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Hani Almadhoun Headshot

Why Did the Cartoonist Cross the Road?

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I just watched a clip of young angry Muslims attacking the journalist who drew controversial cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The cartoonist portrayed Muhammad as a dog. The 53-year-old artist faced numerous threats over his 2007 sketch of Muhammad with a dog's body. The cartoonist was head-butted and his glasses were broken. Attacking him is outrageous. However, I do not really understand what artistic purpose it serves to draw something that is purely intended to offend. I respect the cartoonist as a fellow human being who has the freedom to express his thoughts in the way he or she sees fit. I also denounce violence and reject those who attacked him during his speech. The threats on his life made by various extremist groups claiming to represent my faith are uncalled for. A few years ago when the cartoons story broke, a Mormon friend of mine said that I must understand that artists will always do provocative, attention-grabbing stuff like "Piss Christ" and it is simply better to ignore them.

Here is what I hope you understand about the majority of Muslims: many of us do not have much good going for us in this life, so we hope the after-life will be better. In other words, many Muslims focus on building up credit spiritually by doing good deeds, praying, fasting and doing all the stuff religion asks of us. Muslims tend to be more observant than other religious groups because it is practiced communally, with religious teaching all around us both at home and public schools. It's much easier to be a religious Muslim in the Muslim world than it is to be religious in the West. As a result, many Muslims are a lot more sensitive to making a mockery of religion -- all monotheistic religions for that matter since Islam shares many of the same prophets. In Muslim majority countries, secular post-modernism, or whatever pushes artists to offend for the sake of offending, has simply not taken afoot. Most Muslims countries outlaw mocking religious figures and religious teachings. And people take this stuff very seriously. That may be bad, but is it as bad as collective apathy?

In many Muslim countries people just watch history pass them by; they are either indifferent or more often than not living in poverty, in absence of true democracy. Many are unable to take part in history-shaping events. Instead, they just pray hard and hope for the best. However, many in the West have become de-sensitized to whatever may offend them. The anything goes attitude of the un-offendable also seems problematic since standing up for nothing, as the adage goes, means people could fall for anything. The culturally passive, those who will not let art piss them off or give them any feeling, also live a sad existence. This, of course, does not mean they should head-butt artists, but expression of outrage in a protest seems to be normal human behavior.

From the perspective of an average Muslim in the Muslim world the West is generally affluent. Life seems easy there, people are pampered and living their life as if they will live forever. The majority of Muslims live their life as if they will die any moment. So to see an artist from a European country that is perceived to be ignorant about Islam draw a cartoon that the majority of Muslims consider insulting reeks of a general privilege. However, even the Muslims in Europe protested those cartoons. Those Western Muslims are better off than their peers in their home countries, but they are still enraged by those cartoons. This willingness to trample on their core beliefs reminds them of the bigger problem facing Muslims in Europe: racism and discrimination in their European homes. I have to admit, I have seen that Muslims living abroad loving their new home in Europe or wherever it is, but they seem to be shy of living the easy life while their brethren face constant assaults by Western military, domestic extremism or brutal dictatorship. To cope with that, some Muslims living in the West try to make up for their distance from home by adopting radical, but not always violent, views. I have witnessed more radical political opinions coming from expatriates than the ones adopted by their peers who are living with those assaults. This is not exclusive to the Muslim community. It reaches beyond that, it's sort of a psychological drive to overcompensate. Those living outside of the place they care about must face dissonance over the contradiction that they care so much about someplace else yet do not live there.

There are other reasons that contribute to the popularity of anti-cartoonist protests. Many governments in the Muslim world ban political activities, but they dare not stop religious protest, especially when the West is to blame. Never mind the soft-core pornography broadcast to Muslim homes by local TV stations often owned by the "leaders." As long as Muslims are protesting cartoons created in Europe, the protest will get permission. The local leaders cannot afford to ban this form of protest for many reasons -- they do not want to be out of touch with the people. In a way, permitting those protests to go on helps the often-resented leader gain popularity with the man on the street. It also serves as a convenient distraction from the serious domestic problems. Combine this with a high unemployment, fiery religious preachers and 24/7 news reports bombarding Muslim families with news of war in other Muslim countries, a drone attack in another, land grabs in Jerusalem ... etc. and you can see extremists have plenty of ammunition to counter-argue against those who choose peace. It's almost hard to see any other outcome but angry protests in Muslim countries.

There needs to be a middle path for outraged Muslims. We need not have the vacuous apathy of too many in the West, but cannot take arms or protest outrageously against every slight to the religion. A good model for the Muslims in this regard is organized Jewish life. Thanks to the work of Jewish organizers and institutions, the Holocaust has become sanctified. European countries banned historical revisionism and no western scholar or artist who cares about their career will mock or question the historical account. Muslims should study what they did and emulate it. While an Egyptian shopkeeper may have little resources to start a Muslim Anti-Defamation League, surely this is where the passionate Muslims in the West come in.