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The real reasons cartoons of Mohammed offend so many Muslims

I originally published this piece in January following the Charlie Hebdo attack. It has been lightly updated in response to the recent shooting in Garland, Texas.

At 7 pm on the evening of May 3, two gunmen opened fire outside a community center in Garland, Texas, where anti-Islam activists were hosting a contest that awarded a prize for the best drawing of the Prophet Mohammed. The shooters wounded a private security guard and were then killed by police.

The gunmen's motivation has not yet been confirmed. However, because the Texas event featured cartoons of Mohammed, there has been speculation that their motivation could have been similar to that of the gunmen who attacked the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January. That attack was motivated, at least in part, by outrage over the magazine's cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

And regardless of attackers' motivation, the event itself was clearly designed to defy the Muslim taboo against depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. The event organizers portrayed the event partly as standing up for free speech — Charlie Hebdo was frequently cited. They also positioned the event as "sounding the alarm about Muslim encroachment into Europe and America, and its potential impact on American culture," according to Breitbart.

That taboo against drawings of Mohammed has, in the past, been the source of debates in Europe over how to balance free speech against the offense it causes to Muslims. In the past, cartoons have provoked protests by outraged Muslims. But this issue is often widely misunderstood. Discussion about it has conflated a number of disparate issues and sensitivities in Islam —and perpetuated long-running misconceptions about how Muslims actually perceive cartoons that mock their religion.

Is publishing a cartoon of Mohammed really blasphemy?

Cartoons racism protest

Outside the Danish Embassy in Kuwait in 2006, protestors gather over published cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Muslims do believe that cartoons of Mohammed are offensive, but the reasons for that belief are widely misunderstood.

The explanation you most commonly hear for protests against depictions of Mohammed is that Islam condemns those portrayals as "blasphemy." But the truth may be simpler — and far more universal. Mohammed is a venerated figure among Muslims, who often perceive cartoons and other material critical of him — such as the 2012 film Innocence of Muslims — as an attack on their Muslim identity.

Dalia Mogahed, the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, explained that Mohammed is a beloved figure to Muslims, and "it is a human impulse to want to protect what's sacred to you."

Mogahed compared the cartoons to the issue of flag-burning in the United States, noting that a majority of Americans favor a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning for similar reasons: the flag is an important symbol of a national identity, and many Americans see flag-burning as an attack on that identity, or even on the country itself. That's not extremism or backwardness; it's about protecting something you cherish.

Author and scholar Reza Aslan agreed, saying he experiences a similar backlash if he criticizes American foreign policy as he does if he comments on religious figures. "For some Americans, their national identity is sacred in the way that for some religious people, their religious identity is sacred," he said. "And to criticize America is to insult America."

In other words, although religious identity may be the source of anger over the cartoons, that does not mean the objections are necessarily theological. In fact, despite widespread belief to the contrary, there may be no such theological restriction at all.

The Koran does not specifically prohibit insulting the Prophet, Aslan said. Mogahed noted that there was no agreement within mainstream Islam over what constitutes blasphemy, what the response to it should be, or how it should fit within the context of freedom of speech. It would therefore be a mistake to reduce an entire cultural identity to a narrow question of religious law.

To be clear, even if there could be ambiguity or varied interpretations of the degree to which cartoon depictions of Mohammed are disallowed, there is no ambiguity over the possible decision of three men to murder 12 people over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons: the attack was, Mogahed said, unjustified in every way under Islam. That's not just her opinion; Muslims and Muslim groups immediately condemned the attack, often on religious grounds.

Author Mir Tamim Ansary was even more emphatic, calling the attackers "enemies of Islam, intent on rendering the lives of Muslims everywhere poorer and more insecure."

"No blasphemy could be more heinous than this crime," Ansary wrote in an email, "no matter what the magazine published or whom it offended. Judgment belongs to God. Those who claim to defend Islam with violence and horror are essentially asserting that God is incapable of carrying out His will and so they must act in His stead: that’s blasphemy."

There is a tradition of avoiding images of Prophet Mohammed

Cartoon protest Germany

Demonstrators gathered in Berlin, Germany, in 2006 to protest the Danish cartoons. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The degree to which cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo are perceived as offensive may also relate to Islam's strong religious tradition of avoiding images of the prophet.

According to Aslan, the Koran does not explicitly prohibit depicting the Prophet Mohammed, and there have been images of Mohammed, his family, and other prophets throughout history. "The history of Islam teems with images of the Prophet Mohammed. You see this in the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries."

Still, the idea that depictions of Mohammed are disallowed didn't come out of nowhere. Islam, Aslan explained, like Judaism is an iconoclastic religion that does not permit God to be anthropomorphized — that is, portrayed as a human being — and prizes textual scripture instead.

Over time, Islamic scholars extended that tradition to cover Mohammed and the other major prophets, as well, and discouraged artists from depicting them in images. That has created a strong cultural norm against images of Mohammed, even in the absence of a religious law against them.

According to Mogahed, there is now a "commonly understood" rule against depicting the prophet, which is seen as part of Islam's prohibition of anything that could become a source of idolatry. The worry, she explained, was that statues or images of the prophet could be used as idols — that people might call upon them to intercede with God, which would be against religious law.

A lot of this comes down to the perceived intent of the depictions

Paris cartoon protest

Women gather outside the French Embassy in London in 2012 to protest Charlie Hebdo's publication of a nude cartoon of Prophet Mohammed. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GettyImages)

In seeking to understand the cartoons and their impact, it may be as important to understand the European secular identity of the cartoonists who draw them as it is to understand Muslim religious identity.

Although Western European countries are traditionally Christian, Western Europeans today are not particularly religious. This is especially pronounced in France, which holds secularism in high regard, but it isn't limited to that country. As a result, Mogahed notes, "holding religious symbols as sacred is in and of itself seen as backward, superstitious, and pre-modern."

By contrast, opinion polls consistently find that the majority of Muslims say religion is an important part of their daily lives. That is a significant difference — even before any overt conflict takes place. Cartoons depicting Islam negatively, then, end up hitting on a preconceived, and not totally groundless, sense among European Muslims that their core values, and not just Mohammed, are under attack.

Part of the offense may also come from the fact that the cartoons can appear explicitly designed to provoke. Aslan suggested that publications that print such cartoons may often be attempting to provoke an extreme response in order to make a statement about who belongs in European secular culture.

"I’ve had extensive conversations, for instance, with the editor of Jyllands-Posten who published the famous Mohammed cartoons," Aslan recounted. "And he says, without apology, that those cartoons were a deliberate attempt to poke a stick in the eye of Denmark’s Muslim community. To rouse them, to essentially prove that 'unless you can put up with this, you don’t belong in Denmark.'"

If the intent is to insult, then is it really such a shock that people could feel insulted? Of course, to some extent taking offense is still a choice, and an intent to provoke does not justify overreaction of any kind, much less violence. But it is a reminder that secular Europeans have their own identity politics, and that these play out in controversies over cartoons, as well.

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