By Ahmad Fathan Aniq

On 30 September 2005, Jylland Posten, the biggest Denmark daily newspaper, published 12 cartoons which were claimed to be cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In Islam, it is taboo to draw the Prophet. However, there were no big reactions in the first two months since the cartoons were published. Nevertheless, in December after the Islamic Conference Organization had announced its opposition to the cartoons, the cartoons were republished in many other newspapers in various countries, and there were many reactions from Muslim societies. The cartoons generated strong protests from those who were offended. They burnt flags and embassies of Denmark as a symbol of their disappointment. In an extreme case, some people in Afghanistan died as a result. Why did Muslims react so strongly against the cartoons? Can we justify such reactions? Was what the Danish cartoonist drew a kind of freedom of expression? This short article tries to discuss these issue.

            To understand why there were many reactions from Muslims against the cartoons, we should first understand how Muslims’ view the drawing of their Prophet. For Muslims, to visualize the Prophet is something forbidden. The Prophet is the messenger of Allah. Everything that he did, spoke, and ignored becomes rules for Muslims called sunna. Consequently, he is the most perfect person in the universe. Therefore, to draw the Prophet, as Muslims believe, will reduce this kind of perfection. The reduction itself is also considered as a lie, and it is highly forbidden in Islam. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Those who intentionally lie about me, just prepare their place in hell!” (Transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim). Based on this hadith, ‘Ulamas agree about forbidding Muslims from drawing the Prophet.

            Apart from the Muslims’ view above, the Danish cartoons clearly show something which is offensive to Muslims’ belief. In one of the pictures, the Prophet is visualized as a man who is wearing a turban from a bomb which is ready to explode. Muhammad is illustrated as a man who teaches suicide bombings. He not only harms other people but also himself. If the perfect example is illustrated as a suicide bomber, it means that all of his followers are also suicide bombers. Everyone, I believe, will consider this picture as an insult. Muslims are very offended by this picture. They love their Prophet more than they love themselves. Therefore, when their Prophet is insulted, they will protect his image. This is why there were so many reactions against the Danish cartoons.

            However, I disagree with the violent reactions of Muslim societies to the cartoons. Such reactions, in fact, strengthen the stereotype of the vicious faces of Muslim that were illustrated through the Danish cartoons. Muslims should look for another more rational way to express their disagreement and disappointment of the cartoons. It may really hurt Muslims’ feelings but Muslims should not create new problems when they react to the issue. The Prophet (PBUH) himself throughout his life never acted in a coercive way in order to achieve his aim. A famous story in this regard is when he was thrown by the Thaif people until he was injured when he was trying to deliver da’wa or in invitation to the religion of Islam. It is told that the Angel Gabriel was very angry at the Thaif attitude to the Prophet. Then, when the Prophet was resting and thirsty, the Angel Gabriel came and said if the Prophet allowed him, he would throw the Thaif people by the Uhud mount. Nevertheless, the Prophet answered that he was coming there not to damage the people but to show them guidance. Then the Prophet prayed, “Oh God, guide my community since they do not know the guidance”.

To slow down our emotion, we can say that the cartoons are only the imagination of the foolish cartoonist. They will never be similar to the Prophet. All former prominent pictures such as those of Mary, Jesus, and Muhammad are fake. Furthermore, I also disagree with the cartoons. The cartoons intentionally offend Muslim societies. In this respect, we should redefine what freedom of expression is.

Western people, especially the Danish government and the Jylland Posten crews, argue that what the cartoonist did was right since it was a kind of freedom of expression. For me, this is a wrong way of thinking in defining the meaning of freedom of expression. For them, as I understand, freedom of expression is an unlimited freedom. Everybody can express everything he thinks about. There is no limitation for this expression. This is what I disagree with. The freedom for me is the freedom with a responsibility. It means that our freedom is socially limited by other people’s freedom. Everybody may express his opinion as long as it does not hurt other people. To freely express our opinions, and at the same time hurt other people means we have freedom of expression without responsibility. In this case, freedom which breaks other people’s freedom cannot be called freedom. It is oppression or it can also be called jungle law.

Leiden, 26 Oct 2007