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Re-engagement, Not Disengagement!
It all started this time round with an amateurish and rather tawdry trailer for a film entitled Innocence of Muslims that meant to defame the Muslim prophet Muhammad and in so doing insult the ummah of Islam worldwide let alone perhaps goad some Muslims into acts of violence.

29 September   |   2012   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

It was quite a deliberate tactic and one that clearly yielded ample dividends with the violent deaths and ongoing attacks against US and Western interests across the MENA region and further afield.

Mind you, this latest incident - irrespective of whether it was allegedly choreographed by individual Copts living abroad or even aided and abetted by other groups or individuals - is not the real issue. It meant to seek publicity and to stir trouble, or as my history teacher used to say many moons ago, ‘to fish in muddy waters’ and in so doing embarrass Islam as a seemingly primitive and backward religion that cannot sit peaceably with ‘our’ Western norms and values.

Mind you, there have been other somewhat recent examples too. Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director and producer, worked with the Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali to produce the film Submission which criticised the treatment of women in Islam, aroused controversy amongst Muslims and led to his murder in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim. There was also the episode in 2010 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten created another furore by publishing a series of twelve drawings depicting the prophet Muhammad unfavourably. The publishers were roundly condemned by the Muslim world, embassies were torched and Danish products were boycotted by many Muslim nations.

And just under a fortnight ago, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo printed a series of cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammad and whose sketches purportedly focused on the recent tasteless America-produced film. So jittery is the situation that France chose to close its embassies and schools on a Friday in some twenty countries across the Arab and Muslim worlds since its foreign minister felt that they could well be attacked after the Friday weekly prayers.

But what phenomena are we witnessing worldwide? Has Samuel P Huntington achieved a posthumous victory by proving that his clash of civilisations is truly an irrefutable reality, and that never the twain shall meet when it comes to East and West? Are Muslim beliefs so removed from the norms of the so-called West that they cannot accommodate each other? Is Islam an incompatible bedfellow with Western secular beliefs, and has the post-Enlightenment era of Reason detached itself totally from the Muslim idea of Religion? Why is Muhammad such a mobilising - polarising - figure?

Let me start off by averring candidly that those instigators or mischief-makers from both sides who wish to exacerbate tensions between Islam as a body politic and the ‘West’ would not shy away from baiting each other. However, they are surely in the minority since the majority - often deafeningly silent - of Muslims and non-Muslims would wish to shun any unnecessary strife or carnage that leads to regrettable deaths, destruction and political or social disharmony.

But in the midst of such seditious elements, are we perhaps also witnessing the awakening of a countermovement? A colleague drew my attention recently to the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef who wrote in the prominent Egyptian Al-Shorouk newspaper that the Western world allows freedom of religion for Muslims, as manifest in the building of mosques and the licensing of their preachers, whilst Muslim countries do not allow others to publicly preach their beliefs. He joined Imad al-Din Hussein, another columnist for Al-Shorouk, whose searing piece suggested that supporting Islam and its prophet should be done through work, production, values and culture, and not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats. His premise was that maybe we [Muslims] should examine ourselves before [criticising] others.

However, and much as I empathise with the goodwill of such writers, I would also add that many parts of the West - certainly Nordic European countries as well as the USA - have over decades striven to move away from this discourse and separated the bounds of God from the boundaries of Caesar by subscribing to a set of basic freedoms that include the unfettered freedom of expression. After all, whilst Jesus has also been grossly maligned in some parts of the media, there have hardly been any convulsive reactions or physical outrage. Is it because the West has turned post-Christian and there is an acceptance in many peoples’ minds of the separation between personal creeds and public affairs that is still uncommon to Islam? After all, a key ontological moot point for me is whether prophets need our protection, and if they do, can they still be prophets? Much more so is it with Jesus perhaps who is more than a prophet for Christian believers.

But those Muslim reactions, hash-tagged on Twitter as the Muslim rage, are not simply antithetical reactions to the separation we witness in the West between the fundaments of the Almighty and the world - a separation that is less fathomable in some segments of Islam where the likes of Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, consider the divine (deen) and the temporal (dunya) coming together as one. So whilst those reactions are dogmatic at some level, and thereby prone to manipulation, I would also add that the acrimonious demonstrations we witnessed to date in many countries also reflect a more truncated reality that manifests itself in the transference of angry frustration among many Muslims - both in its inward and outward looking dimensions.

Such angry frustration takes form in many ways and has many roots. Let me go as far back as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses of 1989 [a semi-official Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii has just raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million] that in my opinion was a largely misunderstood literary piece but it touched a collective Muslim raw nerve. Let me also refer to the more recent - and more insidious - public posturing by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, who burnt copies of the Holy Koran. Let me add the unjustified war against Iraq in 2003, the American unarmed aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or drones violating the physical and human sovereignty of Muslim countries and hitting targets as part of US anti-terror policies, the Abu Ghreib prison abuses or even the ill-treatment of Guantanamo detainees. I need not import into this long paragraph the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that arguably remains the biggest omnipresent elephant by far in any room.

So all those who believe that God and Caesar are indeed inextricably intertwined and who also harbour pent-up and often deep-seated frustrations against their own societies or else against the West use such offences against the symbols of their religion (in this case Islam) to release their anger through violence. Acceptable or not, they seem to percolate in the collective psyches and memories of some Muslims until such time as they erupt publicly and the accumulated ire or worse fury is vented in reprehensible and oft-inexcusable let alone felonious ways. But whilst such reactions might be explained in anthropological or psychological terms, they still remain unjustifiable in human and religious terms.

I can always add at this juncture that such feelings of outrage are not being quelled with the ongoing bloody conflicts in the MENA region either. After all, the repercussions of the killings in Benghazi extend far beyond Libya or the sad death of an outstanding ambassador and his colleagues. In fact, the MENA region might well be another tinderbox of sorts, not least with the continuing deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians. But the anger of MENA residents (I hesitate to use the term ‘citizens’ since many such residents still remain deprived of essential citizenship rights) is also inward-looking in terms of the deplorable poverty levels, unemployment, corruption and economic stagnation that are endemic to many parts of the region and have as much to do with internal political mismanagement as they do with Western culpability.

However, despite my awkward logic that interprets such violence, I still refuse to believe that the invidious riots of the past month are an ironclad indication of an irretrievable breakdown between different peoples, their faiths and cultures. Or to paraphrase US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “How could they hate us when we helped rid them of Qadhafi?” which is symptomatic of a sophomoric understanding of MENA politics. After all, this is the violently regressive work of a small group, and one of the iron laws of Middle Eastern politics for decades has been that extremists push out the envelope whilst moderates tend to hold back and keep mum. But was the disdain of many ordinary Libyans to the violence not visible when they stormed the headquarters of the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi?

I would therefore argue that such a grassroots manifestation in Libya could well be replicated elsewhere. After all, Arab intellectuals have for long decades been writing and talking repeatedly about those issues. One only needs to read some of the writings of critical thinkers such as Hisham Sharabi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Khaled Fahmy, Sadeq Jalal el Azm, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Elias Khoury, Saoud el Mawla, Nawal Sa’adawi, Madawi Rashid or Raja Ben Slama. But unfortunately, the necessary internal debates within Arab secular and religious societies that such intellectuals labour for in their own countries have been stifled by autocratic rulers ‘whose regimes traditionally suppressed extremist Islamist parties but never permitted their ideas to be countered with free speech - either with independent, modernist, progressive interpretations of Islam or else by truly legitimate, secular political parties and institutions’. So I would suggest that the so-called Arab Spring could well provide the platform for such a critical debate. True, the outcome remains quite unpredictable, and many intellectuals remain timorous, but the cogent question to be asked is not “What is wrong with the West?” or else “what is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?” since the answers to those questions are in many books but rather would those pioneers be allowed at long last to engage their societies and filter their thoughts to the populace?

I am afraid all this entails a process of awareness-raising and education, two buzz words that are anathema to autocratic systems let alone to religious zealots, since both parties thrive on manacling fundamental freedoms and exercising their hold on people through malingering fear or manufactured bigotry. But this is not a Greek hamartia let alone an attainable aspiration. It is indeed achievable, with the right leadership, vision and mettle, and I already hear that some Muslim producers let alone Al-Azhar in Cairo are considering the production of documentaries that portray the life of the prophet Mohammad - a portrayal that could help debunk some myths within Muslim societies first let alone in the West.

Let me go back to Huntington’s pervasive underlying question: is it possible to stanch the polemical ‘them’ versus ‘us’ argument? Or will we simply bollix in our collective efforts and in so doing prove we are truly incompatible bedfellows? What we need is not further disengagement between peoples and cultures but rather further re-engagement between them.

In the final analysis, and perhaps more as an obiter dictum, let me add that one of my mentors used to remind me often that my confidence in my own beliefs - irrespective of their nature - should urge me to question them all the time so they can be renewed and grow healthier. It was not an easy challenge then, and it certainly is not an easy one today either!

Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political advisor and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2012   |   29 September


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