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Cartoon controversy: A Muslim teen says that this ‘free speech’ went too far

When I found out that a Danish newspaper had printed insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, I thought it was a mistake. I thought that people had become tolerant and knew the difference between a harmless joke and racism. But I was wrong.

Last September the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the prophet, including one that depicted the prophet wearing a bomb instead of a turban, and the words "There is no God but God" written across it in Arabic calligraphy.

Many European Muslims who saw the cartoons when they were first published wrote letters to the editor in protest. It took a few months for news of the cartoons to hit the Middle East, but once it did, it hit hard. Muslims demanded apologies from the Danish newspaper, organized boycotts and text-messaged each other on cell phones. Though diplomatic attempts were made to resolve the problem, the Danish prime minister refused to meet with ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries. Some Muslims were enraged, feeling like their opinions didn’t matter. Consequently, riots broke out in front of some Danish embassies in the Middle East, eventually leading to the deaths of more than 30 protesters.

In retaliation, a newspaper in Iran launched a contest to see who could come up with the funniest cartoon about the Holocaust. I was appalled.

The whole thing has been shocking. Everyone reacted immaturely. Why would the Danish editor decide to attack my religion? Why would an Iranian editor lash back and make fun of the Holocaust? What did the protestors think they were accomplishing? Have they forgotten that the word "Muslim" means someone who submits to God’s peaceful will?

No non-Muslims around me—from school friends to TV newscasters—seemed to realize how offensive the image of Prophet Mohammad with the bomb was. In Western society people tend to think that being accepting of a religion is being nice to its followers, but really accepting a religion also means making an effort to understand it. If Westerners were tolerant of Islam, they would see why the cartoons offend Muslims.

In Islam, it’s forbidden to draw the face of Prophet Mohammad. Drawing his face is like imitating God, so not only is it like we’re trying to be something greater than we are, but it’s also considered a form of idolization, making the prophet be something that he’s not.

And not only did that cartoonist depict the prophet with a bomb atop his head, he used a phrase that is central to Islam—implying that all Muslims are terrorists. I didn’t know what would motivate someone to print a cartoon like that, but it seemed like an attack on my faith.

Others don’t understand my religion

Once I was talking to a non-Muslim friend about our religions. At one point in the conversation I talked about God, and how Islam means "submission to God" and "peace." Her eyes grew big and she said, "Oh my gosh, so … you guys believe in God? I thought you guys worshiped Mohammad or whatever his name is …" Even the very basis of my religion escapes some people, making them think that I idolize an individual who lived 1,400 years ago, when in reality Prophet Mohammad is only a messenger for us.

I believe firmly in free speech, but I think that with that freedom there should be responsibility and many Muslims I know agree.

During this controversy, my friend sent me an instant message, infuriated about the double standards that exist. "If there’s a cartoon about the Holocaust, that’s bad because it’s disrespectful; if there’s a cartoon about blacks, that’s bad because it’s racist; but when there’s a cartoon about Islam, then all of a sudden it’s a matter of free speech."

Several years ago the Danish newspaper had refused to print another cartoon, this one disrespecting Jesus Christ, because it was deemed too controversial (according to an article in the Los Angeles Times). It’s fair to point out, though, that Jyllands-Posten has printed a few cartoons mocking both Christianity and Judaism, but neither seemed as offensive as the ones insulting my religion.

At a family party recently, the cartoons came up in conversation. Each of us was appalled at the violence that had occurred, but we differed on how Muslims should have reacted. I believe that Muslims should have continued to write letters, avoiding the riots and violence. But a friend said that no one would listen to peaceful protests, which is why Muslims should just pretend the cartoons were never published. Another friend, annoyed, said that as Muslims we should show people that Prophet Mohammad really wasn’t like this. He pointed out that some Muslim organizations are handing out pamphlets and information about the prophet, how he was a peaceful man, contrary to what the cartoons depict.

Another friend reminded us of a story about the prophet we all learned before kindergarten. Every day, the prophet was faced with curses from people who rejected his message. One woman would dump trash on the prophet’s head as he walked out of his home every day. The prophet never did anything to the woman. Instead, he would forgive her every time.

One day, the prophet walked out of his home, and wasn’t greeted with the usual dumping of the trash. Worried, he went by the woman’s house and asked about her. The prophet found the woman bed-ridden and too sick to get up. Touched by his sincere worry for her, she understood the true meaning of Islam and converted to Islam. She passed away the next day.

If the prophet were alive today and saw the cartoons, I think he would have turned away from them. The prophet would have known that what the protestors are doing today would just prove the cartoons’ point.

I think that people should forget about politics when it comes to religion. They should forget about what country did what to whom, and return to the foundations of their religions. No religion was founded on holy wars or fighting. The differences in our faiths are minor, and our moral values are virtually the same. They all preach kindness, love and piousness, not murder and hatred.