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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Small But Important Point About “Cartoongate”

The continuing saga of “Cartoongate”–the publication and republication in European newspapers of cartoons maligning the Prophet Muhammad, and the spasm of anger and violence that greeted it across the Muslim world–is obviously exposing a lot of misperceptions on both sides of the battle-lines. I am hardly an expert on Islam, but do think one important point about the reaction to the cartoons, and the reaction to the reaction in the West, is worth emphasizing: the basic nature of the offense to Muslim sensibilities.About half the stories in the U.S. press solemnly inform readers that the cartoons are considered “blasphemous” by Muslims, on pretty much the same grounds that Christians would consider cartoons mocking Jesus might be considered “blasphemous.” And that’s got it exactly backwards. The Prophet Muhammad warned against physical representations of human beings generally, and of himself in particular, in order to avoid temptations to idolatry, the worship of anything other than Almighty God. That reinforced the radically transcendent nature of Muslim theology–the insistence on strict submission to the sovereign will of God without the kind of human or quasi-divine intermediaries common to both pagan and Christian traditions. Now I don’t think anyone is under the misapprehension that the authors and publishers of these cartoons were trying to promote an idolatrous worship of the Prophet. So while the cartoons did violate a deeply embedded Muslim antipathy towards physical representations of Muhammad, that’s not the source of the offense: it’s the contemptuous misrepresentation of what the Prophet taught in terms of legitimate Western concerns about Islamic Jihadism. And that’s why non-Jihadist Muslims are if anything more offended by the cartoons than anyone else. Maybe this point is of less importance than the free-speech aspects of this saga, but it’s worth keeping in mind, particularly among those who constantly look for Christian or Judiaic parallels to poorly-understood Islamic beliefs.

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