Cartoons, Religion, and the Constitution

The Muhammad cartoon incident is the latest chapter in the 30-year-old revival of a world-wide jihad—holy war—against Christians and Jews. This revival was inspired by Osama bin Ladin’s friend and mentor Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was a Palestinian born, Cairo educated Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence, who wrote books and spoke incessantly about his view of jihad. He was also very active in the Afghan war in the 1980s against the Soviets, though assassinated in 1989; he was recognized by many in that venture as a gifted war strategist. His view of jihad was a revival of an old, obscure view which claimed that it was a duty of all Muslims to seek out and kill all infidels, that is, Christians and Jews who were, by definition, enemies of the Prophet. We may wonder whether Azzam’s radical view of jihad will feed this incident and cause it to mushroom into a much larger international crisis.

This incident is surely an opportunity for followers of Azzam to find new recruits and pump them up for serious mischief, and that is worth noting. We can, however, also take this occasion to understand more fully the vast gulf that separates an Islamic view of the world from that generally found in the West, particularly in the United States. On reflection, it seems remarkable, if not astonishing, that American leaders have not pointed out this crucial difference in world views. Indeed, minimizing the great difference could generate grave errors in foreign policy decisions.

What are some of the doctrines or assumptions of Islam that set it so far apart from Western views of society?

First, Muslims view their religion as a world-wide community of the faithful—Islamic believers call it umma. The world-wide element needs to be emphasized here because it is an assumption that supports Azzam’s claim that jihad must be a world-wide effort to kill Christians and Jews—because of their sins, that is, living in Palestine or stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holy land. Since all Muslims everywhere are all citizens of a single religious community, the community is transnational, that is to say, political entities in the Muslim world are subsumed under or in the umma. Second, Islamic law—the collected sayings of Muhammad, from the Koran or tradition—governs all of life for all Muslims in the umma. All of life, therefore, is religious. This pervasiveness of Muhammad’s teachings also means that laws of particular Muslim nations are subject to or governed by Islamic law—a transnational law. In other words, Islamic law takes precedence over all other laws. Third, violations of Islamic law may be the basis for jihad—a holy war. And, when warriors are followers of Azzam’s view of jihad, the threshold for going to war is lower.

A look at the cartoon incident suggests other sharp differences in worldviews between Islam and the West. The cartoons are, of course, a violation of the Islamic law against depicting Muhammad in any way, form, or shape—a principle, emphasized by Azzam’s “new jurisprudence.” Notice that Islamic leaders in the incident have not only railed against the cartoons as tasteless representations of the Prophet, they argued that the cartoons violate Islamic law and require that the cartoonists and their publishers be punished, some suggesting that the offender’s hands be cut off. This demand raises a very important point.

Islamic leaders’ demands assume that Islamic law transcends laws of the West just as it does, in fact, in Muslim countries. From another angle, they claim that Islam’s religious laws transcend the constitutional principles of Western democracies. These claims are extremely revealing because they show that it would be impossible for the principles of constitutional democracies to be used in Muslim nations. To state the obvious, American constitutional principles, such as freedom of expression, are the supreme law of the land. Not so, from the point of view of Islamic law. As noted above, Islamic clerics claim that the laws of all nations are ultimately subject to the requirement of transnational Islamic law, that is, the sayings and traditions of the Prophet.

It certainly is true that American military fire power can protect America, and American interests abroad. On the other hand, the cartoon incident shows that another kind of power is involved. It shows that there is a clash between the “people power” of America’s constitutional democracy and “Prophet power” which is the foundation of Islam. The two views are obviously opposed to each other, diametrically.

What should American leaders do in this situation? Are they not obliged to state clearly that Islamic law does not transcend American constitutional law? Should they state clearly again that as leaders they took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies both foreign and domestic? Do they need to state the obvious and tell Muslim critics that cartoons, even tasteless ones, are protected in the United States by the First Amendment’s “free speech” clause?

Whether certain cartoons are tasteful or offensive is another question. Moral leadership by governmental officials might require them to suggest that cartoonists reflect a bit more on the impact of what they do, especially when the subject is religious. Finally, tasteless cartoons may be a measure of the cartoonist’s limited skills or evidence of a declining civilization.Whether tasteless or not, such cartoons are constitutionally protected speech in the United States even if some Muslims elsewhere are offended.