After 36 straight hours of managing sick patients, I was beat. "Last patient," I said to myself before examining a frail lady in her 80s who was recovering from abdominal surgery. As I touched her incision, she grabbed my hand with distress and said, "Ouch, don't be so rough!" It hit me. I had the right to examine her, but it was not right for me to poke her at a predictably tender spot.
For over 1.5 billion Muslims, the honor of Prophet Muhammad is that tender spot. It's a part of our faith. Please, don't be so rough with your free speech scalpel, and don't mock Prophet Muhammad.
Relax! I know you want to remind me, "But other groups don't kill when (insert your sacrosanct figure here) is mocked." I know you want to pontificate, "But free speech laws are there precisely to protect hurtful speech." All right, done with the platitudes? Now imagine me holding your hand, like the frail patient, urging you to consider the nuances.
Different patients hurt at different places. Just because my sensitivity is my Prophet, does not mean yours has to be a divine figure as well. For Jews, Moses may be fair game, but mocking the Holocaust is not. For Christians, ridiculing Jesus causes varying levels of angst. For Blacks, the N-word is off-limits. And certain ridicule has left the LGBT community so terrified that it hurts all over.
It's largely our social — not legal — codes that bar us from poking at others' tender spots.
And when these codes are violated, we rush to amend. When PepsiCo released an ad for Mountain Dew in 2013 that was deemed racist and misogynist, it was axed. When Snickers launched a 2007 Super bowl ad showing two straight men accidentally kissing, it was considered to be homophobic and benched. When a Jewish-owned company created a billboard ad for a budget vodka, boasting "Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing," it was quickly pulled.
Yet, no one thought it was the end of the First Amendment. Why then, can the American Muslims not ask for the end to hurtful material against Prophet Muhammad without getting a free speech lecture shoved down their throats?
If "nothing should be off limits," as American Muslims are reminded, then why do we mollify other groups? Why do we lionize free speech only when it ridicules Prophet Muhammad?
My plea is not to the American courts but to the American conscience. I am not demanding legal restrictions, punitive actions or that a "morality" clause be added to the First Amendment. As an American Muslim, I am not looking for special treatment; I am looking for equal treatment.
This is not an attempt to place Prophet Muhammad or any Islamic symbol above criticism or debate. It's one thing to hustle in the marketplace of ideas and quite another to have your beloved singled out, consistently, and lampooned by ugly cartoons.
"Patients are vulnerable" we doctors are taught, "so never take advantage of them." Only 1 percent of America's population is Muslim, and they face more discrimination than blacks, Hispanics or LGBT groups, according to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center. We are vulnerable. In addition to the struggles of America's vanishing middle class, we face the constant pressure of neighbors and classmates looking at us with suspicion, hearing slurs against our Prophet, and having our wounds poked repeatedly. In his 2012 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama astutely pointed out, "The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam." That future is now. I was enthralled to observe that many major American news outlets decided not to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
It took centuries for the Judeo-Christian teaching of Leviticus 26:14 "Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death" to yield to free speech. The Quran has no such commandment. Let's hope Muslims get there in decades.
In the meantime, let's protect the American bastion of free speech for the purpose for which it was enshrined in our Constitution: so tyrannical governments can never silence the masses. Hurting a beleaguered minority by mocking their Prophet, while assuaging other groups, is an affront to our values of justice and equality.
So next time a media mercenary publishes offensive material against Prophet Muhammad, don't let so-called free speech advocates have you believe that they are poking a finger in the eye of some evil totalitarian ideology. Let the socially responsible Americans rise up, as they have for so many others, and gently say, "don't be so rough."
Faheem Younus is a doctor and the Baltimore president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA. Twitter: @FaheemYounus.