The Pen and the Sword

The Pen and the Sword

By AREF ASSAF

Herald News Op-Ed

The row over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad raises profound tensions – between freedom of speech and mutual respect, ethics of satire and sanctity, shared values and co-existence, perceived western arrogance and Muslim victimhood.

A reporter for an international news agency asked me if American Muslims would soon be burning churches and rioting in the streets if the U.S. media were to publish the inflammatory cartoon depicting the Prophet.

I initially felt insulted by the mere insinuation that there is a collective and identifiable Muslim response. I quickly gathered my good judgment and responded that there is a wide difference between seriously addressing the insulting caricatures of Muslims as terrorists and painting their religion with one hateful brush by associating this great religion with terrorism, and the hysteria of extremists that seems to be portrayed in the media as if it were an accurate representation of mainstream Islam.Besides, there is a huge difference between European understanding of free speech and self-censorship. American media are keenly aware of the multitudes of ethnic and religious groups which define our American societal mosaic. This truly crowning American reality is found nowhere else. this kind of self-censorship is not just an American tradition, but a measure that has made America with all of its ethnic and religious communities, the most vibrant, harmonies and productive society the world has ever known.

As it happened, the Philadelphia Inquirer just published some of the cartoons, and Muslims in America quickly reacted and protested the paper’s actions. Yet, the difference in the reaction of the two communities is a stark one and requires some elaboration.

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, who entered a gigantic country built on immigration, most Muslim newcomers to Western Europe started arriving only after World War II, crowding into small, culturally homogenous nations. Their influx was a new phenomenon for many host states and often unwelcome. Meanwhile, North African immigrants retained powerful attachments to their native cultures. Therefore, unlike American Muslims, who are geographically diffuse, ethnically fragmented, and generally well off, Europe’s Muslims gather in bleak enclaves with their compatriots: Algerians in France, Moroccans in Spain, Turks in Germany and Pakistanis in the United Kingdom.

The footprint of Muslim immigrants in Europe is already more visible than that of the Hispanic population in the United States. Unlike the jumble of nationalities that make up the American Latino community, the Muslims of Western Europe are likely to be distinct, cohesive and bitter.

Underlining the Muslims’ response to the cartoons is their growing sense of an emerging Western assault on everything Islamic. The caricature did not spark the continuing impulse to insult Muslims who live in Western Europe. The real context of the Danish cartoon is not the “war of civilizations,” but rather the persistent drive by many forces to fan such a war.

Arguably, the publication of the cartoon perhaps precipitated a dent in Danish-Muslim relations, but this publication is just symptomatic of the hostility toward the millions of Muslims who live in Europe — most of whom were born there.

There is also the issue of hypocrisy over religious sentiments, which portend that Muslims are overzealous, unlike peoples of other faiths. I recall that when the film “The Last Temptation of Christ” depicted Jesus engaged in sexual relations with a woman, a Frenchman set fire to a theater, killing at least one person.

The West sees prophets as blurred historical figures, at odds with our modernity and not as examples of true faith and religious devotion. The fact is that Muslims live their religion. In Europe, Christianity is little more than a Sunday obligation. It is also a fact that, proportionally, more Muslims practice their faith than Christians do theirs.

One of the troubling admissions I must make is the great sense of hypocrisy in our Muslim community. That overreaction, to put it extremely mildly, is far more damaging to Islam and Muslims than the caricatures that caused it ever was.

Admittedly, the initial Muslim response to the cartoons was not violence and flag burnings, but small demonstrations in Denmark along with a lobbying campaign by Danish Muslims that continued for months. To add insult to injury, Danish officials refused to meet with Arab and Muslim diplomats and refused to issue an apology. The cartoon took on an international flavor when more newspapers in Western Europe republished the cartoons. This fulfilled Muslims’ worst fears: The West hates Islam.

But was our reaction as Muslims the right one? Islam introduced to humanity the sophisticated concept of rejecting collective punishment. Haven’t we been fighting castigation of our community because of the crimes of a few terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center? Don’t we plead that our counterparts not associate terrorism with our religion even though many terrorist acts were committed by fellow Muslims? I am afraid we are committing the same offense when we attack all of Denmark, all of Europe and all of Christendom.

Muslim scholars throughout the history of this great religion argued against it. The Quran makes it clear to all Muslims that collective punishment is absolutely prohibited. Yet, in a clear defiance of God’s direct, explicit and unambiguous command, some Muslims call for a collective punishment of an entire nation for the actions of a few of its citizens. That type of hysteria must be rejected outright by Muslims, and must never be allowed to stand as representing the manner in which Muslims react when insulted, no matter how big such insult might be.

Is this not precisely what has so humiliated us, to be castigated as a community for the crimes of a few?

Equally troubling is the inexcusable hijacking by certain Muslim political leaders of the genuine reaction to the cartoon in an effort to score political gains. Witness Iran and Syria’s exploitation of their citizens’ outrage by channeling to apply pressure on Europe as they deal with these countries. Iran’s new government, in particular, has truly stooped to a new low by calling for a competition to create the most offensive anti-Jewish cartoon.

The Quran, Islam’s revealed text, states: “Goodness and evil cannot be equal. Repel (evil) with something that is better. Then you will see that he with whom you had enmity will become your close friend. And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint.” (41:34-35)

Aref Assaf is the president of the American Arab Forum.