Mar 2 2006

The respect of a cousin

The following is an article that was published in The Jewish Week.  It’s of particular interest because it came to me by way of a Pakastani-born muslim friend who currently lives in Dubai (with the subject that included “Please reprint/forward this where you can”). The Respect Of A Cousin After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad were republished in European newspapers, riots erupted in Damascus, Gaza, Beirut and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world. The violence is an extreme manifestation of the deep hurt felt by virtually all Muslims. As we condemn the violence on the streets, perhaps we should take a moment to understand the hurt in the hearts of the great majority of Muslims who did not engage in violence. For Muslims, the mere rendering of an image of Muhammad is sacrilege. The portrayal of Muhammad in a pejorative fashion is to them an inconceivably offensive desecration, on the level of what would be for us the defilement of a Torah scroll. Because it was done in newspapers across Europe, it was a slap in the face repeated thousands of times. Perhaps it’s a question of respect, not freedom. Freedom of expression theoretically protects the right of a non-Jew to desecrate a Torah scroll. Yet we would all view freedom of expression as a hollow defense to such a vile act. Some say Muslims can’t take criticism and simply don’t understand freedom of the press. In my own limited experience, that has not been the case. For the past year I’ve written a column in a Muslim newspaper, Muslims Weekly, in which I’ve criticized suicide bombing, the treatment of Jews under Islamic rule, the anti-Jewish rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even Muslims Weekly’s own reporting about Israel. But it was all done with respect, an informed appreciation of the wonderful benefits that Islam conferred upon the Jewish people, along with a willingness to look at our own imperfections together with those of the other. Regardless of whether or not the European press was constitutionally free to publish the offensive images, the act was a blatant and vulgar act of disrespect to Islam. Such insults no doubt contribute to the frightening specter of a clash of civilizations. What can we do as Jews to lessen the hostilities? Perhaps, just perhaps, a little respect would help. Rather than ripping the wounds wider with editorial musings extolling freedom of speech and condemning violent protests, is it not time for a bit of healing? The pages of this Jewish newspaper present a place for a small start by showing Muslims right here that though we too have the freedom to say anything we like, we choose to convey respect to our Muslim cousins. Printing something positive about Muhammad best does this. There is a space between romanticizing the past and vilifying it. There is a time to focus on the dark side of history and a time to view the other in the best light. There is a time to cull from our rabbinic writings the good our sages saw in Islam and there is quite a bit of such sentiment recorded.  We Jews need to learn to be more flexible, pursuing the claims of Jews expelled from Arab countries and criticizing anti-Jewish TV programs and cartoons in the Muslim media, while at the same time displaying gratitude for all the good Islam did for us. There is a time to jump over our pain and see the humanity of the other. That time is now. Let us start: There is a Hadith (oral tradition concerning the words and works of Muhammad) recorded by Bukhari in the name of Amer Bin Rabiha that reads as follows: “A funeral procession passed us and the Prophet stood up for it. We said, ‘but Prophet of God, this is a funeral of a Jew.’ The Prophet responded, ‘rise.’ ” One can search the writings of the ancient non-Jewish world for a more powerful example of a public display of respect for the humanity of the Jew. There simply is no more powerful statement than the single word uttered by Muhammad nearly 14 centuries ago. Some readers will bombard this newspaper with reams of material showing a darker side to Islam, as if it were just too much for them to hear one good thing. But it is there, it is a sacred part of their tradition, it is good and we should hear it and respect it.

When you give respect you get it. When you take criticism, you earn the right to give it. Perhaps this article will be republished in Muslim newspapers, compete with its critical comments about the pain we feel in the face of anti-Jewish cartoons and worse in Muslim media. Muslim readers may come to understand that an article by a Jew, in a Jewish newspaper, was one of respect, telling its audience: “We know that the one mocked in newspapers in Europe is the one who had the humanity to tell his companions to rise for the funeral procession of a Jew.”