Ethan Casey is a Seattle-based international journalist, frequent public speaker, and author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004).

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Muslims and the West: talking past each other

On February 12 I posted a piece here that I titled "This is not about press freedom", as a response to a terrible article by Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute about the Danish cartoons controversy, called "This Is Not about Mohammed's Turban". (My piece links to Radu's piece.) Since then the controversy has moved on, and so have my views. I still think Michael Radu's piece is terrible and that Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons, acted foolishly and irresponsibly. But I've read Rose's defense of his decision and responded to it in my just-resumed weekly column for Pakistan's leading daily newspaper, The News:
[Rose] and the Muslim world are talking past each other. This is clear from the distinction Rose makes between 'radical' Muslims -- those 'propagating shariah law', in his words -- and 'moderate' Muslims, who "accept the rule of secular law". In his national and cultural context, Rose is not wrong to use such definitions. But they don't readily translate into an Islamic idiom, do they? At any rate, the best argument against his decision to publish the cartoons in the first place is this: In the current world climate, why go out of your way to stir things up?

You can read my full 800-word column here. I appreciate the opportunity the column gives me to be a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. (I also appreciate my editors' forebearance during my recent and unexpected five-month hiatus.) The News publishes my column under the rubric "View from the West", and I'll be linking to it on this blog every Tuesday.


Roger said...

Dear Ethan

In a recent opinion you write that "Muslims shouldn't threaten violence or attack embassies, but what this controversy really reveals is how poorly the West understands Islam and Muslim sensibilities, and even more so how little respect we really have for an entire civilisation and history that is crucially important to more than a billion people worldwide."

I wonder if you would hold the same reasoning with Christians. The West should be in a better position to understand Christian sensibilities but does this stop the publication of cartoons lampooning Jesus or the Pope or any other Christian’s revered figures? Recently the TV screening of Jerry Springer the Musical sparked an outraged response from some part of the Christian community. The BBC received some 20 thousand letters of protest but the whole story was promptly dismissed as a fundamentalist’s overreaction and freedom of speech and artistic expression was promptly brought forward and the uprising quelled.

Why, in a Western civilisation that is well informed of Christian’s sensibilities and who own so much to two thousand years of Christianity, why was the reaction so insignificant despite receiving so much publicity?

So we also have little respect for an entire civilisation and history. What part of this history deserves respect exactly? It is easy to look back with some nostalgia to a glorious past cleaned of its excesses, failures and crimes. Glory to the Romans, who built their empire on slavery, a tradition initiated before them by the Greeks and continued by the freshly converted North African Muslims and the later Turks. Glory to the Victorians who built their empire by stealing and draining the natural and human resources of their colonies. Long is the list of the nostalgic grandeurs of the past. I know you too well to believe that you do not see the world in such a black and white fashion. People are no more ignorant of the achievements of Islam during the Dark Age, than they are of the achievements of other civilisations (though a BBC programme such as “What the Muslims did for us” is missing…).

Then you make the strange assumption that Muslims across the world have a history crucial to them as if it was a common and shared past and experience. I may read more than what you actually wrote but that's how I understand it. If true what is common between a Muslim in Indonesia and a Muslim in Nigeria? The story of the development and conversion of people to Islam across the world is complex and spread through a few centuries. The first population to convert did it when faced by the early incursion of the united Arabs under Mohammad, while later converts did it in reaction against the abuse of various colonial powers or its indigenous successors. They share the Koran but do they share more (cf Shi’a, Sunnites, Wahhabi…)? In this regard, there is as much in common between two sects of Islam as there is between a good Kent protestant and a Nigeria one. Hence what past is important tomilions of people?

I do not believe Islam needs to be protected or defended. In contrast I believe people should be and in particular against all form of indoctrination from a very early age that will condition their ignorance, limit their horizon and constrain their ability to accept the other, and this is true of all form of beliefs.

Yours truly,

nausherwanlahori said...

Your attempt to understand and explain the cartoon controversy from the point-of-view of different cultures deserves credit. However, one must not ignore the blatant hypocrisy and double-standards afflicting the wider Muslim world. Muslims cry themselves hoarse over the alleged injustices they suffer at the hands of the west, but very conveniently ignore the unabashed institutional discrimination against non-Muslims in their own countries. Muslims living in secular western democracies demand equal rights, but in their own countries they treat non-Muslims as second class citizens. Think about non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, the Ahmedis in Pakistan, the Chinese in Malaysia, the Bihais in Iran. The list is very long.

(Incidentally, only yesterday a frenzied Muslim mob destroyed two churches in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur).

Muslims' hysterical reaction to the publication of some poor quality cartoons in an obscure newspaper in a tiny European country is as hypocritical as it is comical. Did anyone in the Muslim world criticise the destruction of the statues of the Buddha by the Taliban? Or, more pertinently, did Buddhists around the world behave in such a childish manner to protest against the destruction of their sacred religious symbols?

tehmina said...

dear ethan,
The sentencing of British historian David Irving on charges of denying the holocaust by an Austrian court couldn’t have come at a more appropriate timing. Can any one smell the rat here? Call me a skeptic but doesn’t it look like rubbing salt in to some deep lesions? The Muslim world is crying hoarse, seeking a simple apology from the so called champions of freedom of _expression. They don’t get it after numerous protests but voila Mr. David gets the stick for his views. So where is the right to speak one’s mind now! Poor David Irving got it all wrong, freedom ends where anti Semitism begins?
I wonder why did the west decide to stir a hornet’s nest at a time like this? Why are most of the European countries supporting this whole shameless act so vehemently? The saner voices are their no doubt but they are too feeble to be heard. The world needs peace it is volatile enough with out such acts of brazen disregard for other people’s religions .Doesn’t the cartoonist realize the enormity of what they have done. It is not about freedom of _expression, media does not function according to these laws. There are some unwritten laws and they are not dictated by books or by country laws. These laws are meant to show respect towards human beings and their emotions. Lets hope good sense prevails and some one acts fast to repair the damage done to the neutral status of the countries involved in this affair.


This is with reference to your article: "Muslims and the West: talking past each other View from the West", published in "The News", Pakistan.

The Muslims have immense love for the Prophet. They will never put up with an attack on the Prophet's dignity. What the Europeans are in effect saying is that they have a right to insult the Prophet. This is total confrontation. There is no room here for a dialogue. In fact peaceful coexistence between the Muslims and Europe is impossible on this basis. For Europe, it is a war of choice, and Europe has chosen war over peace.

Flemming Rose's contention, that he would be demeaned and dimnished unless given the right to insult the Prophet, is fantastical. Why should the values of the so-called "secular democracy" be the norm in the "public domain" in a pluralistic world? This is arrogant and hegemonistic, and the values of "secular democracy", as understood by Flemming Rose, are rotten, provocative, and incendiary.

Anonymous said...

a)Dear Mr. Casey,
Like always your last column carried by the News was thought-provoking. You end it with a question, ‘where does the answer lie?’ after tabulating the positions perceptibly taken by the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. I’m no scholar but whatever I understand of Islam, I believe there is a simple answer to the conundrum.
The Quran ordains that we Muslims can’t denigrate any of the prophets or any Holy book. It goes so far as to prohibit casting aspersions on any set of beliefs. For the Muslims, there two important injunctions in the Holy Quran. First, that religion can’t be forced on anybody. Second, that as regards those who do not accept Islam as their religion, the Muslims should follow a policy of co-existence, particularly vis-à-vis the people of the book.
Unfortunately, the majority of Muslims tends, generally, to follow the dogma and ignore the spirit of the Islam. The Jews, perhaps because of their persecution in Europe for centuries, have turned awfully inward-looking and blatantly land-grabbing in Palestine which incites great hostility between the 2 people. On the other hand, the Christians are,
generally, more accommodating and secular.
The inter-faith wrangles appear to be, generally, sparked by ignorance, politics or some other consideration. As you are well-versed in South-Asian élan, people react to religion-related provocations in a precipitate fashion. Sometimes, on such occasions they over-react to embarrass Govts which are normally not consent-based. At times, minorities have been targeted here to spite a Govt which rules by the gun; even elected-ones fall on to the receiving end due to short-sightedness of some leaders.
Inter-faith harmony can improve but it is an arduous task. As the third world riles in poverty, ignorance and exploitation, there is a goodwill deficit against the former-colonial powers as well as the US, more so since 9/11. It may be not fully justified but
despondency appears to be affecting the psyche. Unfortunately, the indifference of the west, generally, and US’ eternal quest/ support for the authoritarian regimes adds another sad dimension. However, I’m hopeful we’ll find some reasonable modus vivendi as human beings.