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Being Constructive With Cartoons

Wajahat F. Khan, 
Imran A. Hendley,
Ali K. Alhassani,
Nadeem A. Mazen

The “Cartoon Controversy” has garnered quite a bit of media attention over the last few weeks. The media first focused on the Muslim reactions to the cartoons, which included the Iranian boycott of Danish products, and violent riots in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Pakistan, and Indonesia. The Muslim Student Association Executive Committee condemns the violent responses perpetrated by a minority of Muslims seeking to make an immediate response rather than an intelligent one. Islam teaches that one is not accountable for the actions of another: there is no Islamic basis for collective punishment. More recently, writers have become interested in the touchier themes underlying the issue, including free speech, American views of Islam, double-standards in the media, and Islamic tenets.

In Tuesday’s edition of The Tech, Brian M. Loux G states that the media’s responsibility is to convey the truth and to facilitate dialogue, and if it chooses not to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, then it is practicing self-censorship. It is more reasonable to assume, however, that the media simply does not see anything constructive about publishing the cartoons, rather than argue that they are obstructing truth or dialogue with this decision.

Loux’s column represents some of the misconceptions held by many members of the Western media. For instance, he states that depicting the Prophet Muhammad is “strictly forbidden by the Qu’ran.” This is untrue; in fact, there are historical examples of Muslim artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad, where the intention was to capture important events in his life. But a halo is depicted in place of his face, for any representation of his features would inevitably be inaccurate. Over time, however, Muslim scholars came to the consensus that even these representations should be avoided. One reason that depicting the Prophet (or any prophet for that matter) is offensive to Muslims is that any depiction will necessarily misrepresent him and essentially reduce him to something that he is not. There are many more reasons, but discussing all of them is beyond the scope of this article. Cartoons which associate Islam’s prophet with stereotypes of terrorists are especially inciteful, for in a time of a war on terror, Muslims have reason to be outraged by something which is effectively putting the “terrorist” label on them as a group.

Another frequent misconception in this controversy is that freedom of speech is the end-all, universal defense. Freedom of speech is an essential feature of any society in which everyone is entitled to his or her own values. But there is a difference between freedom of speech and contributing to a constructive dialogue. The controversial cartoons do not present any new idea that the public can choose to accept or reject.

The defense of the cartoons for the sake of humor is flawed as well. Humor is not inherently offensive. A more accurate statement would be: humor gets more offensive as it gets less creative, with the least creative jokes being downright racist.

Many Muslim students at MIT were deeply hurt by Loux’s cartoon and we are still asking ourselves: “what is the benefit of offending us, if no constructive dialogue is formed?” If the media genuinely wants to promote dialogue about the limits of tolerance in Islam, then there are plenty of non-offensive, constructive ways to initiate debate. And if they had chosen any of those avenues, then we would probably be much further along with discussion by now.

The Nobel Laureate and playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” Using free speech to offend a minority group just because one can does not promote pluralism. We just recommend that in the future, authors and cartoonists choose more constructive ways to exercise their freedom of expression.
Muslims can move forward by calling for an end to violent protests and destruction of property by other Muslims, and by reaching out more to those around them. The Prophet Muhammad never answered an injustice with more injustice; instead, he practiced mercy and forgiveness. In reacting to the cartoon controversy, Muslims should follow his example and look for opportunities to identify and correct their own weaknesses and to promote tolerance and understanding between themselves and members of other groups. The MIT Muslim Students Association invites anyone to approach us with questions or concerns about this issue or about Islam in general.

Wajahat F. Khan ’07, Imran A. Hendley ’06, Ali K. Alhassani ’08, and Nadeem A. Mazen ’06 collaborated with other members of the Muslim Student Association Executive Committee in writing this column.