Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Youth get their chance

A handful of Muslim youths presented a positive image of Islam and Prophet Mohamed at a Copenhagen interfaith conference which nevertheless sparked heated debate back home. Gihan Shahine asks why

Click to view caption
Khaled during the interfaith conference

Young Islamic preacher Amr Khaled remains unperturbed in the face of a storm of criticism over last week's interfaith Copenhagen conference which he launched in the wake of the cartoons which lampooned Prophet Mohamed.

"I do not expect everyone to be pleased," Khaled snapped in an interview with the Lebanese LBC channel on Sunday. Still, apparent exhaustion could hardly hide Khaled's satisfaction with the conference which, he said, "had drawn the attention of five million Danes who tuned into radio and television to hear about who Prophet Mohamed is -- this time from our own true Islamic perspective."

"It's enough to say that some Danish newspapers described the prophet as 'Mohamed the Great'," Khaled went on. "I believe we did our bit before God and spoke strongly in defence of our prophet. We did our utmost and now we leave the rest for more sophisticated efforts in the political and religious spheres."

The event, which took place on 9 and 10 March, aimed at fostering religious dialogue between 25 carefully chosen Muslim youths from throughout the Islamic world, and their Danish peers. The event was held in cooperation with 42 prominent preachers and Islamic scholars including Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa. It came in the wake of escalating tension over the Danish cartoons which poked fun at Prophet Mohamed and which were reprinted in several European newspapers on the grounds of freedom of expression. The cartoons sparked unprecedented protests and political and economic boycotts throughout the Islamic world. Some scholars saw dialogue as one way of bridging widening gaps between the Islamic world and the West.

Khaled's initiative was meant to steer clear of any official tone and to focus on youths from the two sides. "I placed my hope in youth," Khaled told a Friday press conference in Copenhagen. "They put on the table five or six projects to build bridges and coexistence."

Khaled Barakat, the head of the youth team to Denmark, told Al-Ahram Weekly via a telephone interview from Copenhagen that, contrary to what many people thought, the conference was not hosted by the Danish government but by a Danish federation involving at least 700 non-governmental youth organisations.

"We thought that governments should address governments, scholars should address scholars, and we, the youth, should also do our bit and approach youths who, we discovered, either knew nothing about Islam or had a very distorted image from the Western media," Barakat told the Weekly.

The first day of the two-day conference was dedicated to dialogue among the youths. They discussed who Islam's prophet is; what Islam is all about; freedom of expression from the Muslim point of view; respect of the other's holy scriptures. Young Muslim participants also proposed practical projects encouraging mutual respect and co-existence.

"The Danish youths were impressed and we, too, were very happy to find that many Danes are friendly to foreigners, had no biases against Arabs and Muslims, and in some cases, wore the Palestinian scarf to show solidarity with the Palestinian issue," Barakat said. The impression was based on field survey the young Muslims carried out, talking to Danish people in the streets, and asking them questions about the cartoon crisis.

"Many said they were against the publication of the offensive cartoons, but that they were equally offended to see their flags and embassies burnt," Barakat went on. "The dialogue was indeed a step forward on the way to building bridges. People should realise that the Danes are not a single entity and that we still have friends there. It's enough to know that we left with tears in our eyes."

That positive picture, however, was hardly featured in any local or international media coverage. Instead, the local media had a field day reporting on what one publication described as the "failed efforts of Amr Khaled", criticising both the superficiality of the conference's rhetoric and the absence of any official representation from the Danish government -- all despite the fact that Khaled had repeatedly insisted his initiative was far from official. The foreign media, for its part, was busy capturing images of Kuwaiti preacher Tarek Al-Sweidan who adopted an increasingly rigid stance while urging the Danish government to apologise for the offensive cartoons.

"We would like an official apology and we would like to change the laws in Denmark and the European Union," Al-Sweidan told the conference on Friday. "Either you have freedom of speech for everyone, including (on issues like) the Holocaust and anti-Semitism or you change the laws to respect religious figures like our Prophet Mohamed," he said, calling on Danes to pressure their government into ensuring a change. "If the Danish people are serious about this and if they feel that the Danish government has caused a major hit to their economy and interests... they should pressure their government into changing its opinion."

The address came as a bombshell to some participants who expected a different tone from the anger they had been seeing for months from protesting Muslim masses. "No one, however, featured Al-Sweidan laughing with Danish participants and saying he would like Denmark to be a second home after Kuwait," Barakat said.

Khaled, already a superstar orator, adopted a softer tone in condemning both the caricatures and the subsequent violence and called for a dialogue between Muslims and Denmark. "We feel there are forces of extremism which are aiming to start fires and transform Denmark from a peaceful country to one which will suffer from conflicts," Khaled said. "The reasonable among us must be heard and our voices must come out clearer than the voices of the extremists."

Khaled urged Denmark to "build bridges" and reach out to Muslim nations with initiatives to promote small businesses. "We have come to say that Islam is a giving religion, and Denmark can benefit from this religion."

The conference concluded with recommendations, including the establishment of a cultural centre in Denmark, adding some information on Islam in school textbooks and promoting dialogue with various parties.

The Danish Muslim community, which was not invited to attend the interfaith conference, slammed the recommendations as impractical piecemeal solutions that do not actually address the issue, and which might bring harm. Raeid Heleihal, the chairman of the European Committee for the Support of Prophet Mohamed, said the conference "did not get any official response on the Danish part" claiming "the Danish government used Khaled's presence on its territory for dialogue as a political victory." For Heleihal, the young Muslim preachers who organised the conference got "trapped" by the Danish government and made a grave mistake when they did not approach the Danish Muslim community.

The very concept of promoting dialogue with the Danes, even though the Danish government insisted it will not apologise for the cartoons, had already been a bone of contention among Islamic scholars. Many, like Qatar-based Egyptian Islamic scholar Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who heads the European Council on Fatwa and Research, argued 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. Meanwhile, El-Qaradawi was happy that "what happened in Denmark has stirred the Islamic world to move and unite after suffering long years of rifts."

A strong supporter of fostering dialogue with the West, El-Qaradawi apparently believes the cartoon crisis is a great opportunity for the revival and unity of Muslim nations and as such considers any initiative for dialogue now as potentially "breaking the momentum of the Muslim nation awakening for the sake of Denmark."

"El-Qaradawi is more aware of the importance that group feeling remains active and inflamed, thus making it an issue of identity for which Islamists are known to be professional in mobilising," commented Al-Sharq Al-Awsat 's opinion page editor Mishari Al-Zaydi. "The logic is the following: whoever manages to unify the masses of the Muslim world and elsewhere in protest against the Danish transgressions could do the same for other purposes."

For Khaled, however, the cartoon crisis should be invested to build bridges with the West, eliminate misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam and abort attempts by antagonists to Islam to attract neutral non-Muslims to their side and alienate Muslims. Which was, more or less, the same conclusion reached by 170 Islamic scholars at a recent conference in Qatar. The conference concluded that while public furor was only a normal reaction to the cartoons, it was high time for more dialogue with the West.

Prominent Al-Ahram columnist and Islamic thinker Fahmi Howeidi, however, insists that Khaled, although a "superb preacher", was not qualified enough for the job. Howeidi argued that fostering dialogue with the West involves many "sophisticated dossiers" that need the efforts of more experienced Western- based organisations that are acquainted with the Western mentality and legally complicated issues like freedom of expression and coexistence. Howeidi expressed widespread fears that Khaled's initiative would be abused by the Western media in attempts to abort more serious efforts by such well-known Islamic organisations as the World Islamic Conference.

"In whose name is Khaled speaking in Denmark?" Howeidi asked in an article published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. "Why did he not coordinate with the Islamic community in Denmark? Did he realise the Zionist role in the whole issue?"

Khaled said he had the backing of a large number of Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, India, Indonesia and the US.

The initiative was held under the auspices of Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa and involved prominent figures including Swiss-based Islamic thinker Tareq Ramadan, Yemeni preacher Al-Habib Ali Al-Jaafari and Secretary of the European Council for fatwa (religious edict) Sheikh Hussein Halawa.

Khaled had also repeatedly 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."

Abla El-Kahlawi, dean of Islamic Studies for Girls at Al-Azhar University, and a strong supporter of the Copenhagen youth dialogue, rebutted claims that the conference would not appease outraged Muslims. El-Kahlawi argued, "it fostered an already abating public momentum." El-Kahlawi explained that promoting dialogue with Danish youths and intellectuals "does not, in anyway, mean we are compromising Muslim rights or ending public protests and boycotts".

"Different people have different roles and the young Muslims who went to Copenhagen were well trained by scholars, and did give a very good image about Islam," El-Kahlawi said. She argued against confining dialogue to more experienced West-based institutions. "They [organisations] have been there for ages and have not actually managed to eliminate stereotypes about Islam," El-Kahlawi said. "We should not abort any sincere effort no matter how small. Our prophet called upon all Muslims to spread his message, even if it means conveying a single aya (Qur'anic verse)."

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