The cartoon that brought Kurt Westergaard fame and infamy portrays the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban concealing a bomb. I find the cartoon tasteless and obnoxious. It oversimplifies a complex issue that warrants nuanced thought. It takes aim at and misrepresents somebody not present to defend himself. And it does not treat its object with sufficient respect and decency.
But it’s not so different from other political cartoons, which are designed to provoke thought and are often flippant.
That said, I believe cartoonists should treat the people they portray with respect, especially when that person is Muhammad. He is one of the most influential figures in human history as a source of religious inspiration and an object of reverence for billions of people, including many Elis. Most of us don’t know everything about Muhammad and Islam and, when in doubt, it’s best to operate on a presumption of respect.
So, I’m sympathetic to those for whom Westergaard’s cartoons left a sour taste. But those who compare merely tasteless cartoons to hate speech and those who defame Westergaard as a bigot are themselves dishonest and hateful.
Last Thursday morning, I received an e-mail from Syed Salah Ahmed ’11 encouraging me to “protest hate speech.” It compared Westergaard to “a white supremacist or an anti-Semite who spread hateful ideologies.” He told me that the cartoonist “built his career by propagating hate” and asserted that the cartoon was “widely believed to be an example of inflammatory hate speech.” It offered no evidence for these claims, but simply encouraged recipients to circulate the e-mail as much as possible.
Let’s examine the validity of these claims.
The original cartoon sought to represent a connection between Islam and particular incidents of terrorism. I believe that terrorist violence stems more from political propaganda, resentment and uncomfortable transitions to global capitalism than from religious piety. But a decent and well-informed individual — one who bore no hate against Muslims themselves — might come to a different conclusion that connects religion with violence, especially since reactions to the cartoons left more than 100 people dead. So must the cartoon manifest bigotry or hatred? Absolutely not. Only political opportunists and liars would say so.
How about the comparisons to anti-Semitism? In the 20th century, anti-Semites were responsible for the systematic murder of more than 6 million Jews and continue to murder today; swastika vandalism expresses support for genocidal atrocities. Westergaard drew a tactless cartoon. May I be so bold as to suggest the two are not morally equivalent? As for comparing Westergaard to white supremacists, it was perhaps my naive understanding that Islam is a religion, not a race.
Westergaard has repeatedly clarified that his cartoon did not constitute an attack on all Muslims. He has repeatedly stated what should have been obvious — he intended for the cartoon to draw attention to the threat of violence committed under the pretext of Islamist zeal. It was not to propagate anti-Muslim hatred by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet, protestors lined up outside of Thursday’s Master’s Tea with signs calling Westergaard a bigot and comparing his cartoons to swastikas. In a letter to the News (“Letter: Cartoonist’s invitation contrary to Yale’s religious acceptance,” Oct. 2), University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and Omer Bajwa, the coordinator of Muslim Life for Yale, opined that Westergaard would “undermine the progress” toward religious understanding and divined that his presence would unmake “the campus a place that truly welcomes and embraces those of every religion.” They even thought it necessary to remind us that “Yale is better off because of the contributions of its Muslim students,” as if letting him speak had called that into question.
Accusing individuals of hatred and bigotry, likening them to anti-Semites, or prophesying that they will undermine campus harmony are not accusations to be taken lightly. They can ruin people’s lives, stigmatize them unjustly, and incite violence and attempts at murder (something Westergaard experiences daily). The words hate and bigot are politically useful; they are the surest means to silence disagreement. But they are also slanderous when leveled against the innocent, and dangerous when they give rise to violence.
If you want to know what real hate is, ask Westergaard about his experience. He and his family have faced countless death threats and murder plots. He has been forced, in his words, to “go underground,” constantly hiding, moving discreetly, unable to see family and friends. His wife left her job under threat. The man will never be able to walk down a street or talk to students ever again without fearing for his life. He has faced hatred beyond what any of us — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — can imagine. His cartoon, on the other hand, expressed none. It was, rather, a justified act of political dissent. The protestors who stood outside of Greenberg Conference Center and compared Westergaard — a brave, decent and tortured man — to Nazi sympathizers should be ashamed of their dishonesty. Real opponents of hatred would have offered condemnation to his enemies and sympathy to Westergaard. Not the other way around.
Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.