Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2004
Issue No. 709
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Osama El-Ghazali Harb

Destroying the stereotype

Only by condemning atrocities falsely enacted in the name of Islam will Muslims be able to clear their image, argues Osama El-Ghazali Harb*

Are Muslims aware of the threats they now face? Do they understand how millions of Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians and Australians -- Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, those who ascribe to a score of other religions and those who ascribe to no religion whatsoever -- today see them?

Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, are viewed as barbarians who harbour a total disregard for human life. Their value system, far from discouraging the slaughter of innocent women and children, is seen to condone and even encourage such slaughter. This is the stereotypical image that today lumps together Muslims of all denominations, and from all societies and cultures.

It is an image fed by the ongoing media coverage of events perpetrated by groups that claim to act in the name of Islam. In late August and early September the media carried the story of the murder of 12 Nepalese men in Iraq at the hands of a group calling itself "Supporters of the Sunna", which announced that "by the grace of God" it had executed these individuals who had come to Iraq, with the blessings of "their God Buddha" to "fight Muslims and serve the interests of Jews and Christians". Their statement broadcast was accompanied by horrific images of slaughter. While the world was still reeling from this nightmare a group calling itself the Islambouli Brigades claimed responsibility for explosions in the Moscow underground, killing and wounding dozens of people. In a statement the group promised to "wage more attacks in the country of infidels".

But these events later seemed almost insignificant when the world awoke on 1 September, the first day of the school year in Russia, to images of an armed Chechen group taking more than one thousand people -- half of them children -- hostage. The world followed the heartbreaking stories of how the hostages were treated and the utter devastation of the town as it buried large numbers of its children.

The world is bombarded by such images and it would be naïve to assume that in Russia, the US or Europe ordinary viewers make a distinction between the perpetrators of these barbaric acts and Muslims as a whole. Islam, and Muslims, are today held responsible for the acts of an aberrant minority which embody neither the principles of Islam nor the spirit of the majority of Muslims. Thus we witness the emergence of a new anti-Semitism, the Semites in question today being Arabs. This negative stereotype, and the antagonism it engenders, is being reinforced by the speed and detail with which news stories travel. The "clash of civilisations" proposed over a decade ago has now assumed the concrete form of a clash between Islamic civilisation and culture, on one hand, and every other civilisation and culture in today's world on the other.

Consider that for the first time in history angry demonstrations broke out in Nepal -- which has a Hindu majority and a Buddhist minority -- targeting anything linked to Islam. The embassies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia were stoned and the capital's largest mosque pillaged and burned. The Russian media is now expressing solidarity with US measures to counter "Islamist terrorism" and the Russian government has reached a deal with Israel to help extend its "expertise" in this field.

Muslims today face an urgent moral challenge, which they must respond to in a number of ways. They must refrain from reiterating the worn-out refrain that there is a conspiracy which aims to undermine Muslims and their image in the world. Every country, culture and society has its adversaries and opponents, and there are always conspiracies being hatched. But we must understand that it is the behaviour of individuals and groups that define themselves as Muslim which has allowed this stereotyping of Muslims to spread. Ignorant bigots, with the audacity to speak in the name of God, his Prophet and the Islamic religion, as well as for millions of Muslims throughout the world have hijacked Islam. It will remain hijacked for the foreseeable future.

Muslim and Arab intellectuals and opinion leaders must confront and oppose any attempt to excuse the barbaric acts of these groups on the grounds of the suffering endured by Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya and elsewhere around the world. In condemning atrocities committed against innocent Muslim civilians, women and children, we must condemn too, and with equal force, similar acts committed against the innocent of any religion or culture. We must categorically refuse the linking of such acts to our religion and our belief system. The death of innocent people in Palestine, Iraq or Chechnya can never justify killing innocent people in Nepal, Turkey, Spain or France. Moral values are indivisible. We criticise the US for employing double standards. We must not make the same mistake.

Our most difficult, and most important, challenge is to create a strong body of Islamic public opinion which loudly condemns the actions of these groups. They must no longer be allowed to hijack Islam. The Muslim majority must declare to peoples of all cultures and religions, and in the clearest of terms, their condemnation of these acts, and their determination to bring them to an end. Strong and vocal Muslim opinion will show up these groups for the aberrations they are.

Tackling this task is long overdue. Institutions must be created through which the public can be informed and through which it can participate and express its opinions. The emergence of a well-informed public willing to make its opinions heard cannot, however, happen overnight. Fortunately there are institutions already in place that can play an important role. There is no doubt that Al- Azhar, with its unique prestige based on its long history and wide-ranging structures, should have been at the forefront of this effort. It should have been the first to speak out and condemn such barbaric acts. We must make it abundantly clear that the actions of these groups have no relationship to Islam, which is a religion based on compassion and mercy, one that clearly states that adherents of other religions must in no way be demeaned or coerced and whose prophet admonished his followers never to kill women or children while engaging in battle.

Once we have made this position clear to the world, we will earn its respect, and in doing so we will destroy the hateful stereotype that today tarnishes our religion and our culture.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlia (International Politics), issued by Al-Ahram, and member of the Shura Council.

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