Not long ago, as I was strolling through the sprawling bazaars of the holy city of Qom in Iran—a city often referred to as "the Vatican of Shiism"—I came across a cramped, catacomblike shop that sold religious trinkets to tourists. Hanging in the shop's window was a poster depicting what looked like a beautiful young girl with large, bright eyes and a cherubic face lit up by some unseen source of light. The girl wore a loose headdress, like a turban she had carelessly let unravel, from which peeked thick strands of lush, black hair. She looked skyward, her rosy lips parted in a shy smile.
I was thrilled, thinking I had found a poster of the Prophet Mohammed's beloved daughter, Fatima, whose veneration in Islam (particularly Shiite Islam) is matched by that of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism. Most stores in Qom carry prints depicting heroic Muslim figures like the prophet's son-in-law, Ali, or the prophet's grandson, Husayn. But a portrait of Fatima is exceedingly difficult to find.
I rushed into the store and breathlessly asked the shopkeeper how much he wanted for the poster of Fatima hanging in his window.
He clucked his tongue in disgust and shook his head.
"That is not Fatima!" he cried sternly. "That is the Prophet Mohammed!"
I was embarrassed, but not surprised. Since the publication of a series of cartoons depicting Mohammed in Denmark's largest daily, Jyllands-Posten, much has been written about Islam's prohibition against physical representations of the prophet of Islam. In fact, the Muslim world abounds with magnificent images of Mohammed. (In general, Shiites and Sufis tend to be more flexible on this point than Sunnis). In some, the prophet's face is obscured by a pillar of fire that rises from beneath his chin in a veil of flames. In others, he is unveiled and glorious, a golden nimbus hovering over his head. While some Muslims object to these well-known and widely distributed depictions, there has never been any large-scale furor over them for the simple reason that although they depict the prophet, they do so in a positive light.
Not so, of course, in the case of the now infamous Danish cartoons. The fact is that Muslim anger over the caricatures derives not merely from their depiction of Mohammed. That may have upset more conservative Muslims, but it alone would not have engendered such a violent and widespread response. Rather, most Muslims have objected so strongly because these cartoons promote stereotypes of Muslims that are prevalent throughout Europe: Mohammed dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse; Mohammed standing menacingly in front of two cowering, veiled women, unsheathing a long, curved sword; Mohammed on a cloud in heaven complaining that Paradise has run out of virgins. It is difficult to see how these drawings could have any purpose other than to offend. One cartoon goes so far as to brazenly call the prophet "daft and dumb."
So, while in Europe and the United States the row over the cartoons has been painted as a conflict between secular democratic freedoms and arcane religious dogma, the controversy is really about neither. Instead, it's another manifestation of the ongoing ethnic and religious tensions that have been simmering beneath the surface of European society for decades, like last year's Paris riots and the murder two years ago of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
In the minds of many Muslims in Europe, the cartoons were intentionally inflammatory, published to further humiliate an ethnic and religious minority that has been socially and economically repressed for decades. Indeed, it seems as though the cartoons were deliberately meant to provoke precisely the reaction they did. One of the Danish cartoonists, Lars Refn, admits as much in his own illustration, which does not depict Mohammed but rather a schoolboy who has written across a blackboard, "Jyllands-Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs."
No one doubts that the press should be free to satirize. But freedom of the press cannot excuse the promotion of noxious stereotypes. Jewish groups were furious when the ChicagoTribune published a cartoon in 2003 that portrayed a hunched and hooknosed Ariel Sharon salivating before a pile of money doled out to him by George W. Bush, ostensibly as an incentive to maintain the peace process. ("On second thought," the avaricious Sharon is depicted as saying, "the path to peace is looking brighter.") And rightly so.