Absolutely not!” insists the mullah.

But the priest is sceptical. “Come on, not even once? Maybe in a fit of rebellion when you were younger?”

“Okay,” confesses the rabbi. “When I was young, I once nibbled on bacon.”

“I admit it,” the mullah laughs (not excessively). “In a fit of youthful arrogance, I sampled a pork chop.”

Then the conversation turns to the priest’s religious observances. “You can’t tell me you’ve never had sex,” says the mullah.

“Of course not!” The priest protests. “I took a vow of chastity.”

The mullah and the rabbi roll their eyes. “Maybe after a few drinks?” the rabbi teases.

“Perhaps, in a moment of temptation, your faith waned?” the mullah wonders.

“Okay,” the priest confesses. “Once, when I was drunk in seminary school, I had sexual relations with a woman.”

“Beats pork, huh?” say the rabbi and the mullah.

Clearly, I’m as impure a feminist as I am a Muslim. The difference is, offended feminists won’t threaten to kill me. The same can’t be said for many of my fellow Muslims.

What part of ‘no compulsion’ don’t they understand?

The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Yale University and author of The Trouble with Islam Today. This article is an expanded version of the article printed in The Wall Street Journal