The recent campus forum on hate speech brought into question whether certain acts, such as the recent depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a mad terrorist, qualify as “hate speech.” Some students insisted on according the most charitable of intentions to the perpetrators, stating that it might be hurtful to be called a “hater” or “racist” when the intent may have been far less malicious. The high-level debate that ensued was most civilized. As I listened and participated in one of the university’s magnificent spaces, the stained-glass bedecked LC 102, I thought, “Wow, I truly am at Yale!” The funny thing is that the outrages under discussion were as absolute and categorical as the discussion was nuanced.
Let there be no ambiguity in that the anti-Islamic posters witnessed a few weeks ago are hate speech. The intention is irrelevant because the doers remain anonymous yet their deeds have serious consequences. The posters draw an unequivocal link between terror and the religion of Islam, which directly translates into cycles of discrimination, profiling and even violence against innocent, peace-loving and lawful Muslim citizens of this land. Organizations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations are documenting an alarming rise of Islamophobia in America. Do the caricatures of Muhammad as a terrorist accomplish anything other than feeding the cycle of hatred toward all Muslims?
I am often asked why Muslims don’t speak out against violence committed in the name of their religion. The truth is that Muslims have tirelessly spoken out. For example, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Charles Kurzman, has compiled on his Web site a list of statements against terror by Muslim leaders and organizations. The problem is that such statements are rarely deemed newsworthy.
Muslims should forgive those who have wronged them, and they should learn to take such incidents not as affronts but as opportunities, no matter how difficult things may get. At the same time, it must be crystal clear that forgiveness is no reason to deem the offenses anything other than what they are. After all, whence forgiveness if there were no wrong to forgive?
On that note, let this be an opportunity for Muhammad to speak back to those who assault him, as he spoke in the aftermath of Ta’if when he forgave those who violently drove him out, and as he speaks to us through Muslim tradition: “The most virtuous behavior is to engage those who sever relations, to give to those who withhold from you, and to forgive those who wrong you.”
The Ta’if story to which Mahan Mirza alludes above has an interesting postscript in the Islamic tradition. After Muhammad was violently rejected and driven out of the city of Ta’if, it was a Christian slave, named ‘Addas, who went out to Muhammad, brought him food, and kissed him and embraced him. ‘Addas’ ancestors were from Nineveh, and he knew also the story of God’s mercy and forgiveness toward that violent city when the Jewish prophet Jonah preached to them (Jonah 3:10).
This is a wonderful example and challenge to the Christian and Jewish communities at Yale, as we respond to the defacement of our campus by posters intended to stir hatred toward Muslims. We can follow the example of ‘Addas and reach out in love and solidarity to our Muslim neighbors. Would it not be wonderful if those who hoped to provoke hatred and division within the Yale community found instead that they had provoked us to love and solidarity?
The Christian who reads about Muhammad’s forgiveness after Ta’if will be reminded of Jesus’ challenge to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:27-29). The Jewish reader will be reminded of the Torah’s description of God’s middot as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7) — words recited in the traditional Selichot prayers.
May I suggest that we all make a point today of reaching out to our Muslim fellow Yalies, just as ‘Addas reached out to Muhammad 1,400 years ago? Might each person who reads this article resolve — before you put down this newspaper — to talk with at least one Muslim classmate or colleague to express loving solidarity with their community, which is part of our community? And here is a prayer for the people behind the posters: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Mahan Mirza is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Studies and Muslim Fellow at the Chaplain’s Office. Joseph Cumming is the director of the reconciliation program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.