Recently, Islamic leaders debated Islamophobia at the 57 nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which was held in Senegal . On the agenda was the Jyllands Poster Cartoons, published in Denmark and the proposal of Dutch parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, to make an anti-Muslim film that depicting Islam as a fascist religion. The question arises, is the reaction of the Muslim world towards perceived provocation deserved, or should the Muslim world be making a greater effort to teach out to secular and western societies ?
The Danish cartoon controversy strikes at the root of the problem, namely the dialogue between secular society and the orthodox Muslim community. The reaction to the Jyllands Posten affair has played into the hands of members of the Muslim Community who use religious identity as a political weapon against the west. But then again, the offense caused by the cartoons has been defended by groups that are seeking to create ethnic, racial and religious division, and drive a wedge of discontent between all muslims, moderate or otherwise, and western society.
There is a valid argument made by secularists that being constrained for fear of blasphemy is an assault on their freedom of expression and a free press. However, this argument has been spun and expanded by some sections that people of faith, even moderates, are politically motivated and want to take away secular society’s civil freedoms, bring in religious censorship and ultimately, through never implied by these agitators, impose theocratic rule.
Moderates on the other side of the divide also make a reasonable argument that freedom of speech and freedom of expression is not absolute and should not be used as an excuse to defame religions or religious symbols. After all, in a number of secular and western countries, including Denmark , flag burning is an offence, and where is the freedom of expression in that ?
The fallout from both extremist stances, as the Egyptian ambassador to Indonesia pointed out in the Jakarta Post, is an upsurge in racism, xenophobia and discrimination against members of religious communities, and this is happening not just to Muslims.
However, the OIC should certainly be concerned at the rise in Islamophobia. The Muslim community needs to combat this phenomenon by embarking on a public relations exercise to dispel the image that all Muslims are militantly religious. Growing hostility in both camps reflects the political fall out 9/11 and the mishandling of the war on terrorism, particularly by President Bush, but it also reflects more fundamentally the growing social and cultural fall out of globalization and migrations. This has provoked a strengthening of right wing political parties in the EU and a hardening of the neo-conservative stance in the US . However, this phenomenon as been matched by rising solidarity between EU liberals and leftists, and Muslim countries and communities against US foreign policy.
The OIC is not seen as a particularly effective organisation in terms of global outreach, especially towards non-Muslim countries, and it will be interesting to see how it follows up the meeting to the growth of Islamapohobia.
A thoughtful and diplomatic approach would be to build a coalition with other faiths, especially Christianity and Judaism, its monotheistic cousins. Islam should try to identify common values and sensitivities about religious symbol and make it clear that similar attacks on Christian or Jewish symbols will also to be regarded as offensive. There should be one rule for all, where Muslim rise to defend attacks, such as the Indonesian magazine, Tempo’s recent satirical cartoon showing ex-president Suharto as Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.
The OIC then should reach out to the secular society and support press freedom and freedom of expression, but ask for some understanding, tact and reasonable limits to its exercise. However, to build this coalition, the OIC would need to be prepared to open dialogue with secular groups and show a high degree of diplomatic skill. Sadly, I predicted this would not happen and we would be served the usual fare of rhetoric and set-piece speeches.
The fundamental weakness of the Muslim call for tolerance and understanding emanates from two sources. First, post 9/11, in secular, western minds there has risen an association between Islam, Muslim culture and terrorism. Those trying to derive a wedge between the Muslims and the west have vastly exaggerated and simplified the link. The media has lumped under the definitions of terrorism everything from Al-Qaeda, to political and tribal militias, to sectarian factions and local separatist and resistance movements. True, some of these conflicts occur in Muslim nations, but many of the “terrorists” have spent more time fighting each other than the west. It is lazy media and the fact that less than 10 percent of Muslim felt any sympathy or empathy with Islamist movements, militancy or terrorism that is grossly under reported. The fact of the matter is that Muslim countries and societies can be as progressive and democratic as secular and western societies as illustrated by recent elections in Pakistan and Malaysia , along with earlier elections in Turkey and Indonesia confirming strong trends towards modernization, and Muslim countries increasingly led by non-sectarian, secular and multi cultural parties. However, secular media and western politicians have been burying this in favour of car-bombings and decapitations. The OIC must try to redress this balance.
Second, there is a more fundamental weakness which the OIC and Muslim community must address. There is an explicit lack of social and educational progress and modernization in many Muslim countries, which leads Islam and Muslim culture to be overtly linked to backwardness and underdevelopment. This undermines the attempts of the Muslim community to be taken seriously as a force for modernization and moderation at global level.
Evidence of this argument was clear to see in Indonesia last month, as the southeast Asian nation hosted the seventh “E-9 Ministerial Review Meeting of Education For All” conference. This meeting emphasized that 70 percent of all of the world illiteracy can be found in just nine countries; Bangladesh , Egypt , Pakistan , Indonesia , Nigeria , India , China , Brazil and Mexico .
The facts are plain to see. Four of the nine are large Muslim countries and two of others have large Muslim populations. The Muslim world remains disproportionately poor and illiterate, despite the skyscrapers in parts of the GCC.
It is not ritual conflict and Fatwas over cartoons that will improve the world climate for Muslims. It will be its assertion of countervailing power based on growing economic and political strength, and increasing acceptance that being a Muslim can mean being a moderate and modernizer at the same time.
If the OIC wants supports from its own grass roots to help attract more international respect for Islam and its symbols, and for Muslim cultures and communities, then it has to connect better with the economic and social aspirations of the Muslim street. One way is to make better use of Islamic finance to develop the Muslim community’s social infrastructure and reduce the gaps between the haves and have nots. This will help provide the mainstream global Muslim community with the leadership that has been sadly lacking and help fill the gas which are otherwise filled by radical groups.
* Dr. Terry Lacey is a development economist based in Jakata , Indonesia .
This article was first published in the March Edition of International Business and Finance.