Imam explains origin of cartoon controversy

The worldwide response to cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad continues.  While we have seen peaceful protests in some countries, we‘ve seen a wave of violence around the world in response.  In the past two weeks demonstrators attacked embassies in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran.  Angry riots in Afghanistan killed 11 people. 

The leader of the Islamic Society of Denmark, Imam Ahmed Abu Laban, joined MSNBC-TV's  Dan Abrams for his first live TV interview.  He was one of the religious leaders responsible for drawing attention to the cartoons in many Arab and Muslim countries.  In fact, he put together a delegation of imams and brought the cartoons and other documents to Egypt and Lebanon. 

DAN ABRAMS, HOST 'ABRAMS REPORT': Before I ask you about how all this started, how do you feel about the international response that you‘ve help create? 

IMAM AHMED ABU LABAN, ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF DENMARK:  Well, it was not of our attention.  I just to speak briefly, when we reached the Middle East to have been to the top Sunni theologian, we were not interested in any publicity.  We knew from the very beginning since we have become European citizens that we have to get the privilege of the democratic mechanisms in the proper way. 

Our point had been and still is an intellectual one.  It has a religious background.  Therefore, when we reached what you can call it, it did lock in Denmark and understanding we were seeking the help of academics, some professors, theologians, and the only destination for us was Cairo as have reached in similar occasions before. 

ABRAMS:  What was so particularly offensive about these cartoons?  We keep talking about the fact that depicting Muhammad in any way is a violation of the Muslim faith, et cetera.  And yet, here in this country, for example, there is a sculpture of Muhammad at our U.S. Supreme Court.  There are representations of Muhammad in various museums.  So is it the fact that Muhammad was depicted at all or is it the fact that he was depicted in a particular way? 

ABU LABAN:  It‘s both ways.  We are human beings.  It‘s like your camera and zoom.  You go from one stage to another.  So no doubt that the impact from the first look when you see this frowning face with black turban and the bomb inside it, in this particular time when everybody—most of the people (associate) Islam with terrorism, no Muslim has the stomach to accept the situation that the most noble man, he and his brothers, the prophets of God like Jesus Christ, Moses and their Father Abraham and Noah and so on would be depicted in such miserable situation. 

ABRAMS:  But you say in this time and that means that you recognize that this is a time where there is a potential for violence, et cetera.  Shouldn‘t you have known bringing this dossier, in which it did not just include the 12 cartoons that were published in the Danish papers.  You also added other very inflammatory pictures, representations, depictions that have just been sent to you by hateful people. 

ABU LABAN:  Yes.  Well, should we put the blame on media once again in spite of all the advanced technology and space electronics that information does not(appear) in the proper way.  We have done a professional work within our limited resources as independent charitable organizations.  We collect some money to send that delegation to meet the concerned people personally and to avoid any kind of segregation or spread of hatred and hate.

So we met the man personally.  We were not interested in publicity whatsoever.  Our issue is to be engaged in dialogue and discussion.  But as usual, media is so crazy to find the stories and to expose and to—what you call it—draw the attention of the masses.  So why should we take the blame instead of somebody else? 

ABRAMS:  So wait.  So ultimately—let‘s get one thing out of the way first—you condemn the violence, correct? 

ABU LABAN:  Indeed.  Yes.  We condemn very bluntly, we denounce and we reject and we put it very clear from our transparent and honest theological judgment that if somebody had been engaged in talk and dialogue, violence is irrelevant.  In my opinion, it is a sin to storm the embassies of Scandinavian countries who have contributed and still to the world peace giving money and aid not only to Palestinians, but other countries all over the world.  It‘s irrelevant to our issue and it is extremely counter productive.

ABRAMS:  So with that said, are you sorry about the way things have transpired? 

ABU LABAN:  Well, if I like to show my love to the prophet, if I have stuck to the democratic mechanisms to contact the newspaper to reach the minister of culture, if I try to get the help of academics and theologians, if this could be the reason of regret, OK.

ABRAMS:  There have been a lot of cartoons, depictions of Jews in many newspapers and publications in the Arab world.  Yet, we haven‘t seen this sort of response.  Is a double standard being applied here? 

ABU LABAN:  Never.  Never.  A Muslim wouldn‘t be a Muslim.  It‘s blasphemy.  If a person pretends that he or she is a Muslim and they would discriminate amongst the prophets of God.  It‘s stated clear in the Koran.  Nobody should wait to be admitted to heaven if we exclude one of the prophets of God.  They have the same status.  They should be respected.  They are presented to us by the Lord as the ultimate teachers and guide and inspiration to every individual.

ABRAMS: Imam, let me follow up on a question that I asked you before and that was about some of the items that you included in this dossier that you brought to religious leaders in the Middle East that were not published in this Danish newspaper and were probably based on what I‘ve seen the most inflammatory, the most insulting because they were basically hate mail that you had received.

It seems to me now that a lot of the people protesting in the streets, some of the people are particularly angry, maybe particularly inflamed by those particular depictions, not by the ones that were actually published.  And so do you regret having included those additional ones that were never published anywhere and just came as hate mail? 

ABU LABAN:  I like to repeat again that we have done a professional job when we deal with each other.  Documentary is very important.  And you have to make a good job.  So this dossier had contained some articles from the concerned newspaper and the other newspapers some copies, photocopies of the letters we tried to communicate with different parties inside Denmark... 

ABRAMS:  But what do the letters have to do with this, though? Every group in the world gets hate mail and it‘s awful.  What does that have to do with the broad issues you‘re concerned about? 

ABU LABAN:  It was done by good faith and sincere intention to tell people in the Middle East I mean this colors that we are living in an atmosphere of atheism and secularism...   

ABRAMS:  Just because a few people sent hate mail?

ABU LABAN:  No, no, no.  We‘re—no, no, no.  No, no, we‘re trying to tell them that you will help if you come to the country to Denmark.  If you have access to the newspaper, if you could draw the attention of some thinkers and academics in Denmark because you have a respect for academic and religious status, if you could do that it would be of great help because the atmosphere is atheist.

And if somebody does not believe in God, so we shouldn‘t blame him if he does not believe in Jesus or Muhammad or he is not willing to show any respect because the point is not clear in his mind.  So that‘s why for good will and sincere intention those threatening letters with what have been available of these drawings have been including in our dossier. 

ABRAMS:  But you must have known.  Look, you are very smart, educated man.  You must have known that including those particularly offensive pictures that people would bring them all together and say, oh, there were these cartoons and there were these other things out there and they won‘t be thinking to themselves as they‘re yelling and screaming and burning things down, oh you know what else, those other ones were just sent by some crazy person. 

ABU LABAN:  Well, I will assure you.  Last Friday I‘ve been switching my television from one satellite station to another.  All imams are just focused on what we all agree upon.  This—what you call it—fearful features with the black turban and the bomb.  In one satellite station in USA three nights ago I have been watching the program where the culture editor was responsible and in the studio they were highlighting a face with a turban—black turban and a bomb. 

So up to that moment I don‘t know what was the turning point when these drawings, which they‘re very awful and inflammatory, as you mentioned, had reached the masses.  But the case is still there. 

ABRAMS:  All right.

ABU LABAN:  We have cartoons.  We have some sort of respect to the position of Prophet Muhammad.

ABRAMS:  All right.  And so Imam, we can count on you to be out there publicly if there are any hateful cartoons towards Jews or Christians in any Arab publications as well, correct? 

ABU LABAN:  We never accept that.  Me, myself when the film “The Last Temptation of Christ” have been displayed in some cinemas in Europe.  I was the first to protest.  But, you know, unfortunately secularism and atheism is gaining more momentum in the European continent and that‘s why...

ABRAMS:  Getting back to my question because this is my last question to you.  If we see—because you know that there are a lot of particularly hateful cartoons towards Jews in the Arab world.  We can count on you to be out there criticizing any of these very insulting and hateful cartoons towards Jews, right? 

ABU LABAN:  Your point is irrelevant.  You are speaking about what you call it holy symbols.  We respect Moses.  He‘s a prophet to Jews and to us as well and we believe in him.  We shall never depict him.  His character will never played on any theater or any movie whatsoever...

ABRAMS:  But Jews in general, they‘re fair game? 

ABU LABAN:  Well we have seen in the United States cartoons about Arabs and oil sheiks and this and that.  We take it for the sense of humor.  You can depict me with two horns as a devil.  I will shake hands, smile. 

We spend nice time together. 

We are not speaking about ethnic groups whatsoever.  It‘s the duty of lawmakers to put the limits of racism and discrimination and to hold people accountable when we see any offense. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Imam, thank you very much for taking the time to come on the program.  We appreciate it. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.