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Ali: Cartoons

06/22/10 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST): UVM Professor and commentator Saleem Ali has been reflecting on balancing the right to free speech and cultural respect.

(ALI) Relations between the United States and the Islamic world were yet again haunted by cartoons last month.  This time my land of origin, Pakistan, was in convulsions over a Facebook page with a contest to draw images of the Prophet Muhammad. The intention of the artist who suggested the contest was to spur debate through satire, but this was so distorted by the Facebook contest page that it provided a venting opportunity for anyone who had an axe to grind about Islam. No doubt global prominence of the page itself was only possible because of the juvenile reaction by Pakistani courts that promptly banned Facebook access in the country and further legitimized this provocation.

So here we are with again with a vicious cycle of vitriol stemming from hypersensitivity among Muslims and insensitivity among the provocateurs. Such episodes further strengthen the contempt many pundits have for Muslims and give them ammunition to rally their minions. Through their own senseless sentimentality, Muslims have fallen prey to this trap.  Liberal commentators such as Bill Maher and Right-wing pundits such Rush Limbaugh were equally vociferous in their ridicule of Muslims in this regard.

As a Muslim American with a sense of humor, I would be the first to agree that when it comes to high drama over imagery, Muslims are indeed masters of "much ado about nothing." Rush and Bill's scornful amusement is thus understandable at one level. But let's ponder further about whether or not this is really an issue of journalistic freedom. What bothers Muslims is that the same standards of propriety are not applied universally about offensive material being placed online.

Confronted by a double standard, journalists are generally unapologetic. When questioned on this matter by the Christian Science Monitor, following the Danish cartoon controversy, the editor-in-chief at German newspaper Die Welt stated unequivocally: "Evenhandedness cannot be a goal...  It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules."

So what do we do with such a clear cognitive rift regarding freedom of expression? Muslims will need to be more strategic about their responses to such provocations. Muslims should be confident in the tenacity of their Faith, which has lasted for more than 1400 years against many odds, to weather some critiques and caricatures.  At the same time, non-Muslims need to understand that Islam is going through a time of tremendous social upheaval and needs some sensitivity at a human level. Freedom of expression should always remain paramount, but so must the human obligation to exercise this right with care and constancy.
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