GUEST COLUMNIST: Muslims should be challenging instances of Islamophobia

Thursday, April 29, 2010 | 3:19 p.m. CDT; updated 10:37 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

When I watched "South Park" last week, I was almost certain that Matt Stone and Trey Parker would show Mohammad, the last Prophet of Islam, in the conclusion of their two-part episode. Instead, they censored the image of Mohammad and bleeped out all references of him.

I was insulted by what Stone and Parker had done. I thought their message was that Muslims were too intolerant to allow a depiction of Mohammad, and for fear of retribution, they would not even speak his name. However, as the news broke that the censorship of the "South Park" episode was an executive decision made by Comedy Central rather than Stone and Parker, I was both relieved that the creators of one of my favorite shows were not trying to be Islamophobic and angry that Comedy Central was.


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I don't consider myself a traditional religious Muslim. I haven't prayed five times a day for years, I skip Friday prayers and fasting on a regular basis and I can't remember the last time I read the Koran. But I shouldn't have to be a devout Muslim to be a Muslim, just like a Christian who doesn't go to church on Sundays is still a Christian. My relationship with God is between me and the almighty.

I don't pretend to represent the Ummah (Nation of Islam) but neither should groups like Revolution Muslim. The group indirectly threatened Stone and Parker and said the writers could end up like Theo Van Gogh, who was killed in 2004 in the Netherlands after producing a film that was critical of Islam. Revolution Muslim then released Stone's and Parker's office and home addresses. Even though the group's website is no longer running, my fear is that, in light of what has happened, Islam will again be portrayed in the media as a monolithic, intolerant religion incapable of intellectual discourse.

The depiction of the prophet isn’t a new concept. The Koran does not directly forbid images of the prophet but states that images of all living things should be avoided.

As a Sunni Muslim I have been taught that images of Mohammad are sacrilegious. There are two philosophical reasons that I have been raised on and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that we do not know what Mohammad looked like, and any depiction of him would be disrespectful. The second, the one that I agree with most, is that creating images or symbols of the prophet would eventually result in idolatry. The first Muslims didn't have an identifying symbol. The crescent moon that is widely used to symbolize Islam was an Ottoman symbol that became synonymous with Islam in Christian Europe.

The raging debate over the image of Mohammad has far more to do with Middle East politics and East-West relationships than with the philosophical debate that masks it. Especially in a post-Sept. 11 world, many Muslims feel victimized for the actions of a few. I have my own stories.

People often talk about bigotry and racism, but I’ve actually lived it. When I was 5 years old, I fell off of a four-story balcony, broke my arm and was knocked unconscious. When I woke up, the first person I saw was an elderly Swedish woman whom I asked for help; she told me, “Go to hell you goddamned nigger.” When I lived in Poland I was kicked and punched by neo-Nazis and skinheads, and my dad’s car was constantly vandalized and spray-painted with swastikas and racist slogans.

When I came to the United States — land of the free, home of the brave — I found that racism knows no borders. When I went to specially register after Sept. 11, an immigration officer told me that it was that time of the month to round up people like me. I had a source turn me down when I told her I was Muslim. I’ve been yelled at by people to go back to Afghanistan and Iraq. Incidentally, I’m from Bangladesh.

But worst of all, I was once told by a journalism instructor at MU that Muslims should apologize for Sept. 11. When I explained to him that Muslim leaders around the world had condemned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he insisted that it wasn’t an apology. I then told him that all Muslims are not terrorists and shouldn’t apologize for something a few have done in the name of Islam, but he just shrugged at that line of logic.

That brings us back to the Danish cartoons. When Jyllands-Posten published the Mohammad cartoons, it was meant to be a commentary on what the West views as Islam and not simply printing something that could be sacrilegious to Muslims. I did feel uneasy about the cartoons when I first saw them simply because of my upbringing. It was a gag-reflex similar to my religious adherence to not eating pork. However, more than the gag-reflex, I felt extremely offended and hurt by some of the cartoons, especially the one where Mohammad is wearing a bomb for a turban. The message to me was clear: In the eyes of the cartoonist, the prophet was an evil terrorist, as are all Muslims.

This was the image that inspired outrage in many Muslim countries. People were outraged not only that the Prophet was depicted but also that he was shown as a violent man of a violent religion. To prove their point, protesters waged violent riots and burned down embassies. I want to thank those protesters for proving that Muslims aren't part of a violent religion.

When I was taking a tour of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., I stumbled upon a 2002 cartoon by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette. It depicted Mohammad driving a Ryder bus with a nuclear missile sticking out of it reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bombing. I found it highly offensive because I thought the artist was saying that Mohammad was similar to Timothy McVeigh but much worse. I’d never seen or heard of this cartoon because there were no protests denouncing Marlette. So why denounce the Jyllands-Posten? My conclusion was that during the time of the Jyllands-Posten, the relationship with the West and the Muslim World had greatly deteriorated because of the war in Iraq. Muslim governments and political groups were looking for a way to express anger at the West for the war and the cartoons were the perfect target.However, I fear that that political calculation may have backfired and created a genuine culture of intolerance toward images of Mohammad in some Muslims.

"South Park" has depicted Mohammad once before as a member of the Super Best Friends. After I got over my initial gag-reflex, I really liked the fact that he was depicted as a good superhero. In contrast, most of images of Muslims and Islam on TV seem to be of terrorists or overly devout Muslims. Since the Danish cartoons controversy, Comedy Central has prevented South Park from showing any depiction of Mohammad.

Stone and Parker are cartoonists who use satire to push public dialogue. As Muslims, we should take this moment — as we should have done with Marlette’s and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons —to challenge the perceived intolerance and violence of Islam in the West. This is an opportunity to ask non-Muslims, “really, is this what you think of us?” It is an opportunity to teach them of the suffering of Muslims around the world and the injustices we have faced and continue to face. It is an opportunity to teach them that ours is a religion that revived the philosophers of Rome and Greece, and created a civilization based on religious tolerance and science.

Revolution Muslim is right, there is a revolution that Muslims must be a part of. It is a revolution for the existence of Islam in the 21st century. The United States is more than 200 years old, but most Muslim states are less than 70. Despite more than 200 years of First Amendment freedoms, the guarantees of free speech were unheard of 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the Muslim world has far less time to experiment with democracy and liberal philosophies. I challenge the other 1.5 billion Muslims in the world to make their voices heard against Islamophobia and intolerance, or the future will only hold more misery for the next generation of Muslims.

Ferdous Al-Faruque is a journalism Master's student at MU, and a former reporter and editor for the Columbia Missourian.

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Leigh Abraham April 29, 2010 | 4:45 p.m.
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