Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 March 2006
Issue No. 785
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Debating dialogue

A plan to promote inter-faith dialogue with Danes has sparked controversy among Muslim scholars. Gihan Shahine samples the two sides

Click to view caption
Amr Khaled

The idea of promoting dialogue with the Danes even though the Danish government insists it will not apologise for the cartoons which lampooned Prophet Mohamed, has been a bone of contention among Islamic scholars.

More than 40 Islamic scholars including Egypt's Mufti, Ali Gomaa have pledged support for an initiative by Islamic preacher Amr Khaled for an inter-faith conference in Denmark where carefully chosen Muslim youths will engage in a dialogue with their Danish peers and intellectuals on 8 March. Others, however, insist an official Danish apology should be obtained first.

The cartoons, published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September, sparked an unprecedented wave of protests and boycotts across the Islamic world.

Qatar-based Egyptian Islamic scholar Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who heads the European Council on Fatwa and Research, argues that dialogue is an unwanted compromise for the time being. The Danish government, El-Qaradawi said, had blown the matter out of proportion when it refused to apologise or meet a delegation of Muslim figures to settle the matter. "What happened in Denmark has stirred the Islamic world to move and unite after suffering long years of rifts."

"We want people to express their protest in a responsible way, away from violent acts, and pursue a boycott of Danish products as a legitimate expression of anger," he said.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hassan El-Banna, a leading member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and secretary-general of the Bar Association which recently witnessed massive protests calling for Danish boycotts, similarly argued, "voices should rise even higher and shake the world with protests against the intentional insults of the Muslims' most beloved prophet."

"The cartoons were meant as a test balloon for how Muslims would react if their sanctuaries are desecrated and their Aqsa Mosque razed," El-Banna told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We have to show that Muslims will not stand with fettered hands."

Not that El-Banna is totally against dialogue. "All efforts are needed to address the crisis. Taking legal action against the Danish government before the International Court of Justice and pursuing economic and political boycotts should all go parallel to having a dialogue with Danish people and church."

Abla El-Kahlawi, dean of Islamic Studies for girls at Al-Azhar University, said that promoting dialogue with Danish youths and intellectuals "does not mean we are compromising Muslims' rights or ending public protests and boycotts."

"Different people have different roles and promoting dialogue is only one step in a much broader and larger agenda to clear up misconceptions about Islam," El-Kahlawi told the Weekly. "There are those who are trying to stigmatise all Muslims as terrorists incapable of democratic dialogue. We all have to move in more than one sphere to address this crisis."

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. Some of the protests in Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan turned violent, leading to several deaths. The foreign press had a field day reporting on the violent attacks in an attempt to depict Muslims as terrorists who know next to nothing about freedom of expression.

Khaled cited many examples proving that not all people in Denmark or in the West are antagonistic to Arabs and Muslims. "There are many neutral non-Muslims that antagonists of Islam are trying to pull over to their side in order to isolate Muslims."

Because all seem to agree that Denmark was not in conflict with Arabs or Muslims in the past, some observers are of the belief there are plans afoot to drive a wedge between the two worlds in order to alienate Muslims.

Prominent Islamic thinker Tareq Ramadan similarly warned that what happened in Denmark could have "a more long-term" impact than what happened with 11 September.

"After 11 September, we were speaking about radicals condemned by all Muslims except those on the farthest of margins," explained Ramadan, who is a member of the Muslim task force created after the 7 July London bomb attacks last year. "Now what you have is Muslims, including non-practicing Muslims, reacting and saying there is a problem here in the West and the fracture is deeper."

In the absence of dialogue, both Ramadan and Khaled warned that both Muslims and Westerners are likely to lose. "We [Muslims and Westerners] are both nurturing the victim mentality and we now have virtual walls between us," Ramadan told the Sunday Herald. "We are tolerating but not respecting each other. A clash of civilisations is the end and all of us are going to lose."

Khaled maintained that what happened in Denmark should be "quickly invested to build bridges with the West."

"There are at least two million Muslims living in Europe and we don't want them to suffer from isolation, expulsion or ethnic cleansing as was the case in Bosnia five years ago or in Spain 500 years ago," Khaled told audiences via a TV programme on the Saudi religious satellite channel Iqraa.

He says Muslims should focus on long- term developmental goals rather than get swept up in reaction to a legacy of past and present injustices. Which, according to Khaled, is what the prophet himself would have probably done. "He [the prophet] would be loftier than side issues for the sake of his grander plans of building a civilised society," Khaled said.

Khaled, a superstar preacher, acquired even more popularity in Europe and the United States for his two most recent TV programmes "Life Makers" and "In the Steps of the Prophet". Both promote social activism, job creation and development as the only means to fight despair, unemployment, extremism and injustice. His logic throughout the series is that those who do not learn how to help themselves will never be able to decide their future nor would they be following in the footsteps of Prophet Mohamed.

The Danish conference, Khaled's latest effort at co-existence with the West, will explain four main things: who Islam's prophet is; what Islam is all about; freedom of expression from the Muslim viewpoint; and respect of the other's holy scriptures. Young Muslim participants will also launch practical projects encouraging mutual respect and co-existence.

Khaled said he was "greatly encouraged to launch the initiative after 93 per cent of some 100,000 Muslim youths polled opted for a dialogue with the Danish people."

There was consensus among at least 170 Islamic scholars attending a recent conference in Qatar that while public furore was only a normal reaction to the cartoons, it was high time for more dialogue with the West. 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.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller, welcomed the initiatives as "a positive message" saying he was pleased Khaled would be able to "practice such dialogue in Copenhagen in the near future."

Without predicting the results of the Copenhagen dialogue, Khaled warned, "Unless the voice of reason becomes louder, the voice of clash mongers will prevail."

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