Dr. Khalid J. Qazi is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York. He discussed turmoil around the world related to newspapers publishing editorial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Q: Why does Islamic law ban depictions of the Prophet Muhammad?
A: Although Quran, Islamic Divine Scripture, does not specifically prohibit depictions of Prophet Muhammad or other Prophets, it has been done traditionally as a mark of respect for the prophets. It is to guard against idolatry, or idol worshipping, which is strictly prohibited in Islam. We don't have pictures of Jesus in Islam either, although we have same reverence for him as a prophet as we have for Prophet Muhammad. Jesus Christ, for example, is depicted as white in the West and black in African countries. Such racial and other connotations can create confusion and given as another reason for this prohibition. However, there are non-satirical representations of Muhammad in Sufi and Shia traditions, but they are done in a highly respectful and tasteful fashion. There is a statue of Muhammad in U.S. Supreme Court as well. If it is done with reverence and respect, as in the case of our Supreme Court, Muslims have no reason to protest.
Q: Why should cartoonists draw the line on depictions in newspapers of God and the prophet?
A: It's a question of where the freedom of expression ends and media responsibility begins. We know there are speech codes in educational institutions and hate crime laws in civil societies. Free thinkers, for decades, especially in the West have debated this issue and always favored free expression. However, under the blanket of artistic freedom, not infrequently, religion has been the target. Jesus Christ has been portrayed abysmally so often in the West. . . . So there are limitations even though we will say that there is freedom of expression. In a civil society, there are norms that we follow.
Q: Has there ever been a conflict, albeit nonviolent, of a similar nature in this area?
A: I remember two incidents. One centered on the movie, "The Last Temptation of Christ," and the other was Salmon Rushdie's book, "Satanic Versus". Both the times Muslims objected to the content. In the case of "The Last Temptation of Christ" it was both Christians and Muslims, who protested against the movie because of the depiction of Christ. However, it was nonviolent and there was no damage to any person or property, as far as I can recall.
Q: Why don't kidnappings and beheadings of innocent people evoke the same level of outrage?
A: I say without any reservation that beheadings and kidnappings must be condemned and most Muslims, Muslim organizations and leaders have done so. Numerous editorials, statements and press releases around the Muslim World have strongly come out against such practices. Muslim scholars have spoken categorically about the unIslamic nature of these offensive practices. But Muslims can certainly do more.
Q: What do you think of the violence that has resulted?
A: It is embarrassing to me and an awful lot of Muslims. It is against the teachings of the very person demonstrators are purporting to defend. Prophet Muhammad said, "You do not do evil to those who do evil to you. But you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness." This is the teaching Muslims need to remember as they express justifiable outrage at the publication of these cartoons that demonize our prophet. It would be wise, however, to look at the reasons behind the demonstrations without sanctifying violence.