Prophet and Loss

Philly Muslims react to the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

By Aisha Mohammed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 22, 2006

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News hounds: A local Muslim group organized a recent protest at the Inquirer.

Diversity, as any picture of a pilgrimage to Mecca makes absolutely clear, is a hallmark of the Muslim world. There's not only diversity in race and ethnicity, but also vastly different expressions of Islam across the globe.

It's not surprising, then, that there's been a diversity of reaction in the local Muslim community to The Philadelphia Inquirer's decision to reprint the Muhammad cartoons. While most local Muslims express general disappointment at the Inquirer's decision, they've chosen to respond to their chagrin in different ways. The wide range of responses should serve to further deconstruct the monolithic image of Muslims as an anti-American population prone to violence.

The Majlis ash-Shura of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, the local organized leadership of Muslims, held a mass demonstration on Sat., Feb. 11 at the Inquirer offices at 400 N. Broad St. At the demonstration Asim Abdur Rasheed, a leader of the ash-Shura, said Muslims are "united in outrage because they see it as an international effort by the EU to discredit Muslims and Islam."

Some 300 to 400 Muslims-demanding a formal apology and calling for a boycott of the paper-showed up to protest peacefully. Rasheed believes this is the "first mass demonstration we've had. I think it's really united Muslims. This is just the beginning."

A minority of Muslims see protesting as an un-Islamic act, and not the best way to air their grievances. They prefer to instead engage with the media by writing editorials.

In defending the right of Muslims to take direct action, Rasheed says, "Allah gives those who feel they've been wronged the right to speak out. We live in an un-Islamic society, and we're just beginning to realize our political strength."

One community member who was present at the demonstration says he thinks those who believe protests are un-Islamic are using a weak or inauthentic hadith (saying of the prophet Muhammad) to justify their position. The hadith in question says it's better to have a bad ruler than no ruler.

Despite the differences in opinion about how to best react to the cartoon controversy, the episode holds immense potential for Muslims to engage in dialogue and debate about Islam. Muslim communities tend to be divided along lines of race and ethnicity, and generational gaps can further deepen those divides.

But the Inquirer protest was both ethnically and generationally diverse. Like with the post-9/11 detentions and other heated issues faced by American Muslims, the controversy has created a context for Muslims to organize and deepen networks within their own diverse and sometimes disconnected communities.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a grassroots organization that often collaborates with Islamic groups and mosques on various projects, has seized this episode as a "teaching moment." On Valentine's Day the organization launched a yearlong initiative geared toward educating the public on the life and legacy of the prophet Muhammad.

Philadelphia CAIR spokesperson Adeeba Al-Zaman sees the Explore the Life of Muhammad campaign as "an opportunity to learn about Muhammad and how Muslims view him with reverence and love."

The deep sense of respect that Muslims feel for the prophet Muhammad is one of the leading factors behind the outrage. Umar Abdur-Rahman, one of the organizers of the Inquirer protest, suspects the newspaper "doesn't realize why the cartoons are so offensive."

To Dr. Khalid Blankinship, director of graduate studies in the religion department at Temple University, the "cartoons imply continuation of Western racism against Islam." He says people should place the cartoon controversy in a larger context, and see it as "a sign that the Muslim world is declaring independence and rejection of outside tutelage."

Others, though, are suspicious of the Inquirer's reasons for reprinting the cartoon, concluding it was unnecessary to print the cartoon in order to discuss the controversy. One community member suggests the decision was profit-driven, pointing to the newspaper's recent circulation woes. Ultimately, the reprinting of the Muhammad cartoon focuses most closely on the question of free speech as it relates to religion. When does free speech cross over into hate speech?

Blankinship points out that freedom of expression is relative, that "one person's hate speech is another's normal means of discourse." But he adds that any time speech works to incite violence, or to threaten people's lives, it qualifies as hate speech. The problem with neoconservatives, he adds, is that they talk about Islam in only one way-a negative, narrow discourse that limits true understanding of the complex phenomenon that is global Islam.

The wide range of actions Muslims have taken in response to the cartoon has made it difficult to maintain a singular view of the community. And if we're smart, it will eventually push us to widen our frameworks to gain a better understanding of Islam in the context of American life and politics.

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