CAIRO: It s the same argument all over again, but we never seem to tire of the same vicious circle. The Danish cartoons weren t the first to offend Muslims and the pope s speech won t be the last.
Just as Pope Benedict s remarks are currently causing a wave of anger in Muslim nations, the Danish cartoons had the same effect a few months back. The story starts with someone or some entity offending Muslims, who in turn protest, sometimes so enthusiastically that they turn violent. The ending is pretty much the same every time; nothing happens.
This is probably why the story keeps repeating itself; there is no proper closure or solution that addresses the root of the problem. When an offence occurs it doesn t lead to anything but anger and a pointless argument about freedom of expression. But neither the anger nor the argument constitutes the origin of the problem; they just fuel the feud.
Following the publication of the Danish cartoons, Muslim nations started a public campaign to boycott Danish products. Boycott was used as a strategic weapon to pressure the Danes to respect Islam. The argument was that in the West, offending Islam and Muslims is acceptable, while there is zero tolerance for anti-Semitic remarks.
The Danish argument was that their commitment to freedom of expression prevented the government from interfering, much less censoring freedom of expression to cater to what one group considers offensive.
And of course the two arguments found supporters. Some Web sites had the Boycott Danish Products banner and others had Buy Danish banners. The first were defending Islam and the latter were defending freedom of expression. But both were missing the point.
It s not an us-versus-them type of argument; the cartoons are part of a global debate about the status of religion in today s world.
A recent report currently discussed at the United Nations Human Rights Council points to a growing anti-religion trend that offends Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world. While the report states that recently Islam has been under the heaviest attack, there is also a pending argument about freedom of expression versus freedom of religion.
“Legally, the report explains, the government of every state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is bound by three articles dealing with the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of opinion and expression, namely article 18, which protects freedom of religion, subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety and order or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others (art. 18, para.3); article 19, which protects freedom of expression and opinion, subject to certain restrictions such as respect of the rights or reputations of others (art. 19, para.3 (a)); and article 20, which states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
But aside from this argument, the point that everyone seems to miss is pretty simple: there is a prevailing ignorance on both sides about the other s culture or religion, which in turn leads to growing animosities.
According to the same report, which was prepared by Doudou Diene, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Islamophobia does exist and is deep rooted in the West, especially Europe. But, it is not limited to the West; it is also practiced in some countries with Muslim majorities. The report, however, suggests only two reasons for Islamphobia: historical antagonism to Islam and a media role in continuously associating Islam with violence and terror. But the recommendations the report came up with addressed the issue of mutual ignorance as an important reason.
The special rapporteur recommends that the commission should invite member states to focus on combating all forms of discrimination generally, and Islamophobia in particular, by acknowledging, respecting and promoting the multicultural nature of their societies, especially in the religious sphere – through two basic forms of dialogue between cultures and religions that he has suggest in his previous reports, namely the promotion, notably through education and information, of in-depth knowledge of each other s religious and cultural traditions.
Unfortunately, in reality, while each side is occupied in either releasing anger or defending freedom of expression, the real problem is left to mushroom. Very little effort has been made in bridging gaps or explaining the beliefs of each side to the other. And even these efforts end in the wake of the hype created by any similar crisis. Some people even reject such efforts; remember the criticism preacher Amr Khaled received for his initiative toward Muslim-Danish dialogue?
Even if the ignorance is the real problem argument found supporters, some would say that the pope s remarks constitute a different case and would go on to find excuses to continue releasing anger and fueling the animosity. Many would overlook the fact that the essence of the problem is the same – only the superficial details differ from one case to another.
So, it is not surprising that the series of offences and the consequent anger seem destined to continue and the same story fated to keep repeating itself.