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French Version

Western leaders and media must stop stirring up public opinion against Islam

Certain Western political and religious leaders along with members of the media are guilty of stirring up public opinion against Islam. Whether this is intentional is beside the point. It's happening and must be stemmed if Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" is to be prevented.

The latest onslaught appeared in an op-ed published by the French paper Le Figaro. Penned by Robert Redeker, the article accused Islam of "exalting violence."

But the problem goes much deeper. Anti-Islamic currents have been simmering since September 11, 2001. This disturbing trend emanates from three separate Western strata: political (governments, intelligence agencies and think tanks), certain members of the clergy and influential members of society (arts and media).

The chasm began with what was presented as an innocent slip of the tongue. When Muslims reacted angrily to George W. Bush's September 2001 use of the word "crusade" they were considered over-sensitive. If the word hadn't come from the lips of a devout born-again evangelical he might have been afforded the benefit of the doubt.

The US president apologized and all was well until the Reverend Franklin Graham, a preacher close to the White House, jumped into the fray, calling Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."

Ignoring outrage from prominent Muslims, the US television preacher Pat Robertson poured fuel onto the embers by describing Islam as a "violent religion." Then in the autumn of 2002, Jerry Falwell, an evangelical minister, appeared on the CBS show 60 Minutes calling the Prophet (PBUH) "a terrorist."

In 2004, the Dutch columnist and director Theo van Gogh released the film "Submission" showing verses from the Koran painted on women's bodies. Shortly afterwards he was assassinated. The result was a public backlash against Muslims in Holland, hitherto known for its religious tolerance.

In 2005, the attacks on Islam continued with cartoon depictions of the Prophet (PBUH) published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Howls of protest ensued but these didn't deter 143 international newspapers from reprinting the offensive material.

Five years on from that terrible day in September 2001 the attacks on Islam continue unabated. On August 10, 2006, Bush issued a reminder to the American people that "this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." Did he forget the controversy caused over his use of "crusade" or did he no longer consider the feelings of Muslims an important consideration?

A renewed attack on Islam came just a month later from an unlikely quarter, Pope Benedict XVI. The pope's followers feigned surprise that Muslims would be hurt by anti-Islamic quotes delivered by a theologian, known to be one of the Catholic Church's foremost intellectuals. The pope, they said, was taken aback by Muslim outrage. It's doubtful that his predecessor Pope John Paul II would have been so oblivious.

Responding last September to a leaked US National Intelligence assessment that suggests the Iraq war has led to a mushrooming of jihadist ideology, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had this to say:

"Look, 9-11, which is the worst terrorist act in world history, happened before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if you go back to this movement founded on a warped and perverted view of Islam, the roots of it are deep."

Blair just doesn't get it (or pretends not to). Muslim anger is generated by ongoing Palestinian suffering and the decimation of Iraq as numerous official reports suggest. The prime minister, however, prefers to blame what he calls an "evil ideology," in the hopes of getting himself off the hook.

The above represent just a small selection of the insults heaped on Muslims since 9-11: Numerous reports allege that US prison guards have disrespected the Koran. Muslims are regularly being ousted from airplanes due to nervous passengers who object to the wearing of a T-shirt printed in Arabic or the sight of fellow passengers sporting Islamic dress or beards. Muslim charities have come under suspicion, which has led to a drop in charitable donations even though Zakat (giving a proportion of one's wealth to the poor and needy) is the third pillar of Islam. Islamic banks have had their funds frozen while under investigation. Mosques and Islamic bookshops are being monitored by security services.

Islamic schools and their text books are likewise being scrutinized. The wearing of the hijab was forbidden in French public schools forcing some devout Muslim girls to drop out.

The British Home Secretary John Reid visited East London in October in an attempt to persuade British Muslims how to raise their children.

"Look for the telltale signs now," he said. "Talk to them before their hatred grows and you risk losing them for ever."

One can only imagine the screaming headlines if Reid had wagged his finger at a primarily Jewish or Christian group.

Western intellectuals often view the attacks on Islam through the prism of free speech. They contend that nothing is above criticism or discussion and seek to paint Muslims who object to insults against their core beliefs as unreasonable reactionaries, troublemakers or even the favored mot de jour "terrorists."

Nobody can or should attempt to condone violence or assassination in response to words spoken in ignorance but it must be understood that Islam is an emotive issue with most Muslims. Islam is more than a religion. It isn't something that is practiced one day each week. It's a way of life and being.

Critics should also take into account the heightened sensitivities of Muslims at a time when their countries are occupied by Western powers that seek to redesign the Middle East in their own image, and when Muslims are being abducted, incarcerated and tortured.

Moreover, when it comes to the issue of free speech, we must consider this: Would the rights of those who condemn Islam and insult the prophet be upheld with such fervor in the West were similar offensive statements being made against Judaism rather than Islam? If we're being honest we already know the answer to that one.

Free speech is a wonderful thing but even in the West it has its limits as anyone who cried "fire" in a crowded theatre, publicly called for the elimination of the president or denigrated the Holocaust would soon discover to their cost. Surely those who willfully set fire to inter-religious harmony are equally as guilty.

In fairness, Muslims should help to repair the damage. While keeping a wary eye on orchestrated political machinations, Muslims should take into account East-West cultural differences. The type of religious slurs that hurt Muslims to the core would not necessarily have the same effect on Americans or Europeans. To avert a widening chasm between the world's l.4 billion Muslims and the rest of the planet, Muslim leaders must use any reasonable means to deter the snowballing of anti-Islamic assaults sanctioned by governments.

Their silence is in part due to the current political and military vulnerabilities of some Muslim states. It's doubtful whether the terms "fascists" or "evil ideology" would be used by contemporary Western leaders in relation, say, to China or Russia.

In the same way that Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is officially "Defender of the Faith" (in this case the Church of England), rulers of Muslim nations should see themselves in a similar light. For if they are not willing to defend their peoples' faith, dignity and security then who will?

It's interesting that upon his succession to the throne, Prince Charles wants to be Defender of all Faiths - a fine sentiment worthy of being emulated by all world leaders.

Khalaf Al-Habtoor is chairman of the Al-Habtoor Group.

Beirut,10 16 2006
The Daily Star
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