Parvez Ahmed: Danish Cartoon Controversy was avoidable



[Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is board chairman of the Council
on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's
largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. He may
be contacted at: pahmed@cair-net.org. For a photo of
Parvez Ahmed, go to:
http://cair.com/default.asp?Page=Board&person=Parvez ]

The worldwide flap over a series of cartoons published
in a Danish newspaper was avoidable had all sides
approached the issue with wisdom and restraint.

Denmark s Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons
depicting Islam s most revered personality, the
Prophet Muhammad, in a way that was inaccurate,
derogatory and intentionally provocative. Other than
demonstrating visceral hatred toward Islam, the
cartoons achieved little else.

Muslim outrage over the cartoons has lead to boycotts
of Danish products across much of the Middle East,
resulting in hundreds of Danish employees losing their
jobs. Protests across the Islamic world have been
mostly peaceful, but some have unfortunately turned
very violent.

Characterizations of the controversy as a clash of
civilizational values or upholding freedom of press
miss the point of the debate.

At the core of the reactions in the Muslim world are
fears about Western motives, bolstered by lack of
redress of ongoing grievances. On the other hand, lack
of understanding about Islamic culture explains why
many in the West seem perplexed at how a mere cartoon
could draw such an emotional response.

A tasteless caricature of a religious personality,
whose life has informed and guided billions of people
for more than 1400 years, is neither funny nor
satirical. On the other hand, burning flags,
destroying embassies and threatening innocent people
are hardly appropriate responses.

The Prophet Muhammad, who preached repelling evil with
kindness, certainly would not approve of such violent
acts. He would have responded by educating the
ignorant.

Joining the chorus of peaceful protests, former U.S.
president Bill Clinton strongly criticized the Danish
cartoons, comparing historical anti-Semitism in Europe
with anti-Islamic feeling today: So now what are we
going to do?. . .Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice
with anti-Islamic prejudice?

In a show of solidarity with Denmark, newspapers in
Norway, France, and other European nations republished
the cartoons, which prompted British Foreign Minister
Jack Straw to say: "I believe the republication of
these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been
insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been
wrong." The U.S. State Department concurred with this
sentiment.

Free speech, like every other freedom, comes with the
responsibility of good judgment. Newspapers ought to
have the freedom to speak the truth, but a cartoon
that defames does not further debate or the cause of
freedom.

Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe. This should be
of concern to all people of conscience, whatever their
faith. Only recently, Islamophobia led to Bosnian
Muslims becoming targets of a brutal campaign of
ethnic cleansing.

Even in America, prominent personalities denigrated
the Prophet Muhammad using language no different than
the sentiments expressed in the Danish cartoons. Talk
show hosts coast-to-coast regularly fill public
airwaves with anti-Islamic comments. Unfortunately,
such hatred has not been widely repudiated.

It is time for Europe and America to adopt the same
zero-tolerance for Islamophobia as has quite rightly
been adopted toward anti-Semitism.

According to the U.S. State Department, the United
States is playing an important role in the effort to
contain and ultimately wipe out anti-Semitism. The
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
sponsored conferences in Vienna and Berlin that
recognized anti-Semitism as a fundamental violation of
human rights. The Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,
signed by President Bush on October 2004, asks
governments to take note of and respond to instances
of anti-Jewish propaganda.

These steps are indeed laudable. Why not broaden them
to fight Islamophobia as well?

Not undertaking similar efforts to curb Islamophobia
undermines U.S. and European credibility in the Muslim
world, thereby fueling fear and mistrust.

We all need to do whatever we can to avoid plunging
the world into the abyss of a clash between
civilizations.





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