Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

We introduce ourselves

Furious Muslim masses seem to be finding sensible guidance in their row over the Danish cartoons. But, as Gihan Shahine finds out, promoting dialogue does not mean the boycott is over

"We are sorry if some Muslims lost their senses and turned violent but you just don't know how dear Prophet Mohamed is to our hearts," wrote one young Muslim on in a message meant for Danes. "Our Holy Qur'an ordained us to interact with different nations and now we do. All we need from you, Danes, is to know Prophet Mohamed first."

That softer tone, an apparent far cry from the protests that swept the Islamic world over the past few weeks, came on the heels of a campaign that popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled recently launched, calling upon "every singe Muslim, every man and woman and even children" to send short friendly messages to the Danes, introducing Prophet Mohamed and expressing your emotions.

"Send it [messages] in any form you like, and in any language you prefer, and we will deliver it to the world," Khaled said via a programme on the Iqra satellite channel. The idea, Khaled explained, "would be more in line with the teachings of the Holy Qur'an which says that people were created from different civilisations and cultures in order to merge and get mutually acquainted."

A cohort of Islamic scholars and preachers has similarly adopted the same rhetoric of dialogue and interaction when tension swelled over the Danish cartoons that ridiculed Prophet Mohamed. The cartoons, one of them showing the Prophet with a bomb-shaped turban, were first published in September by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten daily and later reprinted by newspapers in several European countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Norway on the grounds of freedom of expression, triggering a spate of massive demonstrations and boycotts.

Some of the protests turned violent in Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan where protesters set fire to Danish consulates. Last week, at least 10 people were killed in violent protests in Libya when Muslims attempted to set fire to the Italian consulate after Italian Minister Roberto Calderoli wore a T-shirt displaying the drawings of Prophet Mohamed. Two people were killed in Pakistan's north-western city of Peshawar and a third was killed in Lahore as demonstrations continued to swell. Twelve others were killed in Afghanistan.

The foreign press had a field day reporting on the violent attacks in an attempt to depict Muslims as terrorists who do not respect freedom of expression.

"Muslims fell in the trap," snapped Nashwa, a 34-year-old journalist and student in Al-Azhar's Dawa (preaching) institute. Nashwa said "some extremists in the West provoked Muslims into violence in order to stigmatise them as terrorists. Everyone seemed to just swallow the bait. People were angry and they couldn't find any sort of guidance so they just followed the herd without thinking of the repercussions."

Whereas peaceful protests and boycotts were perceived as justified means for Muslims to express their wrath over the cartoons, a serious absence of leadership has opened the door wide for some extremists to step into the fray, widening gaps with the West. Al-Azhar lost much of its credibility in the Muslim street when it was turned into a mouthpiece of the government. Civil society's role has been weakened under undemocratic regimes. Popular preachers and Islamic leaders like Amr Khaled and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remained silent on the issue for a long time. Muslims got sidetracked from the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq.

The drawings, Khaled noted, "were no more than sedition sparked by irresponsible people which ended up in a vicious cycle of action and reaction which spelled disaster."

Fadel Suleiman, the current director of Bridges Foundation, an international non-governmental organisation which aims to bridge peoples of different religious and ethnic backgrounds through educational inter-faith activities, told Al-Ahram Weekly that sedition was meant to drive a wedge between Islamic countries and their two very best friends in Europe: Denmark and Norway. "Few people realise that people in Norway once collected signs to boycott Israeli products and that the Danish government used to give donations to Egypt and Palestine without any interest," Suleiman said. Which, according to Suleiman, would support widespread conspiracy theories suggesting that a Zionist project to tarnish Islam and exclude Muslims was behind the cartoons.

Emad Gad, secretary-general of the non-governmental Arabs Against Discrimination (AAD), said Arab regimes fueled the sedition even further to achieve some political interests. "They played on people's religious sentiments in an attempt to save the much-lost support of their nations and to drive people's attention away from pressing internal issues," Gad told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"Muslims already suffer a lot of injustice from regimes and the cartoons only unleashed that storm of anger," said Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futtuh, a leading member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Public furore hardly abated after a visit by European Union Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana to Cairo and after a delegation of bishops and religious men from the Danish Lutheran Church, headed by Bishop of Viborg Karsten Nissen, met with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi in an attempt to bridge the gap.

Bjarne Sorensen, the Danish ambassador to Cairo, said the Danish daily had apologised for publishing the cartoons and that the events should stop. Jyllands-Posten, however, only apologised for "offending" Muslim feelings but not for the publication. "Those who made the mistake did not apologise," insisted Suleiman. "But an apology would not actually make any difference so long as insults persist, and the insults will not stop until the West knows who we are. Introducing ourselves to the West is where we should start because to them we are conceived as barbarians who know next to nothing about freedom of expression."

Educating the West about Islam is what scholars around the world are promoting for the time being while many other civil societies are pressing for a UN legislation banning insulting religions and sanctuaries. That said, however, there remains a clear consensus among scholars that boycotting Danish products should persist until the misconceptions are cleared.

At a press conference held under the patronage of Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa on 17 February, Khaled announced that a host of carefully chosen Muslim youths would soon visit Denmark to engage in a constructive dialogue with their Danish peers and intellectuals.

"They will explain four main things: who our Prophet is, what Islam is all about, freedom of expression in Muslim eyes and respect of the other's holy scriptures," Khaled told the conference. "They [young Muslims] will launch practical projects entrenching mutual respect and co-existence."

"I was greatly encouraged to launch this initiative after 93 per cent of some 80,000 Muslim youths polled opted for a dialogue with the Danish people," Khaled added. The initiative will be sponsored by businessmen and will enjoy the support of more than 40 scholars who have signed a statement calling for Muslims to help remove stereotypes about Islam and the Prophet.

Similar initiatives are already in the works. Suleiman said his foundation started taking steps in that same direction since April when the queen of Denmark attacked Islam as "a challenging religion." He organised conferences to promote dialogue with the West, trained preachers worldwide on how to present Islam, translated a book into Danish on a Muslim journalist who lost his life in defence of freedom of expression, and launched a comparative study that proved that the Qur'an had all the ethics of freedom of expression and human rights entrenched in it more than 1,400 years before the UN drafted similar legislation.

Today, Suleiman is organising a workshop under the patronage of Egypt's mufti for more than 200 Egyptians who work in contact with foreigners on how to present Islam to Egypt's foreign guests. Suleiman will be joining forces with Khaled in his initiative and will also launch a press conference in Denmark where all Danish media people are invited with the aim of presenting a true picture of who Muslims are. decided earlier this month to launch a multi-lingual Web site to acquaint non-Muslims with the life history of the Prophet.

"The Danish cartoons did not actually insult the Prophet, but rather showed how the West perceives us," Suleiman said. The best way to clear up those stereotypes, according to Suleiman, is to first explain basic concepts of Islam, Allah, Prophethood and then acquaint them with Prophet Mohamed.

"Guess what they [the West] would think of us if we decided to pay like $3 billion in compensation for setting fire to consulates, which is definitely a violation of Islamic tenets?" Suleiman asked. "This is how we would educate people about our sharia (law )which seeks justice. That is why so many non-Muslims adopted Islam at the time of Prophet Mohamed."

Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa urged the West to revisit its curricula and remove any material demonising Islam while the AAD has set up a forum of law and human rights experts to study techniques that would get the United Nations to impose a ban on religious intolerance. The forum, which will work in cooperation with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League, includes leading members from the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic political activist George Isaak of the Kefaya movement.

European Union lawmakers on 16 February called for freedom of expression to be exercised with responsibility but rejected calls for limits on media freedom.

Despondent Muslims in Egypt and the Islamic world have thus decided to continue boycotting Danish products which have disappeared in almost all Egyptian supermarkets and groceries. "You cannot slap me on the face and expect me to buy your products afterwards," said one shopper in a supermarket. "Sorry, we can do without your products."

The sentiments can perhaps be easily summed up by the recent video song by pop singer Shaaban Abdel-Rehim. "We have no more patience, and still there are no solutions. The insults have now reached religion and the Prophet," sings Shaaban in expression of the general public mood. "We want a total boycott and still this is not enough."

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