The publication of political cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting images of the Prophet Mohammed recently sparked violent protests and riots by Muslims worldwide. But these renditions of Islam's founder have stirred up questions throughout the free world about some basic constitutional rights, like freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology hosted three panelists on Monday night to discuss perspectives on the controversy.
Protesters' claims notwithstanding – they contend that Islam forbids any visible depiction of Mohammed, and that the publication of such images in the Western press reflects anti-Muslim bias – Renata Holod, a curator of Islamic art at the museum and a professor of art history at Penn, said that going back as far as the seventh century, representations of Mohammed do exist, from the completely metaphoric to the rather graphic.
"There are so many ways in which Muslims have tried to recreate the image," she said. "The idea that the prophet has never been depicted is simply wrong."
Signe Wilkinson, a political cartoonist with the Philadelphia Daily News, addressed the right of an artist – or anyone else, for that matter – to express his or her beliefs.
"I forgive you for not having seen the cartoons because American newspapers have, by and large, thought that we're really not quite adult enough to handle it," said a sarcastic Wilkinson to the 200 or so attendees. "Most of the free press in this free country were just too darn chicken to show them."
Wilkinson agreed with The Philadelphia Inquirer's decision to print the cartoons for the purpose of showing readers what the brouhaha was all about. The Muslims who spoke out in front of the Knight-Ridder building on North Broad Street in the days that followed, she added, were how protests should be – clear, forthright and peaceful.
Though Wilkinson contended that she had the right to draw any image she felt, she said that her goal is not to offend people.
Still, she pointed out, the Constitution allows her to freely do so if she wished.
Adnan Zulfiqar, adjunct professor of Islam at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and a candidate for a dual doctorate in law and Islamic studies at Penn, spoke about responses to the ensuing Muslim rage.
"While Muslims were burning their own land, the West was being victimized," said Zulfiqar, who emphasized that he was making his highly critical remarks as just one concerned Muslim. "Suddenly, it was a matter of [the West] defending [its] freedom and, in the process, dehumanizing those who were protesting by referring to them as irrational or uncivilized."
Zulfiqar went on to castigate the West for its "racist" and "ironic" denunciation of violence while American and European troops occupy Iraq.
Audience member Bill Becker of Philadelphia was glad for the event: "I think the discussion needs to be had. It's becoming a very global world these days. We're all getting closer and closer together, and we have to find ways to co-exist."