They sit, they talk, they crib, they sulk, eat sumptuous food and disperse. They come from all over the world; they claim that they represent 1.5 billion people. They produce almost 70 percent of the world oil and 40 per cent of other natural resources. You have guessed it right. I am talking about the Organisation of the Islamic Countries (OIC).
Recently concluded OIC meeting deliberated and its energies were mainly consumed by sulking and cribbing about the rising Islamophobia. A report presented at the OIC said: “The Muslim world has created a plan to defend its religion from political cartoonists and bigots. The report concludes that Islam is under attack and that a defence must be mounted.” The members were concerned about what they saw as a rise in the defamation of Islam. Leaders of the world’s Muslim nations meeting at a Summit in Senegal considered legal measures against those who insulted their religion or its sacred symbols. They resolved that there should be a “legal instrument” to crack down on defamation of Islam, but it is unclear what kind of legal action could be taken. One view is that there should be some laws as they have in Europe which prohibit anti-Semitic rhetoric.
There is wide-spread reaction in the Muslim countries against the insipid cartons of Prophet Mohammed made by Danish cartoonists, writings of Ayyan Hirsi Ali and an anti-Islam film made by a right-wing Dutch producer. Another Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was assassinated when he made a film criticizing Islam. Like a spoilt brat or an angry husband most protestors are breaking and burning their own country’s properties, observing strikes and raising hysterical, violent slogans. The issue is: does it matter to the people who live in countries where such art works are produced? In the nineties Muslim countries protested against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses, then Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of her country. In all these movements the defenders of Islam have not once come out with a sound ideological and intellectual argument. Resort to violence and hysterical demands only shows that Muslim leaders are lazy to counter the propaganda against Islam at an intellectual plain.
This is an age of knowledge and information. OIC leaders should realise (perhaps they know it better) that no law can stop people these days in expressing themselves. Muslim world cannot impose its own value system on rest of the world. The Western world has made movies like “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Ten Commandments,” and a parody of revelation of Ten Commandments. There are scholars who challenge the belief that Christ’s birth was an immaculate conception and claim that Mary was married to Joseph. A number of leading western writers have written and spoken against Christianity and Judaism. Their freedom of expression is respected. It is therefore pointless to tell them to respect Prophet Mohammad and Islam.
Anti-Semitic laws do not protect Judaism from criticism it can only be invoked when Jews are criticised as a race. Muslims are not a race. At the same time laws which prohibit people from criticizing a particular religion or its personalities would mean the Ulema’s who run down other religions in their Khutbas will have to avoid it. It also means no debate about religions.
Danish and Dutch governments do not approve of these cartoons or film making but their freedom-of-expression laws do not empower their government to ban such outlandish outbursts. Freedom of expression is based on the famous saying: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend it till death, your right to say it.” But the issue is freedom of expression also lays a heavy responsibility on the people and more so on media to exercise this freedom objectively. Even viewed from an unbiased platform, it has to be accepted that Prophet Mohammad’s cartoon was distortion of his role in history. He fought battles either to defend his people and land or to expand the area of influence in the tradition of tribal Arabia. So portraying him as a terrorist is misrepresenting the history.
The Muslims should not give importance to such views which are better left ignored and contradict such views on rational ground. Emotional and angry outbursts are the tools of the irrational people. They can never win the argument with such reactions. Satanic Verses is a difficult reading, but Muslims out burst against it attracted many people to read it, who would have otherwise not touched it. Taslima’s Lajja is an ordinary book with nothing blasphemous in it. But the reaction of intolerant extremists gave it undue importance.
Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid had rightly advised: “All too many Muslims fail to grasp Islam, which teaches one to be lenient towards others and to understand their value system, knowing that these are tolerated by Islam as a religion. The essence of Islam is encapsulated in the words of the Quran: “for you your religion; for me my religion.” That is the essence of tolerance.” (Wall Street Journal article “Right Islam Vs Wrong Islam”)
Indian Muslim scholar and writer Maulana Wahiduddin Khan had also endorsed this view of Islamic pluralism: “Muslims mistakenly regard it as their duty to stop any visual depiction of Prophet Mohammad. This is untrue. It is the followers of Islam who are forbidden to do so in order to discourage idolatry. Moreover, Islam forbids imposing its beliefs on people of other faith. Even in Muslim countries Muslims cannot impose their laws and culture on others.” (Pioneer (India) “Muslim must ignore cartoons”)
In Muslim countries over the last 1400 years the iconography issue has changed. Most Muslims agree that Prophet Mohammad image should not be made. But till a few years back such images were available in Iran and Turkey’s back streets. Some images are with the Museums in Europe but have been removed from display for fear of reaction. Drawing human form was an issue in Muslim societies but it changed over the course of history. Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red deals with this issue in his wonderful book set in 16th century. Most Moghul Kings promoted paintings, except Aurangzeb who got even animal faces made on the walls of palaces scrapped. In present times there are people like Maulana Aziz who didn’t want to be pictured but his brother exploited television to the hilt.
The report presented at the OIC “This Islamophobia that we see in the world has gone far behind a phobia. It is now at the level of hatred, of xenophobia and we need to act.” Question is why this Islamophobia has risen now. The main reason is that afraid of globalisation and in reaction to the US’s aggressive policies in Middle East, a transnational Islam has appeared. Ira M. Lapidus in his book A History of Islamic Societies has explained it well: “The Islamic revival has strengthened transnational (international) Muslim movements committed to a variety of goals, …. The creation of a Caliphate or global Islamic society, and the victory of Islam over non-Islamic – especially western Christians and Jewish – cultures.” Oliver Roy calls it a ‘Globalised Islam.’
Though in minority unfortunately these Muslim movements, which came in prominence with a bang on 9/11 have stolen the leadership from moderate Muslims. What started as Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is now an international movement with recruits from all Muslim countries. Their intolerant ways are giving a bad name to Islam. They do not represent the vast majority of people, something which was proved in the recent elections in Pakistan. But because of their violent methods, they are considered the face of Islam.
In this backdrop instead of taking a reactive line, OIC should consider positive ways to present to the world that Muslims are tolerant people. For this they should shun the policy of demanding muzzling of dissent, even vulgar attacks on cartoonists, Rise and argue your case with confidence if you think you have a case. Do not indulge in theological diatribes; just project the modern Muslim society, love and tolerance among people of different faith and all other good stories which depict us as civilized beings.
OIC would be better off in spending a couple of billion dollars in promoting that Muslim societies are not what some rejectionists are presenting. Muslims are moderate, tolerant and modern people. A well-thought out PR strategy is needed with a positive programme. This will counter Islamophobia which is based on lack of understanding about Muslims. They should know that Muslims are also rational people and are not living mentally in the medieval period. Stop sulking and reacting, be pro-active and positive.
OIC Summit, as expected, failed to pay attention to more burning issues where Muslims are killing Muslims. Given a political they can collectively play an important role. So far OIC has not made any serious effort to mediate between Hamas and PLO, between warring Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, between Taliban and the Karzai government in Afghanistan and between warring Muslim Darfur factions. If they really want to make this talking forum effective they should raise a peace force and offer to replace the American and NATO forces in the Muslim countries. This will automatically change the antagonistic relationship with the West and bring down Islamophobia. It’s time for action and not for just passing resolutions.
The writer is a freelance journalist (firstname.lastname@example.org)