A global Baptist leader said Muslim reaction to newspaper cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad should prompt discussion about how the media and arts treat all religions--including Christianity.
Baptist World Alliance President David Coffey told The Baptist Times newspaper that it was "irresponsible" for a Danish newspaper to print the cartoons, including one showing Muhammad wearing a bomb in the place of a turban. Islamic tradition bans depiction of either the Prophet or Allah.
The cartoons, originally published last September, were reprinted in Norway last month and subsequently by newspapers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. That prompted a wave of protests across the Muslim world, including attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, Indonesia and Iran.
While Muslims had a right to be offended, Coffey, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, said it was "unacceptable" for a small minority of British Muslims to call for violence and bloodshed in retaliation. Coffey agreed with the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, who urged "the utmost restraint in the face of these extremist elements within Islam."
Coffey said he is concerned about how religion in general is treated in media and the arts.
"The levels of ridicule and blasphemy, which faith traditions frequently face, do call for a wider discussion in the media on how to cultivate greater respect for faith convictions within a context of responsible freedom of speech," he said.
Another European Baptist leader, Tony Peck, echoed Coffey's remarks.
"My feeling is that publication was inflammatory," said Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation. "While I know the argument will be that we Christians have our religion lampooned, given the Muslim view regarding depicting likenesses of human beings, this was provocative when it need not have been."
A newspaper poll indicated the British public has little sympathy for Muslims angered by the cartoons. A Sunday Times survey showed 88 percent of British men and women thought the violent protests of 12 Danish caricatures was a "gross exaggeration." Three fourths said police should have arrested Muslim protestors carrying inflammatory placards during a protest in London, one of which demanded, "Behead those who insult Islam."
A Jerusalem Post editorial argued that "Arab cartoonists routinely demonize Jews as global conspirators, corrupters of society and blood-suckers."
"There are those who would argue that the controversy does not reflect a clash of civilizations," the editorial continued. "Yet it is precisely this persistent refusal to acknowledge the obvious that weakens the cause of tolerance and liberty. Must 'understanding' invariably result in the abdication of Western values?"
A Baptist Times editorial summarized the initial response in two phrases. "Out of respect for the religious and conservative sensitivities of Muslims, the cartoons should not have been printed," wrote Editor Mark Woods, "and out of respect for the liberal and secular sensitivities of Europe, the printing should not have drawn the response it has."
"At the root of this controversy is the fact that there is no agreement among Muslims, Christians or the atheist/agnostic/indifferent majority about the place of religion in secular society," Woods wrote.
He cited a lesson from Baptist history and tradition. As a religious minority, Baptists always rejected "sacred power," the attempt to exercise dominion in the name of faith or doctrine, he said, but rather witnessed to convictions through "peaceful and costly truth-telling."
"It is this approach to which we should return, and to which our Muslim neighbors should be called," Woods wrote. "They, too, live as minorities in societies which do not share their values. But to respond to affronts with violence and with calls for the destruction of their enemies is not the way."
In the United States, meanwhile, a Southern Baptist Convention seminary professor took a different view. Emir Caner, dean of The College at Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas, said the reaction to the cartoons goes a long way to demonstrate that Islam is "militant in nature."
Caner is coauthor of the book Unveiling Islam, the source cited by former SBC president Jerry Vines in 2002 when he denounced Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile."
According to Baptist Press, Caner believes Islam will now be touted more than ever as a religion of peace, but careful thought should be given to whether Muhammad himself was a peaceful man and whether he began a religion that is peaceful.
"I think the ultimate answer to that is, on both counts, no," Caner said. "Muhammad was in charge of at least 83 military expeditions. When Muhammad dies in 632 A.D., all of his disciples go to war."
The more literally the Quran is read and followed, Caner said, the more militant its Muslim reader should become. By contrast, the more literally the Bible is read, the more peaceful its Christian reader should become.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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