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Cartoon controversy: is it not time for reason to step forward? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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What started last September with diplomatic discussion s in Copenhagen soon snowballed into a full blown crisis. Governments are no longer able to manage and contain the crisis and soon those at its helm will no longer be able to control it, such as Sheikh al Qaradawi, who appeared on Al Jazeera a few days ago calling for restraint and loyalty.

Without a doubt, the series of drawings of the Prophet Mohammed, a religious symbol for over a billion people worldwide are offensive, especially as we are currently live in a polarized world, following the September 11 attacks. Therefore, it is not surprising that, Jyllands- Posten which published the twelve cartoons, provoked anger and fury amongst Muslims worldwide.

Was the Muslim reaction reasonable? Or was it exaggerated? Where will it lead to?

Individuals and groups have the right to express their rejection of a

certain behavior through an economic boycott or by writing letters of

complaint, organizing rallies, printing posters and other peaceful means of protest, especially if the guilty party expressed itself with non-violent means. But, let us be clear, in such a state of affairs, no one is careful of detail and it soon becomes impossible to listen to any dissenting voices, such as when a list of Danish products to be boycotted includes certain foodstuff that have no relation whatsoever to Denmark!

It is hard to believe that all the governments and politicians involved in the controversy care much about Islam. The author of the Green Book recalled his envoy to Copenhagen while the head of Baath party took on the attributes of the leader of the faithful and let his people burn foreign embassies under the pretext of his love for Islam. One politician, looking for voters’ support, after failing in earlier elections, put on the garb of a sheikh and praised the religious feelings of the people and announced he intended to mobilize his funds in the campaign against Denmark. Others who were targeted because of their lack of religious feelings, because of their opinion on the role of education and the position of women, outbid the sheikhs!

Such is our tragedy.Those who are not particularly religious and those worried about their Islamic credentials seize any chance to prove the opposite and display exaggerated reactions that exceed what is necessary!

Let us return to our main issue: Is it acceptable, under the pretext of freedom of expression, to ridicule religious symbols, even in Europe and the west?

This is the crux of the dispute between Muslims and the west. Some claim they are exercising their right to free speech, part of their western heritage. They say that not even Jesus has escaped from being satirized in cartoons, films and books, the film “Last Temptation of Christ” being one example of many.

On the other hand, Muslims, or at least some of them, believe it is not permissible to mock their religion, under the pretext of freedom of expression, and ridicule the Prophet Mohammed, invoking Section 140 of the Danish Criminal Code which prohibits any person from publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark and Section 266b which criminalizes the dissemination of statements or other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their religion. They also state that, if western societies reject Holocaust deniers, why then do they allow the Prophet to be satirized?

At the start of the crisis in September, Muna Omar, the Egyptian ambassador in Copenhagen, met with other Arab envoys to coordinate their response to the publication of offensive drawings. The diplomats sent a letter of complaint to the Prime Minister. “In all honesty, I feared the matter would end with an apology. The best thing the Danish Prime Minister did was not to apologize,” Omar told the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan.

When the ambassador was moved to South Africa, Muslim Brotherhood representatives in the Egyptian parliament challenged the government for punishing the Egyptian envoy for her standpoint. They were joined in their protest by other figures such as Mustafa Bakri.

Diplomatic sources indicate that this contribution from the Egyptian government and the constant monitoring of the case was part of an ongoing conflict over religious legitimacy between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state. Others believe the Egyptian government rewarded ambassador Omar and did not punish her by posting her in South Africa!

With any luck, the never ending debate will remain peaceful and the same goes for the protest. Otherwise, attitudes might become mobilized for other ends and individuals will be used for other means, such as what happened in Beirut on Saturday, when the Danish embassy was set ablaze, hinting a likely religious confrontation between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon. It is well-known who seeks to enflame the situation in Lebanon!

There are those who tried to direct this sentiment in order to settle scores with their intellectual or political enemies.

Consider this example: Writing in Al-Watan on Sunday, The Saudi journalist Ali al Moussawi described the Friday prayer he attended last week where the khatib (who delivers the sermon) spoke about the cartoon controversy and defended the Prophet Mohammed. When the sermon ended, a man grabbed the microphone and commented on the sermon: “The sheikh concentrated on the damaging aspects of the drawings. But this is not unlikely from our vengeful enemies, the Jews and the Crusaders. But it is strange that these damaging attacks on Islam and its people are not restricted to Danish newspapers or western publications. They are made by individuals from within our society, including some who write in local newspapers that ridicule the principles upon which our religion is based, its scholars and symbols, and attack Islamic organizations, especially summer centers.” This individual tried to paint his Muslim enemies with the same brush as the Danish cartoonists: all enemies of Islam!

Others do not want the crisis to end because they gain by its prolongation and escalation. For example, one individual wrote an article entitled “Rise and apologize! What next?” where he indicated that an apology would not suffice, even if it were official and complete, if it emanated solely from a desire to end economic sanctions. Instead, he says it should be based on feelings of guilt. “But the Muslim will not be satisfied until the perpetrators perish”, he added.

Herein lies the problem: in these situations, spontaneous individual reactions are replaced with by political aims and exaggerated attitudes by opportunists.

Everyone has the right to consume the products they desire and to choose to peacefully boycott certain foodstuff in defense of their identity and cultural honor.

There are those who seek to deepen the conflict and destroy every effort to increase participation and contact. whether in the Muslim world or in the west. Why do some feel “pleased” with this clash of civilization?

The Organization of the Islamic Conference has been undermined and religious sentiments have been exploited by some quarters.

Unfortunately, this happens every time. Now, after matters have reached crisis point, isn’t it time for rational individuals, in our world and the west, to step in and put out the fire? I certainly hope so!

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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