Freedom of expression or hate speech? Political commentary or social timebomb? Justifiable outrage or inexcusable violence? Tempers have been stirred up on all sides since the publication in a Danish paper of several cartoons depicting Muhammad as a terrorist, and subsequent violent demonstrations among Muslim communities around the world.Interreligious dialogue, in one sense, can be understood as an effort by partners in the conversation to understand one another. A Rabbi friend of mine once remarked, “If you want to understand me, you need to understand what hurts me.”
Why do Muslims feel so injured by the cartoons? First, any depiction of Muhammad at all, even a respectful one, is prohibited by Islam. Unlike Christians, who see both pious and irreverent depictions of Jesus all the time, Muslims consider any such representations to be problematic at least.
Secondly, the cartoons are not merely a representation, but are a personal attack on the integrity and person of Muhammad.
Thirdly, the cartoons reinforce the stereotypical connection between Islam and terrorism, and not only Islam itself, but the very roots of Islam in the person of its Prophet. Individual Muslims experience the cartoons as a personal attack on themselves and their faith.
Does this, then, justify the violent attacks on embassies, European-based businesses, and individuals? Of course not. Violence in the name of religion is always wrong, and Muslim leaders and groups around the world have been quick to condemn the riots and point out that they are not justified by Muslim teaching.
Freedom of expression means that any of us has the right to express whatever opinion we may wish. But we exercise self-restraint in doing so, and that restraint is often based on caring about how our expression will affect others. If we know what hurts each other, we should at least be concerned about expressions that violate the other and potentially deepen the hurt.