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by Amir Taheri and Andy Clark et al.
Amsterdam Forum, Radio Netherlands
March 11, 2006

The Danish newspaper that spurred the row
"If we don't tackle it as it should be tackled this very simple cartoons issue could have, in the long run, a more damaging impact than September 11," Tariq Ramadan.

This week, Amsterdam Forum focuses on the fallout of the row which engulfed the world after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Two of the world's leading commentators on Islamic affairs join the programme.

They are Islamic scholar and author Tariq Ramadan and journalist and author Amir Taheri.

Some categorised the riots that followed the publication of the cartoons as a sign of a "clash of civilisations". For these analysts, the unrest exposed a deep ideological rift between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

And with both sides in the debate defending absolute positions - freedom of speech on one hand and freedom of religious belief on the other - it did indeed seem as though there was a gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust.

Click to listen to the programme
But can this really be called a clash of civilisations?

Key quotes from the discussion:

Amir Taheri on whether the row has exposed deep distrust between the Muslim and non-Muslim world:

"I don't think so - this is quite a sweeping statement - we have had this kind of thing before over Salman Rushdie's novel and there are always political forces behind it."

"'For example, in the case of the cartoons, these were published in September and the row started after the Organisation of the Islamic Conference considered it and then the Iranian government became involved, the Syrian government became involved and the Muslim Brotherhood - a political movement - became involved."

"The demonstrations were all taking place in countries where no spontaneous demonstrations are allowed - if you demonstrate in Damascus on your own, you go to jail and here all of a sudden you have people attacking the Danish and Norwegian embassies in the name of cartoons."

Angry protesters burn the Danish flag
Amir Taheri on the "clash of civilisations" question:

"Civilisations don't clash, political powers do, countries and political parties and so on. Civilisations learn from each other and exchange and co-operate."

Tariq Ramadan on the "clash of civilisation" question:

"No, I don't think we can talk about a clash of civilisations but we have to be aware and look at the situation as it is on both sides - not only with extremists - the far right parties on one side and the radicals on the other side. There is a mistrust and there is a great deal of misunderstanding and the perception is of 'us' and 'them.'"

"You have people in the West saying 'what is going on there' - they feel there is something coming from the Islamic world, which they do not understand. For Muslims, the feeling is that 'they are insulting us in the name of their freedom of speech.' The perception that it's two worlds is wrong, but what could be the consequence if we don't manage, control and speak from within and just try to be more vocal as to the fact that we have common values, that we are all for freedom of speech - if these voices are not heard then we are giving the floor to the people who want this kind of polarisation and who are instrumentalising the whole story with a specific political agenda."

"If we don't tackle the issue as it should be tackled, the consequence of this very simple cartoons issue could have, in the long run, a more damaging impact than September 11."

Amir Taheri on whether or not portraying the Prophet Muhammad is banned:

"There are lots of images of the Prophet Muhammad - we are talking in London [the discussion was recorded in London] and we could take Mr Ramadan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to the British Library and to many other places where there are hundreds of images of the Prophet Muhammad in books written and illustrated by Muslims and there are many thousands more in museums and libraries in Muslim countries."

"This absolute ban on images of Muhammad is wrong - it doesn't exist."

Tariq Ramadan on whether or not portraying the Prophet Muhammad is banned:

"If you ask the Muslim scholars - among the Sunni scholars - the consensus is that we are not allowed to portray the Prophets - not only the Prophet Muhammad. This is for two reasons, the first is out of respect and the second is to avoid idolatry. The fact is that 99 percent of the average Muslims are saying we can't do it [portray Muhammad] so for me it's not only a theological question."

Tariq Ramadan on the politics behind the escalation of the row:

"I was in Denmark in October and it was clear it was not going to be a story - it was clear that the Muslims understood there that they had to be quiet and just say to the government that they were not happy with it. What happened was a group went to Islamic majority countries and some governments and they wanted to present themselves as representatives of Muslims and they went with other pictures and cartoons [more inflammatory than the ones actually published] and we know that some governments, the Saudi government, the Syrian government and the Iranian government started using it and were saying 'okay, we are now the champions of the Islamic cause,' and this is how it was instrumentalised. In this way, many of the people's frustrations were directed against the West and not against their own countries."

"On the other side when I was in Denmark I spoke to some journalists and they told me how they wanted to provoke, how they wanted it to happen - so it is clear, you have far right parties, you have conservatives who are happy to show 'these' Muslims are not going to accept 'our' values. So, you have on both sides this instrumentalisation and polarisation - and this is why we should be vocal against both sides."

Amir Taheri on the politics behind the row:

"Iran's dispute with the UN over its nuclear ambitions will be under scrutiny at the Security Council this month under the rotating presidency of Denmark, and Syria's case of involvement in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri - the former Lebanese prime minister will also go to the Security Council this month. So it was an opportune moment to provoke this 'clash of civilisations' and portray the West as anti-Islamic, so that whatever decision the Security Council might take will be seen as a prolongation of this Western hostility towards Islam. It is entirely politically motivated."

"Regimes like these constantly find an excuse with which to tell their people that the West is against them, saying 'we have to fight these crusaders and Zionists and infidels' - this is to perpetuate their despotic system."

Image from the film Submission - Hirsi Ali made it with director Theo van Gogh who was later murdered by an extremist
Tariq Ramadan's reaction to Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali who gave an international press conference in Berlin at the height of the cartoon row to back the publication of the drawings and, in her words, 'defend the right to offend:'

"Nobody is saying that we don't have the right to offend. The question is: is it wise, and is it the way forward for us in our societies? It's as if she's saying that freedom of speech is absolute, which it is not. First you have the legal framework - second we know we are touching and tackling some sensitivities here and it is wise when we are in a pluralistic society to say 'I have the right to do it, but I have the civic sense of responsibility not to do it.' It's not censorship that we want. You know, the difference between censorship and respect is that censorship is the removal of a right, whilst respect is asking you to use that right in a reasonable way."

Amir Taheri on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's stand:

"Well, she is a politician therefore she is not a disinterested party in this debate - she's addressing her own constituency and looking for votes and it is a right in a democracy to be as stupid as she wants to be."

Asked why he called her stupid:

"Well because the way to manage relations between the Dutch Muslims and the rest of society is not to provoke both sides - it's to find things that they could have in common and there are lots of things they could find in common."

Amir Taheri asked how damaging the row has been for relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world:

"I don't think it has been damaging in the long run - it is one of the blips on the road. These kinds of skirmishes take place and Islam has survived them - Islam has been lampooned by much greater figures like Dante and Voltaire and nothing happened. Islam is too strong and we should not be fearful - a frightened Islam becomes frightening and we should not become frightened by things like that."

Anti-Danish site at the height of the furore over the cartoons
Tariq Ramadan on long-term damage caused by the row:

"I think as to the mutual perception it's not good at all, I really think it's damaging, but we should not nurture this victim mentality, we have to react and to build and this could be an opportunity to try and know each other better and to know what it means to promote freedom of speech and democracy and living together. But still when you are dealing with the communities at the grass roots level - with average Muslims and Europeans - you can feel that the perceptions are quite negative and there is a great deal of mistrust. So we have to use this to build something, which is stronger. I am not scared and I would never spread fear and I'm quite optimistic, but it will be very difficult very long and demanding."

A selection of the emails you sent us on the cartoon row:

Jan Velema, Ontario, Canada: "There is not a gulf between the West and Islam. There is a gulf between reality and fantasy. As long as humans continue to believe that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc are reality and not mythology and legend, we will be trapped in this life of fraud and deceit."

Carlos Borjal, Chicago, Illinois, USA: "The Muhammad cartoons published in Denmark are an expression of free speech in the West. The absurd and violent reaction of radical Muslims reflects their simplistic mind-set. Indeed it's a clash of cultures with no easy fix. Unfortunately, religion with all its good intent is the cause of a lot of worthless misdeeds and unnecessary evil in this world as demonstrated throughout the history of mankind. If natural events don't destroy us, humanity will destroy itself. We are the only species in the face of the earth with a great appetite to self-destruct."

Roberto C. Alvarez-Galloso, Miami Florida, USA: "The gulf between East and West is now bigger with this controversy."

Morten Aagaard Jorgensen, Denmark: "To all you Muslims out there. The Muslims want respect of their prophet, we do! If we really hurt your feelings then - by all means - we are sorry for hurting you, but that does not give an excuse for violence and riots, and now it is your turn to apologise for all the death threats and flag burnings. If you want an equal place in our society, please just take the chair next to me, all I expect of you is that you behave and treat my home as you would want me to treat yours. This was a gasp for air from a fed up Dane."

Anil Kumar Upadhyaya, Lucknow, India:"I do not want any insult of any religion in any form by media or public or government. I think everybody should respect every religion, customs and traditions. We need global harmony in the global community."

Nicky, Toronto, Canada: "What do Muslims suggest to Christians about the Da Vinci Code, should they kill the author of that book. Sooner or later somebody will have to break the Islamic taboo, and Muslims will have to accept that."

Maria Martin Oerlemans, Australia: "They should forget all about the cartoons because they live in democracy and try and understand that there is freedom of speech and expression. And if they don't agree with the country's laws then, go elsewhere."

Mark, Sarnia, Canada: "The cartoons expose the unwillingness of Muslims to ever discuss their religion and some of its 'terrorising methods.' The religion of submission tries to make all submit to its demands."

Tim, Arkansas, USA: "The publication of the cartoons has caused a gulf, but I defend the right of the publication to publish the cartoons even though I don't like the cartoons and find them to be of bad taste. Like Voltaire, I don't like what the Danish paper did, but I defend them. The Muslim protestors are acting too much like children in the playground who have all gotten their feelings hurt."

Michael Mullock, Philadelphia, USA: "A gulf? It is something more on a galactic scale. And while we're at it, may we stop calling it a 'row.' A row usually ends up with someone sleeping on the couch. This is a fissure between two societies that will challenge us for generations and change everything including the concept of 'freedom of religion.' I pose a question. If Islam is unwilling to change, are we willing to face the implications? The options may be less religious and in fact downright Darwinian."

Doug Matthews, Calgary, Canada: "If in exercising your right to expression, you offend people, as the Danish cartoonist did with his rather tasteless renderings, then you should not be surprised at an angry reaction. However, I think that hysterical mobs burning down buildings is a rather extreme and unwarranted reaction. I do not believe that freedom of religion gives anybody the right to commit rather secular crimes such as arson, assault and the threat of death. If your religious leaders exhort you to go and kill people due to somebody drawing a cartoon, and you agree with those leaders, then there is something seriously wrong with you and something seriously wrong with your religion."

Adam Daniel Mezei, Prague, Czech Republic: "What concerns me is that every time something in the Western media - in this case Denmark - is found to be highly offensive to Muslims, the reflex action is to propose and equally offensive idea in relation to Jews. All I ask, where is the proportionality? Where is the balance?"

Hui Shui, Newfoundland, Canada: "Are the Muhammad cartoons exposing a gulf between Islam and the West? Well, it is not because of the cartoons that there is a gulf. The gulf never disappears. These cartoons just give a chance to show it. People tend to ignore its existence while everything is okay."

Vera Gottlieb, British Columbia, Canada: "Even in the best of times, religion has always been a touchy subject. How would Christians react, if a Muslim cartoonist would draw an offensive and blasphemous cartoon of Jesus? This goes far beyond 'freedom of expression.' This is out and out needless provocation of Islam. Any kind of 'freedom' has its limits and it comes with responsibilities. Justifying 'anything goes' under 'freedom of expression' just isn't acceptable. How far are we from being 'barbarians?'"

Osama, Jordan: "Freedom and freedom of speech we all respect. On the other hand we should respect people and what they value. I'm Christian and Jordan is my country. If this crisis will continue, believe me we here will be the only victims. Let's feel responsibility to others lives and beliefs."

Brian Merrit: "No civilised society can tolerate those who deliberately provoke riots by stirring up racial hatred. It is intolerant that the western media keeps reproducing offensive images, despite the violent reaction provoked by them. In its lust for sound bites and shocking images, perception of reality has started to eclipse reality itself."

Amy Jonsson, Sweden: "First and foremost the cartoon is no ordinary cartoon - it presents Muhammad as a bomb-carrying, sword-waving lunatic, which is offensive and criminal. The sole purpose was to offend Muslims worldwide and they have achieved it. Freedom of speech comes with a social responsibility; you cannot print everything and anything."

Tariq Ramadan has written and co-written 20 books including Western Muslims and the Future of Islam referred to in the discussion. He was named as one the world's most 100 innovative thinkers by Time Magazine last year.

Dr Ramadan lectures at academic institutions and civic organizations around the world. He is a member of multiple international organisations and steering committees. Through his writings and lectures he has contributed substantially to the debate on the issues of Muslims in the West and Islamic revival in the Muslim world.

In the wake of the London bombings last year, he was appointed as an advisor to the UK government. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at Lokahi Foundation and Visiting Fellow at Oxford St Antony's College.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist and author. Between 1980 and 1984, he was Middle East editor for the London Sunday Times.
Between 1972 and 1979, he was executive editor-in-chief of Kayhan, Iran's main daily newspaper.

He has been a columnist for the pan-Arab daily As-Sharq Al-Awsat and its sister daily Arab News since 1987.
His articles appear in newspapers the world over. He has also written nine books - including a study of Islamist terrorism, Holy Terror.

Amir Taheri is also a regular commentator for international television stations on Islamic affairs.


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