Is this the infamous clash?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ARE we witnessing today the clash of civilizations predicted by Samuel Huntington after the Cold War ended? One would have liked to believe that this is not the clash. But how else would one interpret the calculated publication of the blasphemous caricatures of the Holy Prophet(PBUH) — they were actually commissioned by the culture editor — by the Danish weekly, Jyllands-Posten and the violent reaction they have provoked in the Muslim world — again incited by a group of extremist Muslims.

What needs to be noted is that the civilizations that are clashing are not those of the Muslims and the Christians. The confrontation is between two cultures, that of the fanatical extremists on either side. There are the demonstrators all over the Muslim world who are going overboard in their protests against those they hate (their government, the Americans and anyone they have a grouse against) and they are using the cartoon episode to mobilize public support. Over 30 people have already lost their lives on account of the violence unleashed. There are others, mainly Europeans, who are concealing in a subtle manner their racism in the name of freedom of expression and secularism.

Unfortunately, in this clash the Muslims appear to be on the losing side. One can understand that the odious nature of the drawings and more so the malicious intent of their creator and publisher would provoke even the most level-headed, calm and composed of Muslims. But then does that merit a continuing wave of protests accompanied with violence? A dignified protest, such as the silent march of the parliamentarians suggested by the PPPP MNA, Aitezaz Ahsan, would have been sufficient to make the point that Muslim sentiments had been hurt.

The unending nature of the protest is shocking because it amounts to giving these dubious pieces of art more importance than they really deserve. And what has been the result? The paroxysm of anger that has been generated has virtually played into the hands of those whose motive in undertaking this project was to test the waters and prove if they could that Muslims are a violent breed.

The first demonstration by Muslims in Copenhagen soon after the publication of the cartoons in September was peaceful and logically the matter should have ended there. But it didn’t. As pointed out in a BBC programme by Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, a rare voice of sanity in the Islamic world and a key spokesman for the Muslims in the inter-faith dialogue, some vested interests stoked the fires to agitate the Muslims. This was a risky venture as the Muslim societies are reputed to be volatile and get agitated at the drop of a hat.

When there was not enough of a reaction a delegation of some Danish Muslim hardliners visited Cairo, Damascus and Beirut with a 43-page dossier and the original cartoons to plead their case. The idea was to incite a public reaction which they managed to get in the form of a meeting of leaders from 57 Muslim states who condemned the desecration of the image of the Prophet. That set the ball rolling. More European papers reproduced the offensive pictures in the name of freedom of expression and all hell broke loose.

The West also has its fundamentalists — not necessarily of the religious kind but the so-called champions of cultural freedom, racism and human rights. How else would one describe the Italian minister who had the cartoons emblazoned across his T-shirt or the editors of the newspapers who reprinted the cartoons in support of their professional colleague’s right of freedom of expression? They are no better than the demonstrators in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar who ransacked banks and shops while chanting slogans denouncing the cartoons.

That all this was not spontaneous but planned is plain from the fact that it took three months for the frenzy to build up. Now the moot question is, what has anyone stood to gain from this continuing turmoil? Only the extremist elements and the fanatics on the fringes on both sides have entered the fray and are deriving some sort of pleasure from it.

When the dust ultimately settles, as it must, it is the Muslim world that will emerge the loser for two reasons. First, the kind of reaction we are witnessing has gone beyond all rational limits. Those inciting the protests are using the occasion to give vent to all their animosity against a) the West, b) all other religions and c) against their own political rulers who they oppose. Since the demonstrators feel the more vehement and the more vitriolic they are protesting the greater impact they make. Secondly, if it actually comes to an encounter — even a non-military one — between the Muslims and the non-Muslim world we stand no chance of winning the war against “the infidels” to use the term of the religious bigots.

The fact is that this kind of protest is not bridging the gap between the two sides. In fact the middle ground between them — comprising the moderate, peace loving, tolerant people who abhor racism, religious extremism and show respect for other faiths and culture — is rapidly shrinking. This is the worst repercussion the cartoons and the protests have produced. The extremists on both sides wanted this to happen because they feel their strength is eroded by the huge numbers on both sides who share a common ideal of peace, tolerance and enlightenment. This middle ground acts as a buffer and prevents a confrontation. The extremists who are spoiling for a fight want this middle force to be marginalized and eliminated.

This middle force believes in a dialogue to sort out differences and insists on people showing respect and tolerance for every faith. The people trying to do it might be simple folk or world personalities. Thus people like Bill Clinton, Prince Hassan bin Talal or Kamila Shamsie writing in The New York Times are saying the same thing in different words. There is the Shia orator a friend mentioned in her letter from London. She wrote, “On Saturday I had a new experience of attending a majlis in a church with a Christian priest and Maulana Jan Ali Shah conducting it before a mixed Muslim and Christian congregation sitting together. Both sides talked about the similarity in the Christian’s and Muslim’s idea of loving God and the suffering of Jesus and Imam Husain. I listen to Jan Ali Shah on TV. Here he is trying to unite the Sunnis and the Shias. Then he wants to bring the Christians and the Muslims together. May Allah make his dream come true.” Anything wrong in that?

If the voices of moderation fail and a clash of civilizations were to ensue, the Muslims would be the losers. Whatever we might boast about the strength of our faith, the Muslims are without doubt the weaker side. Numerically, Muslims living in Muslim majority states constitute barely 20 per cent of the total world population.

In terms of education, skill and technology they are the most backward lot with more than a third of them not even being able to read and write. Economically many of them are endowed with a wealth of resources. But what are these used for? Not to strengthen human resources and make them fighting fit to take on any contingency.

The inequitable distribution of incomes and the concentration of wealth in a few hands in Muslim countries show that the bulk of the people are deprived, disadvantaged and with no motivation to struggle for a cause. Does it surprise you to read that in Nigeria (an oil-rich OIC member) the Gini index that is a measure of equality (0 being perfect equality), is 50.6 when it is 25 in the Scandinavian countries? It is the OIC that has the dubious honour of having members where a number of countries have more than 40 per cent of their population living below the poverty line — Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Yemen.

So it is time the leaders organizing these rallies stopped and pondered the consequences of their suicidal acts. They are playing into the hands of the extremists on the other side who want to provoke a confrontation in which the Muslims stand no chance of winning. And if these rallies are designed to serve the organizers’ political aims, it is time they stopped exploiting religion for their political gains.