Leading PostsMarch April 2006

Danish Cartoons and Muslims

Asghar Ali Engineer

The cartoons published in Danish papers a few months ago caricaturing the Holy Prophet (PBUH) has once again taken world of Islam by storm. There are demonstrations throughout Islamic world – some violent, some peaceful and in some cases like Afghanistan several people have been killed in very violent demonstrations. The Danish Government initially took stand that it is matter of freedom of press and it cannot stop any paper from publishing such cartoons, as it cannot interfere with the freedom of press. When protests began some European papers also published these cartoons sending message that freedom of press is above everything else, even above religious sensibilities.

When Salman Rushdie had published his novel Satanic Verses that time too there were violent protests in many Muslim countries and Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill Rushdie and even declared an award on his head. That time too, the European nations had invoked human rights and freedom of opinion to defend Salman Rushdie for his insulting remarks against Islam and the Prophet and his wives.

Is it really matter of freedom of opinion or something else, which is not spelt out? If one examines things closely it will become obvious that there is much more than freedom of press or even freedom of conscience. It is a multi layered and multi-causal phenomenon. It would be really simplistic to reduce it to freedom of press though it might appear to be so. We would like to throw some light on this.

One cannot deny that throughout western world there is tension between westerners and Muslims. In every European country Muslims are seen as not only outsiders but also as a menace, a threat, to their values and their culture. In many countries this tension is quite palpable and in some countries it remains subdued. The fact is that for Western world pluralism is a very new phenomenon and they are finding it very hard to digest it. Their democracy has been monolingual, mono-religious and mono-cultural.

As far as political democracy is concerned it is well established but freedom of opinion and differences of opinion are confined merely to political sphere and within the frame- work of mono-religious and mono-cultural situation. For Asians, on the other hand, pluralism has been the way of life. They have lived and co-existed with different religions harmoniously. Even in the absence of political democracy tolerance towards other religions and cultures has been their way of life. We do not find bloodshed in Asian countries between followers of different religions throughout medieval ages.

In the West, on the other hand, though there has been political democracy and tolerance for political differences, its record on religious and cultural tolerance has not been very glorious. Since political democracy demands tolerance and freedom of opinion, they tried to apply it to religious and cultural field too but I am afraid, not with very great success. Below the skin they remain mono-religious and mono-cultural.

There is one more dimension to this problem. West has never been very comfortable with Islam and Muslims. It was always seen as a religion of the alien, and hostile alien, at that. France with all its democratic and secular values interpreted secularism within a very narrow French framework it became very uncomfortable with hijab worn by school girls and at last the Central Government banned it. How the hijab worn by schoolgirls could be a threat to French secularism, we fail to understand.

In fact hijab was only a symbol. Behind it they saw Islam as a threat. In all European countries, Muslims are recent migrants and are perceived as double threat – as migrant and as Muslim. All migrants make natives uncomfortable and more so if they belong to a religion or culture perceived to be hostile. Prof. Huntington of Harvard had given vent to the western feelings when he wrote Clash of Civilizations.

Western countries were compelled to allow Asian and African migrants as they were experiencing acute shortage of human-power after Second World War but once migration reached saturation point and economic downturn began tensions began to surface and in many countries racial riots broke out.

There is yet another factor: these Asian and African migrants soon realised they are condemned to remain on margins of western society. They do not get opportunities for better and well paid jobs and their children, out of frustration, take to drug or crime or to violence further reinforcing the images of violent outsider. The rejection becomes more intense leading to more tensions. Recent disturbances in France, which continued for several months between the police and young Africans, proves the point.

Since there is so much hostility between Western Christians and migrant Muslims, it erupts in different ways. The recent cartoons and caricature of the Prophet should also be seen in this light. The events of 9/11 have only aggravated the whole situation. Be it Salman Rushdie affair or the cartoons published in the Newspaper of Denmark, it is part of same phenomenon. Deep prejudices against Islam and Muslims spring up in different forms and are defended in the name of press freedom.

Many Western leaders like Bush and Kofi Annan have admitted that one cannot disregard religious sensibilities in the name of freedom of opinion. I need not say that freedom of opinion cannot be absolute as many Westerners maintain. One cannot defend right to abuse others or caricature founders of religion in the name of freedom of press or freedom of opinion.

One can concede that west is much more secularised and Muslim world is not. Let us not forget that West has taken more than three centuries to secularise and this process of modernisation and secularisation has begun only in last few decades. Cultural differences are there but these differences should not be depicted as hostile resulting in clashes. Muslim world is still far behind in the field of science and technology. As pointed out above when west with all its progress has not been able to shed its prejudices and hostile perceptions, how can one expect it from the Islamic world??

The Muslim intelligentsia also needs to cultivate more tolerance. Well one has right to protest but right to protest should also be exercised peacefully. As there are some limitations to right to freedom of press, there are certain well-defined limitations to right to protest in democracy. The Muslim intelligentsia and leaders should reflect deeply as to why their demonstrations tend to be violent? Are they not playing in the hands of those leaders who have their political agenda?

If Islam is religion of peace and it indeed is, why Muslims tend to be so violent? Let us realise that no one can live in this multi-religious world on ones own terms. It was not becoming for Muslims to tear flags of Denmark or set to fire their embassies or become so violent while demonstrating that police be compelled to fire and kill demonstrators. This leads to more fury and more violence.

A silent and peaceful demonstration is far more telling than a violent one. Since these demonstrations are on religious issue the demonstrations should also be with religious dignity and religious values. Violence serves the purpose either of some anti social elements or of some politicians who want cheap publicity. Some politicians may be wanting to seize this opportunity to have show down with western countries but common Muslims should exercise restraint and dignity.

 According to the Qur’an, a believer is one who restrains his anger and pardons (see 3:133). What kind of believers are we that we always talk of killing and punishing rather than restraining and pardoning. It hardly brings any glory to Islam and Muslims. We become even more fanatics and intolerant in their eyes. Also Qur’an lays great emphasis on wisdom and says that “whoever is given wisdom, he indeed is given great good” (2:269)

Now it is for us to decide whether we follow some political leaders or hooligans or the Qur’an, which again and again emphasises wisdom and restraint, tolerance and understanding? It is for us to come out of stigma of intolerance and violence. Modern world values education, understanding, tolerance and coexistence. We were given these virtues by Qur’an more than 1400 years ago. But we never studied Qur’an and when we studied we did so to fight our sectarian battles against each other. For us sectarian dogmas became central rather than the Qur’anic ethics. These sectarian dogmas led to complete intolerance of others and we are still not making serious efforts to come out of that.

Let us make serious efforts to make Qur’anic ethics central and these dogmas peripheral. It requires tremendous courage and commitment to truth and without such commitment we can be anything but religious. A mumin (true believer) was supposed to be a new human being, a model of virtues and morality. We need to revisit Qur’an and reflect upon its ethical teachings far more seriously. It is not our dogmas, which will make us acceptable in the world; it is Qur’anic ethic which will. Now it is for Muslims to decide – acceptability or narrow mindedness and intolerant sectarianism? The world will judge us not by our dogmas but by our morality and ethics.

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