US priest issues plea for cultural sensitivity

An interior view Sept. 12 shows damage to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the previous day U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other embassy staff were killed in a rocket attack on their car by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s prophet Mohammed. (CNS photo/Esam Al-Fetori, Reuters)

Since 1977, Maryknoll Father Doug May has spent 20 years in the Middle East — primarily Egypt. So when protests over an anti-Muslim film heated up in Cairo and other cities, he tried to help Americans balance freedom of speech with an understanding of what it means to Muslims to depict the prophet Mohammed.

“Mohammed in Islam is forbidden to be ‘imaged’ in any way except with his face covered, so adverse are Muslims to any image of God or any person for fear that the image itself might be worshipped,” he wrote in an article for Arab West Report.

“In our world of ‘political correctness,’ it is generally no longer acceptable to make fun of or ridicule: people of color, women, gays, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, Poles, Italians, Germans, etc. Yet it is still ‘open season’ to depict Arabs as ‘rag heads’ and Muslims as ‘terrorists,’” he wrote.

“Cultural sensitivity must include religious and social sensitivity,” he added.

I met Father May at the Maryknoll house in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011. He combines a sense of humor and pragmatism with a deep love of Egypt and its people. One paragraph in his essay reflects those attributes:

“Before coming to the Arab-Muslim world for the first time in 1977, could I laugh at this film, watching Mohammed look like a fool? Probably yes, just as I laughed at Jesus and John the Baptist in ‘The Life of Brian.’ However, as a priest, would I feel free to ‘juggle’ the Body and Blood of Christ at the altar during Mass as if I were performing in a circus act? NO! It just isn’t done! If I was short of toilet paper, would I resort to tearing out pages of the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures in a time of need? NO! It just isn’t done. So, is burning the Quran, desecrating the Quran and insulting Mohammed OK? NO! It just isn’t done by anyone who is aware and sensitive to Muslims and respectful of Islam.”

Father May said that, in the interest of freedom of speech, he would defend the “theoretical right” of someone to make the film, but he said depicting “Mohammed as a sex-crazed simpleton” was “a classic example of going too far while hiding behind the concept of freedom of speech and hiding under the rock of unadulterated bigotry.” He said it also places local Christians in the terrible situation of “guilt by association.”

“If motive and premeditation can be proven, I would challenge the U.S. government to arrest and convict the makers and distributors of this film,” he said. “I would suggest that Muslims, along with moderate Christians and Jews, take the filmmakers and distributors to court and sue them for ‘inciting violence’ if such a cause exists in civil law.”

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