Sohaib Umar & Naima Sohaib (Karachi, Pakistan), 15 March 2006

on Bomb in Turban, by Peter Philipp

Hypocrisy and ignorance, not press freedom

The controversy over the blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten continues to go on. In the West it is being pitched as a battle for the freedom of the press, or even more broadly, a fight for a democratic way of living which the West has earned after many centuries of struggle against the church and all things religious. It would have been good if it were really the case. The fact of the matter is, nothing can be farther from the truth.

The controversy, in reality, is about two things, and freedom of the press is not one of them. First, it is about hypocrisy, and second, it is about sheer ignorance about who Prophet Muhammad really was. Let me explain.

It has been reported in the press (Guardian, 6 February) that Jyllands-Posten turned down the cartoons of Jesus Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny. In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to the newspaper.

Zieler received an email back from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them." Presumably, the editor while doing so did not believe that he was hampering the freedom of the press. Then why should publishing of the cartoons about Prophet Muhammad be any differently treated? Some people might call this behavior hypocrisy and a case of double standards.

We can look at the issue of hypocrisy another way. Saying anything against Jews, including a mere questioning of the number of Jews killed during the holocaust, could land anyone in all sorts of trouble in most European countries, including a jail term of upto ten years (the British historian David Irving is a recent example). The legislation is obviously aimed at discouraging racism, and specifically anti-Semitism as has been exhibited in its ugliest form by Europe in the past. But shouldn't one also look at the spirit of the law and not just the letter of it? If anti-Semitism is bad and should be discouraged, why should anti-Islamism be good and nurtured, protected in the name of press freedom?

One newspaper editor may be forgiven for being blindly hypocrite but what happened to a stream of newspapers who cherished publishing the cartoons in various European countries without detecting the underlying hypocrisy? The answer lies in the second factor I mentioned above, which is complete ignorance about the man that Muhammad was, and the lack of intellectual honesty to research about him before criticizing or caricaturing him.

This ignorance is so comprehensive that a brief article can hardly throw light on all the aspects. I would therefore restrict myself to narrating a few incidents of Prophet Muhammad's life that are preserved in authentic history books which have been used as references by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. Let's examine if Muhammad and terrorism have anything in common.

Prophet Muhammad's greatness, according to Michael Hart who ranks him no. 1 ahead of Newton and Jesus Christ in his landmark book stems from the fact that "he was THE only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular level" (The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Persons In History, New York: Hart Publishing Company, Inc., 1978, page 33).

Muhammad started out as a single person in Mecca calling the idol-worshippers towards one God, preaching morality, universal equality of humankind and justice at individual and collective levels. After 23 years of struggle he ended up conquering a large part of Arabia, having created a new paradigm, a new society based on very different fundamentals, a new civilization and a new kingdom. And all this while exhibiting unparalleled sanctity for human blood; a total of 1018 people – Muslims and non-Muslims – lost their lives in various wars during this period.

Despite this extraordinary achievement when he entered Mecca as a victor, his head was touching the hunch of the camel he was riding in humility and reverence to Allah; he announced general amnesty and forgave those who tried to kill him and had caused him to migrate out of Mecca at one time. Does this behavior fit into the profile of a terrorist?

This was when he had assumed power but what about the 13 years of Meccan life when he was struggling against all odds? Did he ever use terror as a weapon then? On the contrary, he forbade his followers to resort to any kind of violent reaction in response to the torture committed by the idol-worshippers. During the initial years neither Muhammad nor his companions picked up arms, or even physically tried to fight the Meccans. It was only after assumption of power in Medina that armed Jihad was launched. It may seem unbelievable given today's scenario of indiscriminate suicide bombings everywhere, but it is true.

An incident is particularly worth mentioning. After several years of preaching Islam to Meccans Muhammad traveled to the nearby city of Taif in the hope that people there may be more receptive to his teachings. He was disappointed, however, when all the three main leaders of Taif ridiculed and rejected him. In addition they asked street boys to throw stones at Muhammad who received several wounds as a result and bled profusely. This was the harshest day of his life, as he later confessed, with no hope peeping from anywhere.

Despite this when the angel came to ask him whether he wished the people of Taif to be squashed between the two mountains, his reply was in the negative. He said that while their elders had rejected him, he hoped that their next generation would embrace Islam. Hand on your heart, is this picture of an extraordinarily compassionate missionary or a heartless terrorist?

When he assumed power after migrating to Medina and sent armies to different parts of Arabia his standing instructions were: Only fight with those that have taken up arms against you; don't kill women, children and elderly men; don't kill rabbis and priests (monks confined to their synagogues/churches); don't kill soldiers that are fleeing the battlefield; don't kill those who give up arms, don't even cut trees unnecessarily. History is witness to the fact that Muslim armies always followed these instructions.

Once a few non-Muslim children were killed during an armed conflict. Upon hearing this news Muhammad, usually calm and composed, became furious. Someone tried to argue that they were the children of idolaters. He retorted: "Are not the best among you children of idolaters?" (Referring to the fact that all his companions were born to pagan parents and later converted to Islam).

I have tried to show a few clips from Muhammad's life. Surely a man of his stature, with 1.3 billion followers in today's world, deserves some serious reading, a little bit of objective research and an unbiased mind before one makes an opinion on him. Newspaper editors, intellectuals and other opinion leaders need to do this more than others, before becoming self-proclaimed champions of freedom of the press. Intellectual honesty and professionalism demand that they know first who Muhammad really was, before maligning him or his religion. If not, they should at least stop using the name of press freedom to justify their actions.

Sohaib Umar & Naima Sohaib

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