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Muslim Minorities in Europe, the Real Target of the Cartoons
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


As people die and embassies burn, diplomats and religious leaders alike struggle to contain the damage caused by caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) published in a Danish newspaper. The mayhem has caught political observers off guard. But they should not have been surprised.

The protests have taken on a momentum of their own and have prompted even those who are normally circumspect on political issues to call for calm. These include the Pope and the King of Saudi Arabia. Even
Iran, which initially encouraged the protests, seems to have had second thoughts. The foreign minister of Iran has lately called for restraint.
In the hands of a great leader, the energy of the protests could have been channeled into a positive mass movement. There is no such leader on the horizon. Instead, the energy of the historical moment is dissipated in loss of life and property.

Historians may well record the cartoons and the mass reaction as a watershed in the centuries old dialectic between Islam and
Europe. There are several elements in the current interaction.

Some argue that this is an illustration of the clash of civilizations. This is fuzzy logic. It would be more precise to argue that it is a clash of a godless
Europe with both Christianity and Islam.

Islam and Christianity have been in close embrace for fourteen centuries, in conflict and cooperation, negotiating, learning from each other and jostling for position. Europe abandoned Christianity and chose secularism. What is new today is that technology has forced Islam and a godless West and other faith-based civilizations - into shared space where they are forced to confront their own internal contractions. The cartoons and the protests are a manifestation of this internal dialectic within each civilization.
The Europeans paint this issue as one of freedom of speech. This is sheer hypocrisy. The same editors who published caricatures of the Prophet rejected similar caricatures of Jesus (peace be upon him). And just this week a court in
Austria sentenced the British historian David Irving to a jail sentence for questioning the holocaust.
Others make the claim that it was satire. Since when did gross insult become satire? The cartoons were downright racist and designed to inflame. The reasons for this mischief have to be sought elsewhere.

For two hundred years, until the Second World War,
Europe had colonized much of Asia and Africa where the natives were treated with contempt, fit to serve the white man as servants. Power carried with it an aura of superiority. The legacy of colonialism has sunk deep into the European psyche. Many Europeans still believe they can treat Asians and Africans with the same contempt they did a hundred years ago. Old habits die hard.
The world has changed. Power and wealth are shifting back to Asia. The emergence of
China as a global power is grudgingly acknowledged by the West. The emergence of India as a major international player is resisted. Witness, for instance, the hue and cry in France and Spain over a recent attempt by an Indian businessman to take over a major European steel company. The role of Europe in world affairs is shrinking. It will continue to decrease as the new century rolls on. A shrinking Europe, gasping for breath, is waging a rearguard action to preserve notions of its superiority that are absurd in the 21st century. European secular ideals, which at one time ruled the world, are under challenge from traditional cultures that were thought of as inferior until recently. The European mind has yet to learn to accommodate itself to the changing realities.

The target of the cartoons is not the Muslim nations who are a sorry bunch toiling under crushing burdens of illiteracy, poverty and massive debt. Vast areas in the Muslim world have become marginalized slums in the new global order. Some are occupied outright. It is more likely that the real target is the growing Muslim presence in
Europe. Immigration from North Africa has added five million Muslims to the population of France. Turks are a major presence in Germany. Indians and Pakistanis are three million strong in the United Kingdom. Conversion is alive and active. All told, there are fifteen million Muslims in Europe. And this number does not include those in the European portion of Turkey.

The growing Islamic presence is a challenge to secular
Europe. The immigrants, and the native converts, take their religion seriously. Unlike their Christian compatriots, the Muslims have not yet accepted the supremacy of a godless culture. Not knowing how to accommodate the new faith, an irreligious Europe reacts with a Xenophobia not witnessed on European soil since the 1930s.

There are elements of political mischief as well. The editors, and those behind them, knew there would be a reaction to the cartoons. Why was there this unnecessary needling of Muslim religious sensibilities at a time when there is a burning rage in the Islamic world? As if to reinforce the provocation from
Denmark, several newspapers in Europe republished the caricatures. The widespread protests and the loss of life and property accompanying them is exactly the fuel that feeds the Islamophobia of right wing political parties. The process works almost mechanically in three steps. First, you deliberately provoke. The other side reacts. You use the reaction as additional fuel to whip up distrust of the reacting party. Then the process repeats. Look for snapshots of the mass hysteria to be repeated on television news for years to come. There has been a sustained buildup of anti-Muslim propaganda in Europe over the last twenty years. The demonizing of Muslims, of their faith, their religious figures and their sacred books remind one of the demonizing of Jews in Germany in the early 1930s. Once a climate of Xenophobia has been created, and a potential adversary has been dehumanized, it becomes easier to isolate, marginalize and perhaps even expel him. Must the history of the 1930s be repeated all over again?

The conduct of Muslims is also hypocritical. While the cartoons were sacrilegious, no less sacrilegious is the destruction of landmarks associated with the Prophet in
Mecca and Madina. This writer had the privilege of visiting Saudi Arabia several times, the first in 1977, and the last in the year 2000. It was astonishing how many landmarks had vanished in the intervening years. Yet, where are the Muslim voices of protest against these acts of destruction? There was never a time in history when the followers of a tradition, be it secular or religious, systematically destroyed their own history and culture as the Muslims themselves have done in recent years. If this process continues, the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) may well be relegated to a legend like some other Prophets, rather than a figure who appeared in the full blaze of history.

On the face of it, the protests were against vilification of the Prophet. Yet, how many Muslim jamaats forbid their members to send darud when the name of the Prophet is called? How many forbid the celebration of meeladun nabi, the way it used to be done in bygone years? How many love him the way he deserves to be loved? Some Muslims have brought down the Prophet to that of a mere mortal who delivered a message and then disappeared. Gone is the mystery and the transcendence of Noor e Muhammadi. It is easy to vent your anger by destroying the property belonging to others. It is much more difficult to take stock of your own shortcomings and channel your anger to improve yourselves.

Let the cartoon episode mark a watershed in the modern history of Islam when the Muslims woke up and rededicated themselves to the love of the Prophet. Let us react to provocations and insults with acts of Ehsan within a paradigm of sublime love that the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) personified. It was divine love that sanctified the name of the Prophet.



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