Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lars Vilks drew a picture of the Prophet as a dog. Now he finds death threats by the hundreds on his answering machine at home, on his mobile phone's voice mail, and in his e-mail box. He may even find someone waiting for him at his home, hoping to collect on the $100,000 Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the de facto head of Al Qaeda in Iraq has offered to pay for Vilk's murder. Al Qaeda has offered a $50,000 bonus if his throat is cut. One Swedish Muslim woman, identifying herself as Amatullah and interviewed wearing a burqa, said she hopes to "do this in the name of Allah, and I will not fail. I could slaughter him in the name of Allah ... [i]f I get the opportunity. She lives only an hour and a half away from Vilks.

There are lots of ways to react to this story. Some will point out that the people threatening Vilks' life are only a minority of the world's Muslims, and that there is an equally reprehensible fringe in Christianity that gets nowhere near the same press. Christians might assert that the Christian reaction to Vilk's cartoon depicting Jesus as a pedophile didn't involve Vilk's looking under his car for bombs. Muslims might counter that the combination of a portrait of the Prophet, which is itself forbidden, and a dog, which is seen as unclean. I could, is unusually provocative. Of course, the depiction of the Prophet is forbidden as part of a prohibition on idol worship. There is ample historical evidence for the reality of that threat, but neither Sweden nor cartoonists are a part of the record. In fact, the threat is much more real from Sufis and Ahmadis, who consider themselves to be Muslims. 'Progressive' Muslims, who wouldn't want to be called 'progressive,' would assert that sets Islam apart from other monotheistic faiths is the closer relationship posited between man and God. In Islam there are fewer intermediaries and more direct responsibilities. Thus, it is up to each individual to be responsible for their own behavior and it is up to God to hand out rewards and punishments. It could also be asserted that the Prophet meant for Islam to be more flexible, that he had goals for freedoms and rights beyond what could be achieved in seventh century Arabia, and that were he here to lead Muslims he would be leading them into a more fruitful and reciprocal relationship with 'Western' culture and values. In this view, the Prophet would see no contradiction, for example, in being an American and a Muslim, and would not seek to execute people for utilizing their freedom of expression to insult Muslims. All of the above and more could be pulled out, but I've already spent more energy on those arguments than they merit, yet not enough to fully explain them.

So, let me say this. Lars set out to insult Muslims, and he succeeded. It sucks for Muslims to have to read it, but sometimes life sucks. Lars has every right to draw the Prophet's head on a dog. We all aren't Muslims, and we don't have to agree with or even respect Islam. Muslims don't get to kill us if we disrespect them. Those of us who have respect for Islam, and Muslims, do have a responsibility to counter statements like the one Lars has made. The most effective counter is to lay out the reasons why this is offensive, and be ready to engage in dialogue about Islam. This should be merely one part of a long-term strategy to argue for and publicize a more adaptive and egalitarian Islam that is much truer to the vision of the Prophet than what is being trumpeted by a radical minority, publicized out of proportion to it's support or theoretical legitimacy by the Western Press, and allowed to exist without much challenge by the majority of Muslims. Muslims need to educate one another and the rest of us about what Islam has been, is, and could be. Now, this is happening, but not on the scale it needs to. It will never get the initial press that an extra $50,000 for a slit throat will, but it in the long run it could push that kind of story into the realm of Fred Phelps and the picketing of military funerals. That won't happen as long as cartoons books and beauty pageants lead to riots and death threats.

Amatullah means female servant of Allah. Until Allah has better and more attentive servants, Islam will be in crisis, and ignorance and prejudice will dominate the Western attitude towards it. The forces of moderation and reason must aggressively counter radicals in Islam, and in Christianity. If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas.

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