Grapes of wrath
By Salama A Salama
Denmark has single- handedly blown up bridges of dialogue and understanding between Islam and the West. The offending drawings that have appeared in a Danish newspaper unknown to readers in our region are part of a pattern that has been evolving for sometime, a pattern of religious and ethnic incitement against Muslim immigrant communities in Europe. First it was girls wearing headscarves to schools in France; then a Dutch director was murdered over an insult to Islam. Dozens of clashes and skirmishes have been erupting here and there since the 9/11 attacks. The hate wave escalated following the London and Madrid bombings, and the revolt of the underclass in Parisian suburbs made things worse. The tension is easy to explain. Europe has failed to integrate its ethnic minorities in a meaningful manner.
In Denmark, there was no reason whatsoever for the offending drawings to be published. But the recent elections have seen the rise of the far-right People's Party, known for racism and xenophobia. The People's Party has managed to turn public opinion against Muslims and foreigners in Denmark -- an easy task considering frequent hostage-taking incidents in Iraq.
When the Danish newspaper published the cartoons, it couldn't have foreseen the wrath it was about to unleash. It believed it was an instance of free expression. And Arab governments were too busy with their own problems to respond. But Arab nations were already seething with religious zeal, as downtrodden people often are. Muslim communities in Scandinavian countries were indignant over the drawings. They needed to defend their identity in a culture that has failed to accept them, or recognise their rights. Three months after the publication of the offending drawings, Islamic governments took notice, but only after delegations from Muslim communities alerted them and asked for support.
As if to add insult to the injury, the Danish prime minister refused to receive Arab ambassadors who wanted to discuss the matter with him. His position was that freedom of speech is sacred in Denmark. With characteristic lack of resolve, Arab countries failed to stop the utterly senseless attacks that took place of late against embassies and even against the headquarters of international organisations in the region.
The crisis could have been averted had Muslim governments acted promptly; that is, before EU countries took sides with Denmark and before dozens of European papers republished the offending cartoons. By that time, the message to Arab and Muslim governments and nations was clear: expect no apology!
Civil and Islamic rights groups in Denmark should have acted differently. The right thing to do was to file a lawsuit against the newspaper in the implementation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is enshrined in European laws. Had they done that, these groups would have had a chance to bring the newspaper to account, punish its editor-in-chief, and embarrass the Danish government and any other European government that gets so selective about freedom of expression. Only anti- Semitism is frowned upon in Europe at the time being. Slurs against Islam are not repressed with the same firmness -- an obvious a case of double-dealing.
The crisis of the offending cartoons proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the so- called dialogue of civilisations is just an empty shell. Underneath it are layers of cynicism, mistrust and lies. The volatility of the situation is such that everyone should refrain from pouring fuel on the flames. As far as damage control is concerned, Al-Azhar should desist from fomenting feelings and the EU must condemn racist slurs in unequivocal terms.