Molly Norris was frustrated.
Comedy Central had decided to censor an episode of "South Park" that showed the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit, and the Seattle-based artist needed to vent. Yet the way she chose to mock the network's decision virtually kicked me – and every American Muslim – in the gut.
She created a fake poster declaring May 20 “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.”
I am Muslim and I am American. I love my Prophet Mohammed, and I love my First Amendment right to free speech.
I understand that Ms. Norris has said her idea was satire – that she didn’t mean for it to go viral on the Internet, including an “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” on Facebook.
But, apparently, what neither she nor much of America understood is how deeply what seems an innocent jibe offends Muslims.
To Muslims, Mohammed is the last Prophet of God – a particularly singular figure in Islam. He is the epitome of all the virtues one sees in the Quran, the model of a perfect human being. Volumes have been written compiling his words and actions, which along with the Quran, form the foundation of Islam. He is, in short, an intensely revered figure.
To depict him in a bear suit or with a pig snout – as he has been in two recent cartoons – is free speech, yes, but it is intensely offensive. It betrays a willful determination to refuse to see the world through Muslims eyes – to understand how innately the Prophet is loved by his followers and how profoundly flippant disrespect for him wounds us.
Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. portrayed as a monkey and you begin to understand the depth of Muslims' revulsion to such images.
Yet it is more than that, too.
In Islam, as in Judaism, iconography is prohibited out of fear that creating images of sacred figures could lead to dependence on, and even worship of, icons rather than God. The Prophet lifted his people from the worship of many gods to love for the one God. To depict him is to violate a fundamental tenet of Islam as a joke.
True, "South Park" and Facebook shy from no parodies. But to bait Muslims so brazenly is to play into the hands of those Muslims who often reinforce stereotypes with violent protests or threats to kill those behind the offensive works.
The situation is compounded by the fact that Muslims already feel besieged – in some countries, literally – and humiliated.
A recent Gallup World poll of some 800 million Muslims across the Muslim world reveals two telling observations: a widespread resentment over the perceived denigration of Islam and a belief that Westerners think Muslims are inferior. To Muslims, the Facebook contest – and more pointedly the Danish cartoon – are proof that both are true.
The reaction of the Muslim world – including Pakistan's decision to block access to Facebook until May 31 – often surprises non-Muslims. But it shouldn’t. The slurs can only be seen as intentionally inflammatory, deliberately designed to humiliate a people and their beliefs – indeed, to provoke the very reaction they do.
Even so, that is not the Islam I know.
The Islam I know finds inspiration in Mohammed, who when abused, bore it with Prophetic patience and continued his mission, head held high. In one parable, an abusive neighbor of his is said to have cursed him and dumped garbage on him every day he walked by her house.
For several days, he passed her house and no garbage or insults were thrown. Worried, he inquired after her. When he discovered she had fallen ill, he visited her in her home.
I am, and I think Mohammed would be, equally disgusted with both the sophomoric cartoons and contests as well as the threats of violence they incite.
Free speech, perhaps. But they add fuel to the fires of extremism on all sides.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent. The views expressed here are her own.