This article was also published at www.beliefnet.com.
I am a Muslim.
As a Muslim I am offended, disturbed and dismayed by the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 and subsequently in numerous European publications. I am also offended by the whole brouhaha that erupted after the cartoons’ publication. I am offended by the rude and vile depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. I am disturbed that so many enlightened people in the West fail to see that these bigoted caricatures maligning the entire Muslim community are symptomatic of a rapidly growing, irrational hatred for Muslims.
I also am dismayed by the idiotic and shortsighted response to these cartoons by Muslims all over the world. Despite my personal feelings about the cartoons, I am helping Acton Gorton, the young man who reprinted some of these same cartoons in the Daily Illini, a newspaper that serves the University of Illinois community in Champaign, Illinois. I am Acton’s attorney. Acton was suspended by his employer, the Daily Illini, for publishing the cartoons. Those who noticed that I am a Muslim attorney quickly pointed out the irony, and I readily admit that it is ironic.
However, strange though it may be, it is the right thing to do. By defending Acton I am defending First Amendment rights. In responding to the cartoon controversy many Muslims in the West, and particularly in the United States, seem to have forgotten that our community is suffering an ongoing curtailment of our First Amendment rights. Too many people in the post-9/11 world are ready to abdicate these and other fundamental rights in the hopes of greater physical security.
There is evidence of the erosion of First Amendment rights of Muslims everywhere. Muslims are increasingly being forced to suppress deeply held beliefs, candid political observations, and personal convictions for fear of governmental and vigilante reprisals. Today, imams who speak to Muslims about matters of self-defense and jihad as Qur’anic injunctions are in jeopardy of criminal prosecution for incitement. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anyone who dares to link U.S. policies with Al-Qaeda sponsored terrorism is vilified and demonized. At this rate non-violent civil disobedience by Muslims very soon will be characterized as providing material support and aid to terrorists.
I object to such curtailments of the First Amendment. As a matter of principle then, I must also object to any attempts to censor the republication of the cartoons. To demand unfettered free speech only when it suits me would be hypocritical. Some have framed this issue as being about responsibility rather than free speech. Everyone is charged with exercising his or her rights in a responsible manner.
However, responsibility is not the same as tact. In Acton’s case, I found that he acted responsibly and tactfully. He did not publish the cartoons to thumb his nose at Muslims. He took responsibility for publishing the cartoons, he made it clear that he too felt the cartoons were bigoted, and he stated clearly his desire to promote understanding in the community over the worldwide controversy by actually showing the cartoons in the Daily Illini.
Acton had me at the First Amendment, but it did not hurt that he conducted himself responsibly and tactfully as well. This just made it more enjoyable to work with him.
Although I knew from the moment I was asked to help that this was a case and a cause with which I wanted to be involved, I did pause to consider the possible fallout. My concern was how my involvement in this case would be received by my fellow Muslims. I steeled myself for some hate email and dirty looks, and then jumped into the fray.
So far the reaction from other Muslims has been muted. Maybe that’s because Muslims in the U.S. are very enlightened and thoughtful people. In part it may also be that I do not get out much, and so I have not heard what people are saying. And of course apathy is always involved to some degree.
There has been more of a reaction from my colleagues outside the Muslim community. The day after my role in the case was reported in a local paper, a colleague from the ACLU called to say some words of encouragement and to find out “how the reaction has been.” The first time I walked into a court building after taking the case I was approached by several attorneys and court personnel who wanted to know how and why I got involved in Acton’s case.
I hope that my work with Acton Gorton will be productive beyond the legal issues of this case. Often times I find that there are many erroneous pre-conceived notions about the “other” when it comes to talking about the West and Islam. It would be wonderful if we could refute a few stereotypes along the way.