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If you believe everything you read on the internet, yesterday was Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. The Facebook campaign was launched in protest of Comedy Central’s decision last month to censor an episode of South Park that featured depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

According to Islamic teachings, the depiction of the prophet is strictly forbidden, and the Facebook campaign caused the Pakistani government to block access to the social networking giant.

But Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is only the latest episode in an ongoing debate between religious ideals and the notion of free speech.

In 2007, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks depicted the prophet Mohammed as a dog, knowingly full well the reaction it would provoke. In addition to the outrage that a depiction of the prophet would cause, dogs are considered filthy in Islam. The combination of both, he told CNN at the time, was a deliberate attempt to elicit a reaction from conservative Muslims.

“It should be possible to insult all religions in a democratic way. No one actually loves the truth, but someone has to say it,” he said.

While presenting a lecture about free speech at Sweden’s Uppsala University last Tuesday, Vilks was attacked by members of the audience. According to Agence France-Presse, an “al-Qaeda front organisation” offered $US100,000 to anyone that was able to murder Vilks, and an extra $US50,000 if his death involved having his throat slit. Three days after Vilks’ attack, his home in southern Sweden was hit by a firebomb attack.

In 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten created a similar outrage when it published 12 images of Mohammed, the most controversial of which depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban. The cartoons sparked violent protests around the world and resulted in more than 100 deaths.

So what do these cartoons and their reactions say about the relationship between Islam and “the West”? Earlier this week Crikey spoke to Waleed Aly, a prominent Australian-Muslim commentator, lawyer, author, academic and broadcaster, whose book People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West addresses similar issues.

Does the Koran indicate that depictions of the prophet Mohammed are strictly forbidden?

Actually it’s not that clear cut — it really depends on where you are looking. In Iran, for example, there’s quite a lengthy tradition of depicting lots of people, including the prophet. There are some Ottoman artworks as well that depicted the prophet although typically they would not depict his face.

The general concern is not so much disrespect, but rather the opposite — that it might turn the prophet into a subject of such veneration that he becomes worshipped. So there’s a concern about idolatry.

Why is idolatry a concern?

As far as Islam is concerned, worshipping anything other than God is the biggest sin there is so anything that facilitates that is therefore regarded as problematic by many people.

Does Lars Vilks’ depiction of the prophet as a dog show a lack of respect or understanding for the Muslim world?

I think there clearly a lack of respect — that was kind of the point of doing it. I know the argument he’s putting, and that’s basically “because we have free speech we should be able to do this”. The problem I have with that sort of approach is that it’s not remotely constructive — it’s not really why you have free speech, so that you can go about offending people gratuitously. You have it so that you can have debates that are important. I understand that he’ll probably argue that this is a contribution to an important debate and I certainly find the responses to him deplorable, but it’s a bit like the Danish cartoons.

The Danish cartoons thing was offensive not because it had anything to do with depicting the prophet — that’s a big red herring — it was to with a sense that Muslims were basically there to be insulted and ridiculed, just because.

So it’s not simply a clash of free speech versus religious ideals, but rather a case of a cartoonist who misunderstood what it means to have free speech?

[Vilks] is a different case to the Danish cartoons — [Jyllands-Posten] had previously censored material that depicted Jesus naked, for example. It had also protested in an editorial against a mural of Jesus with an erection that was being put up somewhere, Denmark I think. So their commitment to free speech had its limits, but didn’t seem to have any limits when Muslims were involved.

In this case, I think [Vilks] has drawn really offensive cartoons of Jesus that Muslims would also find offensive, but his target was probably Christians. I just see him as a figure that is deliberately provocative and controversial.

I certainly respect the right of people to say things that are offensive, I think that’s an important right. I don’t, however, have the greatest of admiration for people who use free speech just as an opportunity to be offensive just because they can be — I think that’s pretty cheap. But that doesn’t mean I think he should be beaten up.

Do you think the attack on Lars Vilks at a Swedish University last week affects the perception of Islam in “the West”?

I think it has a limited effect because it hasn’t been that big news but certainly for anyone that sees it, yeah, it will have a massive effect. All it does it re-entrench the position that really, people should be trying to overcome. I think the responses to the Danish cartoons have been some of the most boneheaded, deplorable and counter-productive responses you could ever imagine. In my view at least, it has very little to with the cartoons. I remember with the Danish cartoons there were reports of people vandalising KFCs and burning effigies of George W. Bush and saying that the cartoons were American.

I think it’s true on both sides of the argument; the vanguards of free speech are really, in many cases, using the free speech argument as an opportunity to insult some people that they’ve been wanting to insult. And then the people that respond violently are responding in an opportunistic fashion — it gives them a chance to ventilate these frustrations. That’s why you see violent responses to things like the Danish cartoons in places of political turmoil — places like Gaza, Pakistan or Syria — there aren’t violent protests in New Zealand and in Australia there was barely anything. There are broader social and political things that are feeding this.

So what’s the solution? Is there a step that can be taken to reach better understanding between Muslims and the rest of the Western world?

My feeling is that it’s not going to involve these cartoonists or the people that respond to them — I think those people have pretty much mapped out the way they approach the world. It’s belligerent on both sides and it’s not particularly productive — the aim of those sort of protagonists is not to overcome division.

But for people that do want to overcome division I think the only thing you can do is take the actions of those people and put them to one side and try to connect with people of good faith, people that actually want to work constructively with you and co-exist with you. If you’re a Muslim that feels victimised by a lot of what goes on in public Western discourse, don’t focus on the cartoons. Recognise that it’s not really representative of wider views and that there’s a whole lot of goodwill out there that you can easily tap into and do something constructive.

Similarly, if you are interested in building bridges with Muslims in your community, trying to view them and understand them through the prism of the response to these cartoons is not going to help you — it’s not going to paint an accurate picture.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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