By Mustafa Akyol
You probably know what happened in Garland, Texas, on May 5. The “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” was attacked by two gunmen, who were killed by the police before they could cause any harm. Since then, a possible link between the two Muslim attackers and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been sought and discussed. Meanwhile, many considered the event as yet another example of Islam’s intolerance of free speech and the terrorist threat it sparks.
This threat, of course, is real, as we have seen over the years in the attacks against Danish cartoonists who made the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and more recently in the terrorist rampage against the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. There obviously are fanatical Muslims in the world who see “the insult of Islam” as a good reason to kill people. It is the job of us, other Muslims, to oppose them and call for peaceful, civilized responses to what we all consider offensive to the sacred symbols of our faith. I will give all that.
But, on the other hand, non-Muslim Westerners should consider whether it is wise and helpful to insist on publishing such cartoons, only to offend all Muslims and provoke the fanatics among us.
I know that the issue at stake here is freedom of speech, which is a value that I also passionately defend. But freedom of speech can be combined with either respect or disrespect to people of different faiths, and the former is arguably wiser and more helpful. We live in a world where formerly isolated cultures constantly meet each other and it is really more responsible to have this meeting through handshakes rather than poking fingers in the eye.
That is why I fully agree with a recent New York Times editorial, which read:
“There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder. But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Texas, was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.”
This is not to mean that non-Muslims are supposed to shut up when it comes to Islam. Quite the contrary, as a Muslim, I welcome all reasoned critiques towards Islam and Muslim culture, from which I have only intellectually benefited over the years. But making a very degrading cartoon of Prophet Muhammad is not a reasoned critique; it is simply an insult and a provocation, in a context where there are enough fanatics around to be violently provoked.
Some possible objections to this will probably come from the slippery slope argument: If Westerns restrain themselves from drawing the cartoons of a foreign prophet; they will enter a road at the end of which they will only submit to “Sharia law” and to become the “Dhimmis” (subdued non-Muslims) of Islam. But almost all slippery slope arguments are wrong, and they only serve senseless hawkishness. They deprive people from the chance to have the first handshake they could have with the other, leaving them alone with their clenched fists and bitter minds.
Therefore I would urge all Western activists who may be eager to organize the next “Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest” to reconsider their urge. By such provocations, they are not helping us, the liberal-minded Muslims who actually try to extend freedom of speech within Islamdom. They are not helping their own civilization either, for they are making a “clash of civilizations” more possible, if not imminent.