It is often claimed in the West that Muslims are too sensitive to criticism and that they react emotionally to those who dare to challenge their Islamic dogmas or medieval traditions and norms.
To support this argument, critics point out that Muslims have always committed violence, threatened and murdered opponents, and burned the embassies and flags of other nations, in particular those from the Western hemisphere. With all this in mind, the reasoning goes to silence the criticism of Islam and to curtail freedom of expression.
Of course, some of these assertions have merit. There was the great controversy of Salman Rushdie s book Satanic Verses in 1989, and we have seen how this incident has affected the way Islam is being presented and described in the West. We have also seen the violence in response to the publication of the insulting caricatures of Prophet Mohammed in the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and in other European media outlets.
Looking at these two large-scale, disturbing events a bit closely, one notices a similar pattern of provocation and expected response. These happenings advanced the already prevalent Islamophobia to another level. But there is also another factor that is often overlooked. It is the lack of opportunities for Muslim intellectuals and political activists to respond peacefully through the Western media.
The biggest hindrance in the fight against Islamophobia in the West or to an open debate is that Muslim communities have very few possibilities to counter anti-Islam propaganda in mainstream Western media.
In the English-language media alone, there is a powerful lobby of publishers and broadcasters, as well as thousands of anti-Islam websites. The same is true in French, German, Spanish, Danish, or other European languages. These outlets are frequently used by intellectuals, mostly Western, and also by some from the ranks of Muslim minorities themselves who wish to give their own simplistic, distorted version of Islamic reality.
It is very common to listen or read a number of experts on Islam who have their own axe to grind or who want to further a certain political or cultural agenda. They misquote Qur an, comment on diverse Muslim cultures as if they were part of a universal threat, or just dish out misinformation without being asked to prove what they claim.
This endless stream of statements has a colossal impact on the public opinion – both non-Muslim and Muslim. Non-Muslims get their prejudices confirmed, and Muslims are left with the feelings of powerlessness and anger.
This vast international platform in the media is not available to those – Muslim or progressive Western intellectuals – who wish to balance or nuance the debate.
If the field of play were evenly distributed and both parts had an equal chance to exchange views, debate assertions, and come to a reasonable understanding, then the whole concept of freedom of expression would be most welcome and appreciated by Muslims.
In the absence of an open debate forum and in the presence of ever-increasing one-way barrage of accusations against Islam, no wonder the line of communication has broken down. It is in this kind of atmosphere that Muslim minorities turn to undesirable means. Angry reaction is the direct result of arrogance and closed ears on the part of the majority society.
People are not born in a certain way, to think laterally or to act aggressively. They are the products of the treatment that society dishes out to them.
This is by no means a defense of violence, which a tiny minority among 1.5 billion Muslims all over the World commits by misusing the name of Islam. This is, in fact, an effort to analyze the situation in which the majority of Muslims find themselves, often ignored, marginalized, and constantly under attack in the media.
In the heat of discussions, this point often gets lost. Media has a right to point a finger of blame but it should also look at the reasons why a weak minority group acts in a certain way.
In the discussion about Islam, or for that matter any other topic, media should not only provide its platform to the criticizing voices but should also make sure that those in the line of fire have an equal opportunity to respond.
Only then can we call the freedom of expression a true democratic value. Anything else would be considered by Muslim communities the dictatorship of the majority.
Bashy Quraishy is the chairman of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) in Belgium. He is also a member of the EU Commission s High Level Group on Integration in Belgium and the editor in chief of Media Watch Magazine in Copenhagen, Denmark. This article was reprinted with permission. It previously appeared on Islamonline.net.