Friday, February 10, 2006

Ignore the critics - Muslim response to cartoons is largely peaceful

By the time this gets published, I hope the Danish cartoon frenzy will have died down. Hopefully, we can then look at things a little more objectively. By now, many readers will be tempted to believe that all Muslims are strapping themselves with bombs and getting ready to smash themselves into an embassy or two.

Muslims have been critical of the violent and infantile responses of some Muslim extremists to the Danish cartoons, including the burning of embassies and threats of violence against Danish and other Western targets. In the United States, prominent American Muslim scholar Imam Zaid Shakir has described the violent response of Muslim protestors in Syria and elsewhere as a “clash of the uncivilised”.

He goes onto say that the entire episode “shows the extent we Muslims are vulnerable to media manipulation, superficial shows of piety, and counterproductive one-upmanship militancy”.

Writing on the popular Muslim website altmuslim.com on February 1 2006, Canadian TV host Safiyya Ally summed up the views of many in a piece entitled “Stupid Cartoons, Even Stupider Reaction”.

Ally, like most Muslims living in western societies, found the response in some quarters of the Muslim world troubling. She wrote: “Those up in arms don't seem to understand that the newspaper is not government owned or produced. It is an independent newspaper, and as such the guarantee of freedom of expression allows it to do what it did. It may be in bad taste and it may be insensitive, but the newspaper has a point: freedom of expression allows individuals to express themselves in ways that may upset or offend others.”

The author’s own analysis, which described the reaction of some Muslims as evidence of a “Muslim dark age”, was published in the Wellington-based Dominion Post in New Zealand. That same broadsheet had published all 12 cartoons some 2 days earlier.

In those few Muslim countries where democracy and freedom of the press reigns, Muslim response has been fairly muted. During the last two weeks of January, the writer visited Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim-majority country) as part of a delegation sponsored by the Australia Indonesia Institute.

We saw with our own eyes a burgeoning of press freedom, with Indonesian newspapers, radio and TV stations openly criticising President Susilo Bambang Yudh0yono and his government on a variety of fronts.

Whilst there were some protests in Jakarta and Bandung against the cartoons, the response was muted compared to the protests in major Indonesian cities that followed the increase in fuel prices by upto 60%.

Channel News Asia (C.N.A.) reported on 3 February that a small group of radical protestors did raid the building that housed the Danish embassy in Jakarta. However, they were stopped by Indonesian security forces from reaching the embassy, located on the 25th floor.

C.N.A. went onto report that Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, the Nahdatul Ulama (Council of Theologians), urged its over 50 million members to protest peacefully. The Indonesian foreign ministry merely encouraged the Danish government to “fully explain the country's position to Indonesians”.

In Turkey, currently ruled by a more conservative Islamist government, there seems to be greater concern with the threat of bird flu. Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently visited Australia and New Zealand, issued a joint statement with Spanish Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero for people on both sides of the cartoon dispute to remain calm.

Turkey’s PM also called upon Turkish migrants and guest workers living in Germany and other European countries to respond peacefully. Keen to ensure its bid to become a member of the European Union, Turkey’s response has been praised by Germany, the United States and other western nations.

The story is so far much the same in other Muslim-majority countries in the region, including Brunei, Malaysia and among substantial Muslim minorities in Thailand and the Philippines. Whilst much has been made of violent protests in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, the cartoons have raised hardly a peep thus far across North, West and Central Africa. In Bosnia and Albania, Muslim response to the cartoons has been muted.

Across the Tasman, the New Zealand Herald editorialised on 9 February 2006 on “the maturity and restraint of the Muslim community in this country”. The paper compared the “passionate but peaceful and entirely unobjectionable” Muslim protests to “the hateful tone” of those supporting the Danish position.

“The drawings served only to test the self-restraint of free media and of Muslims everywhere. In this country Muslims have passed the test well.”

In Brisbane, Muslim response to the Courier-Mail’s publication of the most offensive of the 12 cartoons hardly registered on the radar. To its credit, the newspaper included an article by Kurandar Seyit of the Forum of Australian Islamic Relations (FAIR) explaining why the cartoons were deemed offensive by Muslims.

Some Muslim organisational leaders gave clumsy responses when asked about the cartoons. Dr Ameer Ali, President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, claimed the cartoons would only serve to create “more bin Ladins”. Most Muslim leaders and commentators expressed themselves in more moderate tones.

Perhaps the most suitable response thus far has been from the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In a press release dated 8 February 2006, CAIR condemned the decision by Iranian newspaper Hamshahri to hold a contest of cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust. It called on the newspaper “to drop its plans to denigrate the immense suffering caused by the Nazi Holocaust and urge the Iranian government to repudiate such an insensitive proposal.”

Those readers still not convinced of the mainly peaceful Muslim response to the Danish cartoons are urged to consider this. 1.2 billion Muslims live in all countries across the planet. If each of these people lit a fire in response to the cartoons, most of the earth’s land mass would be up in smoke.

The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and an occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University. iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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