Islam's no joking matter - and that's the problem

February 10, 2006

Humility and integrity require Muslims to mock themselves every once in a while, argues Irshad Manji

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, I observed something revealing. In a session about the US religious Right, a cartoonist satirised one of America's most influential Christian ministers, Pat Robertson. Chuckling with the rest of us was a prominent British Muslim. But his smile disappeared the moment we were shown a cartoon that made fun of Muslim clerics.

Since then, a fierce fight has erupted over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, first published in Denmark. Arab countries have recalled ambassadors from Copenhagen, Scandinavian missions have been torched, and Muslim protesters as far away as Indonesia have burned Danish flags - which feature the cross, among the holiest of Christian symbols.

Arab elites love such controversies for they provide opportunities to channel anger away from local injustices. No wonder President Lahoud of Lebanon insisted that his country "cannot accept any insult to any religion". That's rich. Since the late 1970s, Lebanon has licensed the viciously anti-Semitic satellite television station al-Manar.

Similarly, the Justice Minister of the United Arab Emirates said that the Danish cartoons represent "cultural terrorism, not freedom of expression".

This from a country that promotes its capital as the "Las Vegas of the Gulf", yet blocks my website - - for being "inconsistent with the moral values" of the UAE. Presumably, my site should be an online casino.

Muslims have little integrity demanding respect for our faith if we don't show it for others. When have we demonstrated against Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow Christians and Jews to step on the soil of Mecca? They may come for rare business trips, but nothing more. As long as Rome welcomes non-Christians and Jerusalem embraces non-Jews, we Muslims have more to protest against than cartoons.

None of this is to dismiss the need to take my religion seriously. Hell, Muslims even take seriously the need to be serious: Islam has a teaching against "excessive laughter". I'm not joking. But does this mean that we should cry "blasphemy" over less-than-flattering depictions of the Prophet Muhammad? God, no.

For one thing, the Koran notes that there will always be non-believers and that it's for Allah, not Muslims, to deal with them. It also says there is "no compulsion in religion" - which suggests that no one should be forced to treat Islamic norms as sacred.

Fine, many Muslims will retort, but we are talking about the Prophet Muhammad - Allah's final and therefore perfect messenger. However, Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet was a human who made mistakes. This is how we know about the so-called Satanic Verses, idolatrous passages that he retracted from the Koran, blaming a trick played on him by Satan.

When Muslims put the Prophet on a pedestal, we engage in idolatry of our own. The point of monotheism is to worship one God, not one of God's emissaries. Which is why humility requires people of faith to mock themselves - and each other - every once in a while.

Here's my attempt: A priest, a rabbi and a mullah meet at a conference about religion. The conversation turns to taboos.

The priest says to the rabbi and the mullah, "You guys can't tell me you've never eaten pork."

"Never! Absolutely not!" the rabbi and the mullah insist.

But the priest is sceptical. "Come on, not even once?"

"OK," confesses the rabbi. "When I was young, I once nibbled on bacon."

"I admit it," the mullah laughs (not excessively). "In a fit of youthful arrogance, I ate a chop."

Then the conversation turns to the priest's religious observances. "You can't tell me you've never had sex," says the mullah.

"Of course not!" the priest protests. "I took a vow of chastity."

The mullah and the rabbi roll their eyes. "Maybe after a few drinks?" the rabbi teases.

"Perhaps, in a moment of temptation?" the mullah asks.

"OK," the priest confesses. "Once, when I was drunk in seminary school, I had sexual relations with a woman."

"Beats pork, huh?" say the rabbi and the mullah.

Clearly, I'm as impure a feminist as I am a Muslim. The difference is, offended feminists will not threaten to kill me. The same cannot be said for many of my fellow Muslims.

What part of "no compulsion" don't they understand?

Irshad Manji is a visiting fellow at Yale University and author of The Trouble with Islam Today , published by Mainstream, £7.99. The article is reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal  © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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