The irritated reactions of mainstream Muslim Americans against the ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ are understandable and expected. Yet they are focusing on the wrong problems when they suggest the need to draw a line between problematic dichotomies such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘free speech.’ Bringing in to the debate the analogies of the ‘N’ word might seem useful but it is sometimes ahistorical and in essence it contributes to the building of a counterproductive profile in the Muslim American case that is of victimization.
The response to those who accuse Islam of being inherently opposed to Modernity should come in the form of actions not slogans, and a patient effort to establish common ground and less of a narrative that falls into the trap of ‘they hate us because we are Muslims.’ Islamophobia is real but it is misleading to suggest that all criticism flows from hatred. Its most complicated aspect is that it is sometimes embraced by people who are not necessarily bigots but because of their misunderstanding of generic representations of Islam and Muslims, and their genuine belief in their rights especially free speech. What could have sustained an engaging dialogue could be further incited by the language of victimization. Even though it would be simpler and more attractive to emphasize the images of the weak, it ends up buying into the narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Hence the fundamentalist fringe finds refuge in both sides of the debate when actually mainstream Muslim and non-Muslim Americans have much more in common.
An example of an engaged dialogue, which can be also self-educational, might include the following points:
Explain the history: mainstream Islamic rejections of portraying Muhammad had originally understandable reasons. In the early 7th century Arabia “images” (including statues) were vehemently rejected by Islam as the material manifestation of polytheism. The visualization of Muhammad especially after his death was most probably rejected in order to avoid creating the tools to worship him instead of God (No God but Allah is the most important tenet of Islam). The context of the foundation of Islam as a monotheist religion in conflict with “images” of gods or of God (including in the Christian space) dictated a general need to reject Muhammad’s visualization. Since there is no explicit mention of this topic in the holy book of Qur’an this is not a rejection dictated by God but because of rationally based reasons.
Provide nuance: Muhammad was actually portrayed by Muslims. Even though it is a highly controversial issue among Muslims drawing their Prophet was never an impossible task. Some Muslims drew Muhammad sometimes with a veil on his face such as many cases in Persian and Ottoman paintings. In other fewer cases he was represented without even a veil such as in the fourteenth century Ilkhanid Jami’ al-Tawarikh. In Muslim Shiite holy sites such as Qom people can buy posters featuring the portrait of a teenager as the young Muhammad. In other words in the Islamic history of the issue of portraying Muhammad painting the Prophet seems to have been “undesirable”. But it does not seem to be totally unacceptable as the context was changing. Therefore if some Muslims in the past drew Muhammad it should not be an issue in principle for non-Muslim to do the same.
Focus the debate: the much more serious issue should not be whether it is acceptable to draw Muhammad but how to draw him and how this might relate to actual genuine Islamophobic views and actions. In other words is the visual representation meant to relate to generic representations that incite violence against Muslims, for instance? And even then it would be a hard case to build if the discourse is hasty in drawing conclusions and does not begin with asking questions and inviting people to reflect on possible offenses rather than present them with the fait accompli. Because what a believer feels passionately as obvious is not necessarily another believer’s evidence.
Defend responsible free speech: it is because of the need to preserve the principle of free speech that people must make choices when choosing how to exercise such a right. As Americans, we believe in the First Amendment, and constantly direct ourselves to achieve compromises so that the extremist fringes do not benefit from misunderstandings leading to perceptions of bigotry. Thus we should take into account not only the right of free speech but also misled perceptions that are fueled by extremist positions from all sides. Defending the image of America in the world, including among Muslims, is critical for this country’s national security. People should take this into account when reacting against perceptions of genuine threats to the First Amendment.
These are possible venues for an engaged dialogue. They all point to one direction: drawing the Prophet Muhammad should not be a viral issue for either Muslims or non-Muslims. What should be an issue, however, are all possible implications between visual representation and bigotry. And even then Muslim Americans should be highly sensitive not to question free speech on the basis of perceptions of Islamophobia.
Muslim Americans, as any other minority group, should be at the forefront of defending the First Amendment. Embracing such a primordial constitutional right is not only important to counter assumptions about disloyalty to the country but more importantly because such a right protects the few and the isolated more than any other group. Even when offended by perceptions of islamophobic views or bigotry, regardless of the accuracy of such perceptions, the issue should not be about limiting free speech but about its validity and about preserving the principle of freedom.
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