THE STRAITS TIMES Wanted : Constructive debate on Islam

GENEVA - WHILE the Danish government may have stubbornly defended its people’s right to exercise freedom of speech during the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy, the Danes themselves are displaying signs of uncertainty and unease in the aftermath of worldwide, vociferous Muslim protests.

Promotional posters for an educational book on Islam entitled What Is Islam, portraying the religion as inherently peaceful, were abruptly withdrawn in Copenhagen in March for fear that the posters, which merely reproduce the book’s icon-free front cover, might offend Muslim sentiments.

The Norwegian-Pakistani stand-up comedienne, Shabana Rehman, who is known for her relaxed attitude towards the sacred, simultaneously saw her show at a leading Danish theatre cancelled.

Swiss philosophy professor and Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan has warned against this kind of self-censorship.

The grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, Mr Ramadan, named by Time Magazine as one of the hundred innovators of the millennium and seen by some as a Muslim Martin Luther, calls for European Muslims not to be satisfied with an atmosphere where people are scared of criticising Islam.

This will benefit neither the society nor Muslims, he stresses. ’As Muslims, we need to accept criticism more openly and to maintain a critical distance instead of reacting emotionally to conflicts.’

At the same time, he explains, Europe is witnessing a debate on how to relate to religious issues and how to use its freedom of expression. The Muslim presence in Europe has created new sentiments which Europeans must acknowledge while subjecting them to debate and critique.

’If we can come together in Europe, Muslims and non-Muslims, and show that we have common values, that we share a richness, we can have a tremendous impact in the Muslim majority countries,’ says Mr Ramadan, explaining how he has been able to help stage a women’s rights seminar in Niger, a sign that Muslim feminism is spreading outside of Europe.

’We managed to have women speak in front of male audiences. It was the first time. And they challenged the men, saying if you are discriminating us, using the name of Islam, you don’t understand what Islam is all about.

’In my travels to Niger as well as to Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco, it has become clear to me that Muslims there listen attentively to the voices coming from Muslims in Europe.’

And these voices may be markedly different from the voices of Muslims outside Europe. After all, none of the violent reactions, including the burning of flags and embassies, took place in Europe, where democratically-sanctioned reactions such as lawsuits, debate and peaceful demonstrations were the order of the day.

Having called on Muslims in Europe to embrace European values and legal frameworks and to distance themselves from Arab leaders, are these European-flavoured reactions not pleasing to Mr Ramadan ?

’Yes, but we must understand that in order for a European Islam to be influential outside Europe, we need to solve European problems at the European level. If we fail to do that, we are sending a message that Muslims and Christians cannot live together and that there is going to be a clash,’ he points out.

According to Mr Ramadan, the recent controversy could and should have been solved diplomatically - at the national level.

’When the Danish Prime Minister refused to meet the 12 Muslim ambassadors, he opened a door to those who wanted to escalate the conflict and take it outside of Europe,’ he says. ’He failed to solve it at the national level.’

But while Mr Ramadan is advocating dialogue and peaceful understanding in Europe, others such as writer Salman Rushdie and Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the controversial script leading to the murder of film-maker Theo Van Gogh, warns that we are witnessing a worldwide Islamic totalitarianism. Both authors have received death threats for saying and writing what they do, so the unpleasant question imposes itself : Is Islam really open to criticism at all ?

’This is a central question and the answer is, ’yes’, Islam is open to criticism. But it is also a question of how we criticise. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims her right to denounce the Prophet as a paedophile, I mean, what is she doing ? If you want to provoke just to provoke, then fine, go ahead and do it. But you are closing the door before you open it.

’Salman Rushdie has said that Islam needs reforms. I agree. But no one listens to Rushdie in the Muslim world. If you want to reform, you need to engage in dialogue and to criticise without intending to provoke or insult.’

So while Mr Ramadan calls on European Muslims to accept criticism, he also stresses that non-Muslims in Europe must acknowledge the Muslim presence and the changing sensibilities.

’I am not disputing the freedom of speech and I am not asking for changes to the legal framework to protect religious sentiments. What I am saying is that to draw the Prophet with a bomb in his turban - this is not the right way to exercise your right. It is perceived as an insult and no constructive dialogue will evolve from this insult,’ he reminds.

The writer is a Geneva-based Danish journalist.
-Source : The Straits Times

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