Monday, February 13, 2006

Solutions to the Prophet cartoons controversy

What would be the solution to the Prophet Cartoon row? Difficult to say. Javier Solana is in the Middle East. I dont thing he would have gone there with any single solution. It probably would be a few series of things that have to happen.


Possible scenarios:


The controversy may die its own natural death. A slim chance of this is there.


Middle-eastern countries say we have had enough of protests. Very much unlikely, though behind the scenes they may try to discourage it. Besides it is a much wider movement


European newspapers get together and say we wont do it again [I was dreaming :-)]


EU adopts some measure (non binding as being circulated) making it unwelcome to ridicule religions. Reasonably likely


UN says it will pass a resolution making ridiculing of religions unwelcome. Reasonably likely - possibly in tandem with EU


Europe and OIC announce joint conference/effort to address this issue in future. Very likely.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Understanding the controversy over the Prophet cartoons

It has been several days since the protests over the cartoons of the Prophet began. It shows no sign of abatting. There has been deaths in Afghanistan over this. This week - another French media outlet - published the cartoons - helping to keep the issue alive. Reams of paper and endless hours of debates have been spent on this - very few catching - what seems to me a striking contrast.


A majority of the publications in the US, UK and India have desisted from publishing these cartoons, whereas they have been published in many countries across continental europe and New Zealand. Jordan and Malaysia are exceptions - cases in which it was an editorial goof up (so are we told).


What is the link? The countries in which they havent been published - it seems - have had years of multi-cultural experience, where people of all faiths have lived for generations. The media there are more sensitive to these issues. True of America, true of UK. Cant say the same about Continental Europe and New Zealand. It seems to be a clear case of Islamophobia in these countries - masquerading as Freedom of Speech. France - one may argue - has the largest concentration of Muslims in Europe (5 million). True - but as the recent riots and the scarf issue showed - those muslims arent all integrated successfully.


It is time for Europe to wake up to the multi-cultural reality they are today.


There is an interesting article on Denmark in The New York Times today. It is written by a Dane, living in Washington, who also happens to be a correspondent for a Danish paper. He argues "Denmark's reputation as a nation with a long tradition of tolerance toward others ... is something of a myth."


He continues "What foreigners have failed to recognize is that we Danes have grown increasingly xenophobic over the years. To my mind, the publication of the cartoons had little to do with generating a debate about self-censorship and freedom of expression. It can be seen only in the context of a climate of pervasive hostility toward anything Muslim in Denmark.


There are more than 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, a country with a population of 5.4 million. A few decades ago, Denmark had no Muslims at all. Not surprisingly, Islam has come to be viewed by many as a threat to the survival of Danish culture.


For 20 years, Muslims in Denmark have been denied a permit to build mosques in Copenhagen. What's more, there are no Muslim cemeteries in Denmark, which means that the bodies of Muslims who die here have to be flown back to their home countries for proper burial".


He also says - contrary to the impression being created - "the real story is that they and their followers ran out of options. They tried to get Jyllands-Posten to recognize its offense. They tried to enlist the support of the government and the opposition. They asked a local prosecutor to file suit under the country's blasphemy law. And they asked ambassadors in Denmark from Muslim countries to meet with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. They were rebuffed on all counts, though a state prosecutor is currently reviewing the case. But, really, what choice did they have?"


A pretty eye opening account.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Non-violent protests

Muslims must learn to calibrate their protests. The violent nature of some protests - by some extreme muslims - brings disrepute to the whole community. Even genuine causes can get tainted because of those actions.


Over the Prophet Muhammad Cartoon Controversy, there has been a call to boycott goods from Denmark. Boycotting of goods is a peaceful way to protest. Yet - there has been at least couple of instances in which embassies of scandanavian countries have been attacked. This is a disgrace.


Boycotting of goods has been a form of protest practised all over the world - including the West. Ralph Nader - former US Presidential candidate - has been an advocate of this method of protest over many issues in the past. The US has sometimes imposed on its own or through the agency of UN economic sanctions on many countries.


The blame for the incident is not originally with the Danish government. True - the Danish PM was insensitive, but much of Europe is like that. The rhetoric on Freedom of Speech is high and religion gets scant respect - any religion in fact. Boycotting in a blanket manner all goods from Denmark doesn't look reasonable. It is actually select media outlets in Europe and elsewhere that is showing lack of understanding and the fact is most of them are not under government control. So what to do?


Media survives on advertisements. A planned - if necessary sustained - boycott of goods that advertise on the offending media outlets is more targetted and reasonable way to react. This will bring back the focus on the issue. Get a list of media outlets that indulge in provocative activities, prepare a list of companies that advertise in those media and organise boycott of those goods. Internet is available to give wide publicity to such a campaign. The same model can be extended in case of countries that indulge in violations of principles and act in an illegal/immoral/autocratic/imperialistic manner. Big business - which would see their bottomline suffer - will make the organisations see reason.


One must not forget in all this: Freedom of Speech is very important. We cannot react in a way that throttles that freedom. We must also not forget violence is ugly and counter-productive. It hurts innocents in most cases and serves as a bad model for the younger generation to follow. And boycotts should not be organised on every other trivial issue. If used carefully and sparingly, it is a useful way to bring changes. The world is more integrated today than ever before to express opinions in a forceful, but also peaceful manner.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Unfettered freedom of speech?

As many commentators have pointed out in the current controversy over the Prophet's cartoons, Freedom of speech is one of the essential features of a democracy. Yet - we must also not forget that this is not an absolute freedom. There are checks on it in every society. You are not supposed to libel for example. Saying George Galloway took money from Saddam is one thing. But failure to provide any proof thereto is entirely different and can be really costly as some newspapers in Britain discovered.


Those who supported the action of the newspapers that published the cartoons have argued that there can be no limit on the right to caricature anybody, even Gods or Prophets. They wish to point out that for many years, the western society has caricatured the Christian figures with little to no protest.


This is not a strong argument. One can argue lack of strong protest probably shows that the Western Christianity is less attached to its religion than other societies are (Exhibit: Near empty church benches for Sunday masses across Western Europe).


It is also naive to claim that - look I don't react badly when my religion is lampooned, but why do you react extremely when your religion is lampooned? The reality is our reactions are clearly determined by our attachments to our beliefs. It so happens, Muslims are emotionally more attached to their faith. One could say the same about Hindus everywhere, Christians in Asia and Africa.


Listening to some of the debates, one was also able to hear some say these people came to Denmark etc for the freedom it offers, they should learn to live with the values of the host country. It is clear in this argument that the immigrants - who are now citizens - are being suggested to be belonging to a separate category of citizenship and must always be conscious about their places of origin. Something to which one can take offence by itself(One common argument on discussions in BBC went like - you dont have these freedoms in your own coutries etc). As citizens, these people have a right to put forth their opinion peacefully. Period.


On Hard Talk yesterday, the Culture Editor (Flummel Rose) of the newspaper (Jyllends Posten) that originally published those cartoons wondered why should I respect your taboos?. Interesting question. The taboo in this case - lest we forget - is painting of the Prophet at all. One may or may not observe it. But to paint him as a terrorist can clearly cause an offence (it is not a just a religious taboo). The one cartoon where Prophet is shown to stop potential suicide bombers - for example - by saying that the heaven has run out of virgins - conveys the message that Islam somehow sanctions killing of innocents. Many Islamic commentators have argued putting forth religious texts how Islam prohibits suicide and killing of innocents. It plays into a stereotype that the western mass media - more specifically some Hollywood movies and right wing outlets - have created. It was really immature on the part of the European newspapers to see this as exercising freedom of speech, rather than see it as more than a subtle incitement to hatred.


The Jews were persecuted in Europe with such common paradies as cruel money-lenders etc. Would it be acceptable in Europe today - for example - to caricature the Jewish faith or its God as saying 'No, no - I dont need anymore money; I have enough in my kitty' following say a severe economic depression in Europe - in the context where Jewish Multi-billionaires and oligarchs are perceived to control the world's purses? Wouldn't immediately it be termed anti-semitic? People are seeing double standards here. Let us also remember those cartoons were meant for a children's magazine.


It is also strange to hear from these European countries the argument that Freedom of Speech should be unfettered whereas it is fettered there over many issues: Holocaust (you cannot deny it), Homophobia, Racial incitement etc. The argument would be - the rider to the freedoms is our exercise of the freedom shouldn't threaten violence (in cases of Homophobia and Racial hatred - it will). That still leaves the holocaust.


The only argument plausibly one can think of for protection of holocaust memory could be Europe was host to it and hence this special provision in law in some countries. But then why would rest of the world care with such niceties and why do some get worked up when the Iranian President questions the Holocaust? And why should we be denied more closer scrutiny of the holocaust - like any other historical event that is put under scrutiny?! Holocaust was something that happened just about 60 years back. A tragic event - but likes of which has happened before and has happened after. What really to say of democracies that put historical events beyond question, but feels OK to insult to religions of all hues, admittedly?!


Freedom of speech is important, very important. But one cannot be purely dogmatic about it. We have to take into account the reasonable sensibilities of others. I stress reasonableness - because every emotional outburst cannot be catered to in a civil society. In this whole cartoon debate, had it been just the benign images of the Prophet, it would have been less controversial. It would have been too much of the Muslims to demand that non-muslims too not draw even a benign picture of the Prophet. The offence in this incident is that the cartoons - conceding perhaps it was an ignorant attempt - were clearly offensive, provocative to a lot of people. It promotes hatred and prejudices.


Argument that Europe doesn't take its religion seriously and so shouldn't rest of the world wouldn't wash with many people. European secularism seems to veer more towards less or absence of God in their lives, whereas in other parts of the World, it is more towards observance, trying to respect the religious symbols and co-exist. The West should stop imposing its values on others, get down the pedestal and start treating rest of the world with a little more respect and understanding.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Clash of values? The Prophet Cartoons Issue

On September 30, 2005, a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons centred on Prophet Muhammad. The paper itself termed them provocative - commissioned with the intent to explore the boundaries of free speech. These were supposedly following refusal of several cartoonists to take up the work for a children's magazine.

It is not clear whether the chosen cartoons were for the book. If yes, the question that arises here - given the cartoons' themes (Prophet as terrorist etc) - whether this is what Europe's children are learning now: Islamophobia. We have had preachings from the West in the past that children in the Muslim world are being brainwashed to hate the Western society and people. Look what they themselves are doing now?!

The issue has been simmering since October apparently and got bigger following the republication of the cartoons in a religous Norwegian magazine. Now - with the calls for boycotting Danish goods gaining ground - some other newspapers in Europe (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) have republished the cartoons in the spotlight.

As many muslims would point out, there are two different issues with the cartoons: One - there was a picture of prophet at all. Muslims abhor a picture being drawn of the Prophet - good or bad. Two - disrespecting, blaspheming the Prophet.

I believe the first of the issue is less serious than the second. Anybody who has a vague idea of Islam would clearly understand how important it is for muslims that no picture of Prophet is drawn. To non-muslims, however, it is just a borrowed knowledge. They intrinsically would never understand it as a serious, core issue for the muslims - lying at the heart of their religion. Given this, the effort of the Muslims should remain to educate those who are driven to draw harmless pictures of the Prophet to refrain from doing it. Some may listen, some may not. Our effort should continue on the line of educating.

The second issue - that of blaspheming the Prophet or any other religious character - is a different matter altogether. I would write about them in another posting.

Starting all over :-)

This is the first post in this born-again blog. It is only logical to set out what it would be its subjects. Quite a handful of them I should say. I am an Indian, a Muslim and I take quite a lot of interest in world affairs. A combination that should never have me complain about writer's block!