Earlier this month, when the news broke that Lars Vilks tragically died in a car crash, comments sections from Bangladesh to Tanzania, from Indonesia to Pakistan, erupted in gleeful celebration. Vilks was the Swedish artist who in 2007 stirred worldwide controversy with a series of drawings that depicted Muhammad as a dog. One of the most common reactions to his death was “Alhamdulillah,” an Arabic phrase that means “Praise be to God.” I am not a theologian by any means, but doesn’t that border on blasphemy? After all, praising God for the car crash implies that God had a hand not only in the death of Vilks, but also in the death of the two members of his security detail who had nothing to do with the offensive drawings, and were just doing their job. One commentator proclaimed that he “bought a cake to celebrate,” and there was plenty of language used by other commentators that cannot be reproduced in a decent newspaper. Comments sections of course are not exactly known for nuanced and intelligent discussion. Rather, they often bring out the worst in people, and I am reasonably confident that the vast majority of Muslims do not share the jubilant attitude toward the death of Vilks and the two police officers. Yet, that attitude still seems to be prevalent enough to warrant reflection.
I will not pretend to fully understand how Muslims may feel when the person they believe to be God’s final messenger is being ridiculed. I imagine a helpful analogy, however imperfect, is when an insult is thrown at a beloved and respected family member. It is only human that we feel stung. We feel that we are being violated, and a desire for revenge is a very natural reaction. But not every reaction that is natural is also good and appropriate. In fact, morality requires that we sometimes control our natural impulses, even when it is not easy, and we are at our best when we are resisting the worst of them. If one believes that it was immoral for Vilks to depict Muhammad as a dog because doing so needlessly hurt the feelings of Muslims, isn’t it also wrong to needlessly hurt the feelings of his grieving family and friends? And isn’t it often said that hypocrisy is one of the worst sins? Public celebration of the death of Vilks also does great damage to the reputation of Islam, which had been marred already by several attempts on his life in the past, all of which had failed, and the fact that he had to be protected around the clock by police. All that is not at all helpful, as it complicates interfaith dialogue and makes it harder for us to live together in peace, and that is reason enough to refrain from public celebration. But there is still another, more fundamental argument I would like you to consider as well.
You may think that Vilks was a hero of free speech, or you may be convinced that he was quite the opposite of a hero, in which case you may be relieved that he now will no longer be able to cause hurt to Muslims. It is one thing to celebrate that relief, but quite another to celebrate the death of Vilks itself, and it is important to keep the two separate when trying to achieve a moral assessment. It is the second motivation for celebration that, to my mind, is more obviously disturbing. Regardless of how one feels about the actions of Vilks, he was a human being like you and I, with the same intrinsic worth and dignity found in all human beings. By celebrating his death, qua death, we do not merely judge his actions, but deny his humanity, and hence fail to extend the basic moral regard every human being deserves. That callous attitude towards human life should trouble all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It diminishes the ones who express it, and with them humanity as a whole, and is more offensive than a drawing ever could be. It is easy to give in to the impulse to rejoice at the death of someone one perceives as an enemy, but it is also petty and small and shows disdain for the value of human life. It is an impulse we must resist.
Rainer Ebert holds a PhD in Philosophy from Rice University in Texas and writes mostly about topics in applied ethics and moral theory. He has worked at universities in the United States, South Africa, Tanzania, and Canada, and frequently lectures around the globe. He can be reached at www.rainerebert.com, and you can find him on Twitter @rainer_ebert.