Building a Bridge Across the Cultural Divide

Ahmad Bushnaq

It all started with 12 cartoons published in an obscure Denmark-based newspaper. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone anywhere in the world who has not heard about the uproar and controversy. Every commentator and talking head is offering an opinion about the issue, taking sides and trying to interpret the undying firestorm. What is missing from most of those venues is an attempt to explain the background behind the events. Many questions come up: Why are the Muslims so angry? Why are they rioting in the streets? Don’t they understand freedom of speech? How will this end? In order to grasp all of this, we need to start at the beginning.

The main tenant in Islam is to believe in one God and the message of Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet holds a very honorable position in the faith, as do all the prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, from Noah to Abraham to Jesus. They are treated with the respect and honor due to their service as messengers of the divine. Additionally, images of the prophets are strictly and explicitly forbidden, whether they are portrayed respectfully or not. This is done out of high reverence for those prophets, as well as to keep the focus on their messages rather than on the individual.

The cartoons of the Prophet shown in European publications were deliberately offensive and played on the worst possible stereotypes of Muslims in the West. The Danish newspaper’s editor made the claim that he was doing this to fight against the self-censorship being exercised by artists and journalists in the West when it came to the Muslim faith. The subsequent publication by various newspapers was a sign of protest and a stand for free speech. The more papers that published the cartoons, the stronger the reaction from the Muslim world, as demonstrations became louder and more widespread.

Is freedom of speech absolute? Where do we draw the line, if at all? Some people might argue that there should never be a restriction on free speech under any circumstances, that it is a sacred, absolute right. Yet, with such a right, responsibility has to be exercised, and it is successfully exercised by many people on an everyday basis. Nobody in their right mind would call the fact that it is illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater censorship. TV and radio stations regularly restrict the type of programming they show to respect their audiences’ sensibilities. The law contains provisions allowing people to sue for defamation and libel. In other words, there is an expectation in today’s society for the responsibility that comes along with this freedom.

What the newspapers in Europe did was, at best, an act of irresponsible baiting. As the situation got worse and passions became inflamed, they poured fuel on the fire in a blatant publicity stunt instead of exercising responsible restraint (as newspapers in Sweden and the UK demonstrated when they refused to publish the cartoons).

What about the response? Does the offense justify the boycotts, demonstrations, violence and embassy burnings? It has to be made clear that in Islam, attacking innocent people is strictly forbidden. The people running the embassy, the foreign nationals who were threatened and kidnapped, and the death threats are the result of passions that boiled over from a multitude of issues, with the cartoons serving as the final straw.

Did the governments in the Middle East stoke the flames, as the E.U. and the U.S. are claiming? Perhaps. It certainly provided an ideal opportunity for governments that have oppressed their own people for a long time to let out some frustration on the West and ease the pressure on themselves. It also must be noted that the majority of the protests and calls for boycotts have been peaceful. Leading Islamic scholars from around the world have come forward with calls for calm and for peace. Naturally, the main events that make it into the media are the more sensational ones involving violence, death and injury. The complex local reasons for such violence are ignored or barely mentioned, if at all.

So what are the next steps? What can we ordinary people do about the spiraling firestorm? Should we just ignore it until it dies down and goes out of the media spotlight? Should we wait for world leaders or the United Nations to come up with a resolution that will probably be shelved after plenty of fanfare and talk show appearances? Hardly. What we all need to do is start talking to each other. What we need is a genuine dialogue based on the desire to understand one another.

More than ever, we need to reach out to our neighbors who are different from us, both locally and globally, to counter the rising tide of anger, alienation and belligerence on both sides. There are people on each end with their own agenda and interest in stoking the flames, but the real problem is that the vast majority of people simply do not understand each other, even though they think they do. There are many ways to correct this situation, especially in today’s age of modern communication and the internet.

Connecting people from the East and the West, as well as learning about the other side from many different available sources, is easier than ever. Technology affords us an incredible opportunity to reach out to others across the globe, crossing national and international boundaries and encountering cultures and people we might never have encountered otherwise. On a local level, we all work, live, play and shop with people who are different from us in many ways.

We should get to know each other, visit our neighbors and talk to those living near us who may be from another city, another state, another country, or perhaps another continent all together. It is up to ordinary people to bridge the gap that has lead to this firestorm. The time is short and the situation is dire, but there is always hope as long as there are honest people who are looking for it. Here’s hoping that we find it before it is too late.