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Cartoons Of Muhammad and Clash Of Civilizations

[Originally published in in Swedish in the Göteborg-Posten, and Turkish Daily News ] As if we haven't had enough troubles with the Danish cartoon crisis of 2005, yet another one erupted recently in Sweden. Artist Lars Vilks pictured a cartoon showing Prophet Muhammad's head on the body of a dog, and the daily Nerikes Allehanda published it Aug. 19. Not too surprisingly, many Muslims found the depiction highly insulting. Demonstrators took the streets in Pakistan and burnt a Swedish flag. Egypt, Pakistan and Iran made diplomatic protests. And just recently, Al Qaeda in Iraq offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who kills Vilks. A hasty comment in the face of all that would be to say that Islam is incompatible with freedom of speech, which is a key Western value, and that we are passing through just another episode in the so-called clash of civilizations. But I think the issue is not that simple. Moreover, as a liberal Muslim who believes both in Islam and freedom of speech, I think we can nurture a reconciliation if we dare to be self-critical on both sides. Islam's most troubled times First of all, let me be critical on my side of the dispute and say this: The violent reactions shown to Danish cartoons or this recent Swedish one, let alone the death threats and verdicts, are dead wrong. These are uncivilized and unjustified responses that only help portray Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant religion — while its more authentic interpretations that are peaceful and lenient are neglected. I know that might be hard to accept for some Westerners who have become quite suspicious about Islam in the face of various examples of Muslim rage that they have been seeing in the past few decades. But one should not judge a civilization by looking at the most radical elements of the worst period in its history. Just remember that Christendom had its dark ages — we all know the age of Crusaders and the Inquisitors — and note that Islam is having its most troubled times. For various political, social and historical reasons, most Muslim societies have lagged behind the West since the 18th century, and this has created many complex reactions and various sorts of anger. This anger often expresses itself by using religious slogans, but its roots are actually in mundane problems. This becomes obvious especially when we compare the sacred sources of Islam, most notably the Koran, with the radical or narrow-minded practices of some contemporary Muslims. Some of these practices — such as the killing of apostates, the stoning of adulterers, or the seclusion of women — have simply no basis in the Koran, and they are actually historical traditions which have crept into Islamic sources over time. Other practices such as terrorism — i.e., attacks against civilians — are against the Koranic principles of just war, but radicals try to justify them with arguments for vengeance, which is an earthly cause. The Koran on Mockery There is a deep contrast between the Koran and violent reactions shown to the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, too. In the Koran, one simply cannot find any excuse for violence in the face of mockery. Early Muslims were ridiculed very often by pagans, and what the Koran suggested to them was a civilized disapproval: "When you hear God's verses being rejected and mocked at by people, the Muslim scripture said, you must not sit with them till they start talking of other things." (4/140) And although the current cartoon-avengers are filled with fury, the Koran defined Muslims as "those who control their rage and pardon other people, [because] God loves the good-doers." (3/134) No wonder sensible Muslim authorities continuously disapprove the violent reactions to cartoons given by their radical co-religionists. Just last week Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (DRA), the official religious body which control's the country's 85,000 mosques and hundreds of others in Europe, made an announcement regarding the Swedish cartoon. It called on Muslims not to forget that respect to others faiths is the sign of respect to one's own, and to show their response not by counter-insults and violence, and within the principles of dignity and modesty. This statement was also posted on the Web site of the Sweden branch of the DRA. Understanding the Muslim Mind Yet the fact that Muslims should refrain from fury does not mean that they have to approve the cartoons. No, they don't have to do that, and they will not. Because in Islam, honoring God, the Prophet, the Koran and other symbols of the faith is a crucial value. In Muslim houses, the Koran or a plate that has the Prophet's name is not placed below a certain height. When the Prophet's name is mentioned, Muslims traditionally utter an Arabic phrase, which express their love and devotion to him. It might be hard to understand this for a secular person, but for a devout Muslim, the honor of the prophet is much more important than is his own. An insult directed at the prophet would be much more offensive than one directed to his personality. Which brings me to my criticism to the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Those who draw, print and defend these caricatures routinely speak about freedom of expression. I don't think that they would also defend some sort of freedom of insult, but they say that these cartoons do not correspond to that. Yet insults are in the eyes of the beholder. A gesture might be very innocent in one culture, while it might be a horrible offense in another. If millions of Muslims all around the world are saying that they regard these cartoons as insults to Islam, then that is what these cartoons really are. Mind the Gap Let me give you another example of freedom of expression: It has become a custom for the Iranian regime to draw American and Israeli flags on the floor so their citizens can walk and even trample on them. Now do you think they are doing a good job with that? I don't, because although they might have justified reactions to American and Israeli policies, they don't have the right to insult a whole nation by desecrating its flag. And by doing so, they help neither themselves nor the world. You can say that depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog and walking on a flag are not similar things, but that's not how Muslims see it. They actually see the former as even a much more outrageous offense. For the mainly post-Christian and thoroughly secular Swedish society, this tremendous value attached to the sacred might seem bizarre. But most Muslims do value their faith more than anything else, and no one has the right to ask them to be less pious. Please just take a minute to see what kind of a situation we are in today: There is growing suspicion between the East and the West, and the idea of a clash of civilizations is floating around. What we desperately need is most obvious: Dialogue and understanding between Western and Muslim societies. But dialog does not start with a slap in the face. It starts with mutual respect. Many moderate Muslims are trying to build that respect toward the Western world within their societies. A few Westerners should not impair those good efforts by the reckless strokes of their pens.
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