TIME Religion

Muhammad Cartoons Are Offensive, But Not for the Reason You Think

Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative's Houston-based founder, speaks during an interview in New York on May 28, 2015.
Brendan McDermid—Reuters Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative's founder, speaks during an interview in New York May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Jordan Denari is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, where she works for the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia.

These cartoons contribute to a climate of fear in which Muslims are seen as a threat

If you find yourself driving through St. Louis or rural Arkansas in the coming weeks, you may come across billboards depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad. The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the group led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer that organized last month’s Draw Muhammad event in Garland, Texas, is promoting ads featuring the contest’s winning cartoon: an image of an angry, sword-wielding Muhammad lunging forward toward the hands of the artist who drew him.

The news coverage of AFDI’s recent effort—as well as others’ plans to disseminate Muhammad cartoons—has been accompanied by attempts to explain why displaying these violent drawings is problematic or offensive. Journalists and commentators often diagnose the problem this way: Many Muslims disapprove of depictions of their prophet, and thus some may retaliate violently against them. But this characterization ignores the cartoons’ real implications. Actively spreading these cartoons is offensive because it contributes to an existing climate of fear in which Muslims are seen as a threat—a climate that endangers Muslims in the West.

These cartoons play into the worst stereotypes about Muslims. Almost all of the cartoons displayed at the Garland contest portrayed Muhammad in a negative light, showing the prophet as violent, backward, sexually perverted, and intolerant of non-Muslims. Out of dozens of cartoons posted on AFDI’s Facebook page, only three can be interpreted as neutral.

Like the cartoons, media representations of Muslims tend to be negative. Content analysis research from MediaTenor, an international media research institute, found that media coverage of Muslims and Islam is at an all time low. MediaTenor, which has analyzed more 2 million news stories from 10 outlets in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany since before 9/11, found that in 2014, 80% of stories about Muslims portrayed them in a negative light. News media, political discourse, and even entertainment often advance the same memes found in the AFDI cartoons: Islam is more likely to inspire people to violence; Muslim men are barbaric; Muslim women are oppressed; and Islamic culture is antithetical to progress or diversity.

This monolithic, negative portrayal provides a skewed image of Islam and Muslims. It excludes the manifestations of Islam as it’s lived by ordinary Muslims, and doesn’t reflect how Muslims view their religion and their prophet—as promoters of justice and peace. It also ignores the fact that the number of attacks committed by Muslims in Western societies is quite low. In the last five years, only 2% of all terrorist attacks in Europe have been “religiously motivated.” Muslims have carried out only 6% of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 1980.

Though attacks against Muslims in the West receive little coverage, they have been far more widespread. Since December 2014, at least five Muslims in the U.S. and Canada have been killed—including three young family members in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in April—in attacks that many believe were motivated by Islamophobic bias. Across the U.S., police are investigating other murders of Muslims, verbal threats, physical attacks, and mosque vandalisms that have occurred in recent months. Muslim civil rights organizations have also noticed a considerable uptick in attacks against Muslims since the rise of ISIS.

Islamophobic incidents in Europe have also risen. From mid-2012 to mid-2014, anti-Muslim attacks increased considerably in London, according to the U.K.-based monitoring organization, TellMAMA. A recent study from Teesside University found that spikes occurred in the wake of “jihadi” attacks in Paris, Sydney, and Copenhagen. Anti-Muslim incidents in France also increased steadily from 2005 to 2013. In the two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, TellMAMA counted 15 major attacks against Muslims or Muslim institutions in France.

Muslims make up a minority religious community that is constantly demonized in the media and political discourse in the West. In this climate, ordinary people—who perhaps have never met a Muslim—have been responding to the depiction they’ve been fed for decades: that Muslims and their religion are a threat to the well-being of Western society. That’s what Jon Ritzheimer did when he organized the anti-Islam rally last month outside a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona, which was attended by protestors armed with military-grade weapons. And it’s what Jerry DeLemus and Dean Remington are doing with their respective plans to organize a Geller-inspired Muhammad cartoon contest in New Hampshire and an anti-Islam rally in Tucson.

But these threats are only perceptions—misperceptions—grounded not in facts or personal experience but in propagandistic portrayals. AFDI’s Muhammad ads make Muslims, the demonized group, actually look like the demonizer. The group’s latest campaigns contribute to these misperceptions and the more general climate in which Muslims are depicted as an existential threat and therefore treated as such.

During a period when anti-Muslim attacks are already high, these ads make Muslims feel less safe, and they’re right to be upset about the promotion of these cartoons. In fact, we should all take offense to their dissemination. In diverse, pluralistic societies, Muslims and non-Muslims alike should not stand by as an entire religious group is made to look like the enemy.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Pope Francis’ Holy Land Visit: Spotlight on Christians in Jordan

Less attention has been paid to the vibrant Christian community that will greet Pope Francis in Jordan

In the lead-up to Pope Francis’ trip to Jordan on May 24th, large posters of the pontiff and Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, have been plastered around the city. The image shows the two heads of state shaking hands with the Arabic word for “together” written prominently alongside them. The posters illustrate not only the excitement that both Christians and Muslims feel about this historic visit, but also reveal the prominent place of Christianity and the strong history of Muslim-Christian cooperation in Jordanian society.

Upon the arrival of Pope Francis, Jordan will have received four papal visits in the last fifty years. During his short day-long visit, Francis will preside over a public Mass in an open-air soccer stadium and then meet with refugee and disabled youth at the site of Jesus’ baptism on the Jordan River.

Though much has been written about Christians in neighboring Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, less attention has been paid to the vibrant Christian community the pope will meet in Jordan. As the world anticipates his trip to the kingdom, Pope Francis—and all those following his visit—should know three things about Christians in the kingdom.

1) Christians are not a minority.

Though Christians make up between 3-6% of Jordan’s population, Muslims and Christians alike reject the term ‘minority’ to describe the community. In Arabic, the word does not simply connote ‘a smaller number’ but ‘a lesser value,’ and while Christians are clearly smaller in number than Muslims here, they have been historically viewed as an integral, inseparable part of society. According to Wafa Goussous of the Middle East Council of Churches, before the 1970s no one used the word ‘minority’ to describe Christians. To consciously identify a person based on his religion was a foreign concept in an Arab culture where Christianity and Islam were both unquestioned components.

Marwan Alhusayni, Media Specialist at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, dislikes the term because it implies that he, a Muslim, views Christians differently from the rest of the population. “In our culture… we don’t refer to Jordanian people who happen to be Christians as a minority… Many of my friends are Christian and I don’t know about it.”

The impact of Christians in the kingdom far-exceeds their small proportion of the population. Christians run well-respected schools and humanitarian service agencies that serve all Jordanians, and their relative financial prosperity generates one-third of all economic activity in the country. The monarchy prides itself on its vibrant Christian population, taking active steps to ensure its integration in society. Christians are often appointed to key ministerial positions in the government, and nine seats are reserved for Christians in the 150-member parliament.

In recent years, due to a rise in extremism in both Muslim and Christian communities, talk of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ groups has surfaced. Fearful that the perilous situation of Christians in places like Syria and Egypt could reach Jordan, many Christians are embracing what some leaders call a “minority mentality.” Though this outlook is understandable, clergy members are discouraging Christians from isolating themselves from the greater society. Archbishop Maroun Lahham of Jordan hopes that the pope’s visit will bolster the spirits of Christians here: “We’re 3% of the population and have the psychology of the minority… So, we expect some words… affirming us in our faith.”

2) The Catholic Church isn’t just “Roman”

If a Western Catholic were to walk into a Catholic church in Amman, they might not realize they were in one. Its Mass, characterized by different music, rituals, and texts, might seem foreign to the Latin liturgy used by most Western Catholics.

That’s because of the establishment of “Uniate churches,” which brought portions of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches (Syriac, Coptic, Greek, Armenian, etc.) into the fold of Catholicism. When Roman Catholic missionaries from the West came to the land that is now Jordan in the second half of the second millennium, virtually all Christians here were Greek Orthodox. The “Latins” not only converted many of these Orthodox Christians to Roman Catholicism, but also brought entire portions of the Orthodox Churches as a whole under the umbrella of Catholicism. The largest example of this phenomenon in Jordan is the Melkite, or Greek Catholic, Church, which acknowledges the authority of the Pope in Rome while maintain its unique Orthodox rites, traditions, hierarchy, and even doctrine in some cases. Melkites allow married clergy and when professing the creed, they leave out the long-disputed “filioque” line, which for the Catholic Church is dogma.

Though the establishment of the Uniate churches cannot be divorced from its place in an outdated tradition of tit-for-tat inter-Christian conversions, the result demonstrates what an practical Christian unity could look like. Many proponents of Christian unity say that a unified Church will be marked by diversity and a lack of uniformity in practice and even doctrine. The Catholic Church’s inclusion of diverse rites and traditions as illustrated by the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches could serve as a model for the eventual unity many long for.

Pope Francis himself has expressed his desire that “all may be one,” and indeed his trip to the Holy Land has this goal—promoting Christian unity by valuing diversity—as its central goal.

3) Persecution is not present here

Much attention has been paid to the plight of many Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere who have experienced increasing persecution in the midst of political chaos. However, this phenomenon does not reflect the culture of coexistence that has characterized the Middle East for centuries and still exists in many places, like Jordan. Tensions do arise, often fueled by the conflicts in neighboring countries, Western Christian proselytizing, and a rise in extreme Islamic ideology, all of which are funneled onto the airwaves through satellite television and new media. But this tension hardly ever erupts into violence.

Many have called the kingdom a ‘model for coexistence’ because of its unique combination of tolerant government policies, which are rooted in the kingdom’s Islamic heritage, and its culture of pluralism. In this atmosphere, Muslims and Christians not only live side-by-side, but are intimate friends. Countless stories of friendship abound, like that of Leila, a Christian, and Najah, a Muslim, two old friends of fifty years who share a meal together every year to celebrate Easter.

Though the Pope’s short trip won’t afford him the opportunity to see these daily interactions, his visit will—God willing—allow him and the rest of the world to get a glimpse into the lives of this oft-overlooked Christian community.

A graduate of Georgetown University, Jordan Denari is a Fulbright Research Fellow living in Amman, Jordan, where she studies Muslim-Christian relations. She is a contributor for Millennial, which is a project for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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