Cultural Differences Explain Muslim Reaction to Danish Cartoons, Sachedina Says

April 3, 2006
Abdulaziz Sachedina
"We are not only considering the question of freedom of speech [but] we also should be considering the question of freedom of religion," said U.Va. religious studies professor Abdulaziz Sachedina.

In 1989, British-Indian author Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, in which the author developed the Prophet Muhammad as a fictional character, produced a violent reaction in the Islamic world and led to a fatwa calling for his assassination. Seventeen years after the "Rushdie Affair," the publication of political cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper again spurred riots, violence, and protests against Western interpretations of Islam's main prophet.

U.Va. religious studies professor Abdulaziz Sachedina sees the current tumult and its geopolitical ramifications as reflective of the interconnection between religion and universal human needs and values. "We are not only considering the question of freedom of speech [but] we also should be considering the question of freedom of religion," Sachedina said in a March 29 lecture sponsored by the Islamic Legal Exchange, the J.B. Moore Society of International Law and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

Many in the Islamic world view the recent cartoons and caricatures as a direct mockery of the Prophet Muhammad, Sachedina explained. The current impasse regarding the Danish cartoons, in Sachedina's view, revolves around differences in political ethics. Muslim authorities are demanding an apology from the Danish government, which won't apologize because Denmark does not consider the provocative cartoons to be a government issue. "Keep the cultural context in mind," Sachedina noted. "Most of the Arab media is controlled by the government and therefore they think that in a similar situation the [Danish] government can interfere and say 'no, this story will not be published.'"

Although popular thought holds that it is blasphemous to depict an image of Muhammad, Sachedina noted the falsity of this notion. "Drawing the prophet, legally speaking, was not a problem in Islamic law," he said. "The problem was how to show his face. Islamic law specifies that if you have not seen a person, you cannot portray him."

Because certain Turkish artworks presented an image of Muhammad with "Mongolian-like" features, even among Islamic clerics there is not a clear prohibition on when or how to draw Muhammad. Rather, certain images are permissible, provided that the public is constantly reassured that a particular image is not an absolute definition of the prophet's looks.

"Instead of making a rather clear statement that [a particular image] is what he looked like, you would say: 'in all probability, that's how he looked like from the descriptions that we have in the books about him,'" Sachedina said. Such composites, he stressed, are permissible within the context of Islamic law, provided they remain just that: composites and not definitive representations of the prophet's physical features.

Given this context, Sachedina posited two reasons as to the volatile reaction from many Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons. It is important to contextualize these issues within Europe's post-9/11 dealings with the Middle East and with the world's Muslims, he said. A recent Western conference, entitled "Helping the Prophet Muhammad," is a perfect example of what Sachedina sees as a "modernization project" aimed at the Islamic world.

"What we are looking at is the predominance of the politics which treat all matters that are sacred in a secular fashion," he said. "[This is a] secularization of the sacred images, of the sacred space, where nothing remains sacred anymore."

The current status of hate language in words and images in both European and Islamic law is a second lens through which to view these recent events.

"In the pluralistic world of today, more and more emphasis has been laid on avoiding hate language," he said. "More and more constitutions are considering that as an important issue, including Islamic countries."

The unanswered problem Sachedina sees in Arab constitutions is that hate language is not restricted. In the Arab world, hate language can be used against Jews and Christians in various images and newspapers because these particular groups are underrepresented both socially and politically.

Sachedina said that the idea of "no harm, no harassment"-an important principle in Islamic law-should limit negative statements about another person or party. Given that many of the underpinnings of Islamic law center on ethical and moral values, "hate language automatically is [wrong] because of that very concern with the moral attitude of how you use your public pronouncement about others," according to Sachedina.

"Free speech is important," he said. "There is no doubt about that. But free speech cannot infringe upon the rights of others. The moment your [speech] begins to infringe upon the rights of others, then the government has the right to control you."

The ethics of Islamic law allow for an interesting dilemma in regards to the issue of free speech because there is no clear understanding between civil and religious violations. There are certain acts, such as apostasy, that don't fall under the jurisdiction of the legal system and don't have a defined penal punishment as outlined in the Qu'ran. "There can be no particular punishment for apostasy from a legal point of view," Sachedina said. "From a religious point of view, only God has the power to punish you."

Sachedina does not see a clear way out of the conflict. He stressed that there should be no constitutional guarantee of free speech without some kind of responsibility involved. "There is a limit to how far we can go," he said. Though the violent reaction to the cartoons lacked legitimacy in his view, Sachedina remarked that merely ignoring the issue and its implications on the sacred beliefs of a particular religious group is neither a reasonable nor viable solution.

"Understanding [Muslim] sensibilities-this is where we are at the moment," he said.

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