- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

It’s been distressing to watch the latest outrage among Muslim communities over rude depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper (initially) and now throughout Europe. The distress is on multiple levels, not the least of which centers on any newsman’s fight for freedom of the press. Such freedom has come at great cost over the centuries and it’s a fundamental pillar for a free society — any society.

At the same time, I can appreciate the hurt and resentments expressed by Muslims — and Christians and Jews who equally abhor distasteful depictions of the sacred and holy, not to mention the destruction of houses of worship, whether in the American South, the former Yugoslavian states, the Middle East or even my ancestral homeland of Afghanistan.

Yet, in matters of free speech, which includes freedom of the press, such standards cannot be divorced from the rule of law cherished by societies that have embraced democracy. Specifically, the rule of law that protects free speech also protects against intrusive government, mob violence and unequal treatment due to race, religion or sex.

Although it was distasteful to many Christians to see art depicting the crucifix in a jar of urine or St. Mary with dung on her, they did not riot or ransack the galleries. My Jewish friends have been aghast at the ignorance of their brethren’s slaughter during World War II and the world was horrified at the destruction of the ancient Buddhas in Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

My Muslim family feels deep dismay about cartoons of the prophet, as do many others — whether they share the same religious beliefs or not. Collectively, we’ve spoken out at the latest religious insensitivity, though our voices seem faint when confronted by loud news reports of violence.

Sure, some might say that the riots reveal deeper anger and frustrations among many Muslims. All the more reason then for clerics and leaders in Islam to use their bully pulpits to sway their followers. Two wrongs never make a right, and I’m pleased to see a backlash within Muslim communities calling for peaceful demonstrations and boycotts similar to what occurred during the American civil rights movement.

Applying equal standards to measure outrage is also needed. Consider that depictions of the prophet have existed throughout the centuries, both by Westerners and Muslims from Persia to Afghanistan and Turkey. Many of these hang in prestigious galleries open to the public. And these have not always been respectful, as has been the case with depictions of Jesus and the great prophets of ancient Judea.

Discrimination is never acceptable, and religious discrimination has been a hateful curse upon mankind for millennia. Ignorance often has played a hand in such vile behavior, but so too at the hands of intellectuals and religious leaders playing politics. Such is occurring today.

But the same voices now arguing against the insensitivities shown toward Muslims must also argue against similar insensitivities against Jews and Christians and even nonbelievers to whom all God-loving people pray daily for divine inspiration. Westerners sometimes don’t appreciate that like Christianity and Judaism, Islam has varying interpretative dogmas and must overcome internal discord to accept in peaceful ways differences of ideology.

This shall come — and is occurring — within Muslim communities. History’s quirks have brought us to where we are today, and for progress to be made, Islamic clerics and political leaders must condemn insults to Muslims, as well as insults to others; must condemn violence against Muslims as well as violence committed by Muslims; and must condemn religious intolerance toward Muslims as strongly as they condemn religious intolerance against non-Muslims.

This is the conundrum Muslims confront when dealing with the West — real or perceived, we see unequal standards applied unevenly. Islamic leaders need to do a better job at communicating a universality of respect, while at the same time, Western leaders need to be more aware of unintended consequences.

Indeed, the press plays a critical role in such global conversations. There are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world and more attention needs to be given to the vast majority whose voices are struggling to be heard. At the same time, the failure to put context on news — political or not — is unacceptable given the high stakes at hand.

Paul M. Rodriguez, the former managing editor of Insight magazine, is a media and public affairs consultant in Washington.

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