We've been here before. Like two years ago, last week's rage in Pakistan over reprints of cartoons and a forthcoming Dutch film that insult Islam's holy book once again entangles Muslims and the West in a fury over freedom of speech.
In Pakistan's largest riot, 70,000 people gathered in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where I traveled last week, burning cars and cinemas. In Lahore, my birth city, at least two protestors were killed when a mob burnt Western fast-food chains, while in Islamabad students launched petrol bombs at various embassies.
They were protesting "Fitna" — "Ordeal" in Arabic — a forthcoming short film by controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Wilders, who has called the Koran a "fascist" book, has promised to release his film this month. They were also protesting the decision of several Danish newspapers to republish the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that provoked deadly riots after their first airing in 2006.
In a post-Sept.11 environment, where relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West are at best precarious, at worst distrustful, and above all central to everyone's security, the Danish editors might have known that reprinting the cartoons would provoke destructive behavior rather than encourage peaceful dialogue.
The editors might have considered that respect for democratic traditions and values does not necessarily trump the need to tolerate religious communities that are particularly sensitive to safeguarding their Prophets, icons and scriptures.
The editors might have shown restraint, knowing that any supercilious remark or one-time ribaldry against the Prophet and the traditions of Islam could unsettle Muslims worldwide.
But the editors did not. And now we have seemingly taken another backward step in trans-religious relations. The best would have been for the editors to think twice and refrain from fanning fires. The least they could do now is offer an apology.
The reprint of a cartoon in which the Prophet of Islam is depicted in carnival-like visuals again torches the Muslim psyche, antagonizing moderate and extremist Muslims alike. As in 2006, this year's demonstrations are frighteningly violent. Throughout the Arab world, demonstrators collectively condemned Western countries — in particular France, Germany, Italy and Spain — for reprinting the cartoons. Some issued death threats, while non-violent protestors in London, for example, carried signs with violent messages such as "behead those who insult Islam." Outside of the Muslim community, the Vatican stated that the right of freedom of expression should not be used to offend religious beliefs.
Moderate Muslims I know in the United States and Europe who did not participate in the street demonstrations expressed their frustration less explicitly, calling the cartoons a "provocation" and symbolic of Islamophobia. Muslims using violence to protest the cartoons should remember, however, that their Prophet exercised patience and restraint, and always preferred dialogue with his enemies to resolve conflict; Muslims were only granted permission to use violence as a means of self-defense. In this case, while Muslims regard the cartoons as an attack on their faith, the use of dialogue and vocal protests in various media outlets would have shown the West that Muslims are capable of conflict management in times of crisis.
Feelings of alienation and isolation, particularly among European Muslims, could make it difficult for Muslim communities to co-exist within mainstream Western societies. As a Western-educated Muslim woman, what I find surprising are the inconsistencies of the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. In April 2003 one of its editors refused to print cartoons of Jesus Christ because it would "provoke an outcry." The editors did not seem to have any trouble, however, printing three new drawings of Islam's Prophet, one of which shows him with the face of a pig, an animal Muslims believe is unclean, neither to be touched nor eaten.
It is apparent at this point that Muslims expect at least an apology from the editors. Undoing the damage done across Muslim communities will require more — further dialogue, broader respect, and deeper understanding.
© 2008 United Press International
Farhana Ali is an international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on March 21, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.