More Fallout from the Cartoon Jihad?
by Stephen Schwartz
LONDON — HAVE SUNNI MUSLIM LEADERS, in Saudi Arabia and in Western Europe, turned a corner toward a new and positive attitude in relating to the Judeo-Christian world? A conference convoked, on short notice, at the Wilton Park center in England this month by the British Foreign Office and the Organization of the Islamic Conference holds out grounds for optimism. The Islamic Conference is the association of 57 Muslim-majority countries headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Its last Muslim world summit, held in December in Mecca, called for new approaches to a wide range of issues relating to Islam.
Some of the participants at Wilton Park had attended still another meeting, this one organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On the subject of Islam in Europe, it was held in Warsaw in September 2005, mere weeks after the London terror bombings of July 2005. In Warsaw, the message from Western European Muslim leaders had been uniformly defiant and aggrieved. None of the participants had shown any willingness to admit the guilt of radical Islamists in the threat of a global clash of civilizations.
At Wilton Park, by contrast, the tone was almost entirely moderate, and many present, from countries as disparate as Senegal and Bangladesh, expressed significant disquiet at the growing alienation between West and East. The Wilton Park meeting included much discussion of last winter's "cartoon controversy" over the publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and the angry and even violent reaction in some Muslim quarters. A substantial delegation of non-Muslim Danish officials at the conference were treated with polite respect, while debate in the corridors was lively.
Conversations with a number of those attending left the impression that the cartoon controversy had produced an effect nobody expected: It had made ordinary Muslims in Western Europe realize how fast their situation could take a sharp turn for the worse. One Muslim born in Africa and living in a major Western European city, speaking not for attribution, told me, "After 9/11, Westerners were shocked; after 7/7, they were angry; but after the cartoon affair they are simply contemptuous of us. They think we are stupid, easily manipulated, and offended by trivial matters. And increasingly, we feel they do not want us around."
Islamic Conference secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turkish professor, supported the perception that the cartoon affair had come as a bucket of cold water on the heads of Muslim leaders. "Existing dialogue mechanisms [between Western European governments and Muslims] have failed," he said. "All the activities and contributions of the past appeared to be insufficient when a challenge tested the true meaning and purpose of dialogue." Ihsanoglu went on to call for "reconciliation between the West and Islam." In a column published by the Cairo daily Al-Ahram and distributed as an Islamic Conference document at Wilton Park, Ihsanoglu elaborated, describing "decades of initiatives and attempts for a dialogue between the Islamic world and the West. . . . The dialogue took many forms and [involved] various themes. However, it is very difficult to assert that it led anywhere."
The Islamic Conference, although financed by the Saudis, has come under the administration of the Turks, whose history of secularism and desire for acceptance in Europe may have been the determining factors in making the discussions at Wilton Park notably calm. At the Warsaw OSCE meeting last year, Turkish diplomat Omur Orhun was the only person even to mention the problem of Islamist extremism, and he did so at the conclusion of the conference, in a near-whisper. At Wilton Park, Orhun recognized that European Christians and Muslims live in "parallel . . . mutually exclusive societies" and argued that the solution is not to reinforce Muslim separatism by preaching radical ideology, but to make further efforts toward civic integration.
Sharp criticism of Muslim behavior was voiced by Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani woman who serves as a special rapporteur on freedom of religion at the United Nations. Jahangir cited the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which affirms the right of religious conversion (phrased as "freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one's choice"). She spoke against blasphemy laws, declaring that "the rigorous protection of religions may create an atmosphere of intolerance."
Jahangir pointed out that threats had been made against a U.N. investigator on Sudan, Gaspar Biro, by Sudanese authorities in 1994, for allegedly insulting Islam--an ongoing problem in that tragic land. She was particularly acute in noting that critical analysis of blasphemy laws has itself been labeled blasphemy. In a survey of countries in which school textbooks promote disrespect for other religions, she cited Saudi Arabia as a specific Muslim example--in the presence of an official Saudi representative.
PONDERING THE CONTRAST between the Warsaw meeting last year and the Wilton Park discussions suggests another explanation for the difference in rhetoric. The 2005 confab was held under the auspices of the OSCE, which embodies relentless political correctness. The OSCE's 2006 meeting on Islamic issues, which took place in Warsaw after the Wilton Park encounter, included representatives of the Saudi-backed Arab American Institute (AAI), headed by James Zogby, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), neither of which is involved with Islamic matters, but both of which are venomous in their propaganda against Israel and the United States.
The OSCE also invited the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) into its tent. MPAC remains notorious for the quick response of its executive director, Salam al-Marayati, to the horrors of September 11, 2001. That afternoon, he went on Los Angeles radio station KCRW and said, "We should put the state of Israel on the suspect list [in the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks] because I think this diverts attention from what's happening in the Palestinian territories."
But the Islamic Conference and the Saudis turned not to the OSCE but to the British government as a cosponsor for their consultations this year. And the Blair government's stand alongside the United States was forthrightly expressed in an opening speech by U.K. minister of state in the Foreign Office Kim Howells, a tough former miners' union official from Wales. Howells said that military "action in Afghanistan and Iraq had nothing to do with the faith of Islam but with the political and security issues that these countries posed." He went on to ridicule those who claim the Iraq intervention was motivated by oil.
Howells's candor seems to have had an effect. At the end of the Wilton Park event, Bashy Quraishy, an Indian Muslim minority-rights monitor who lives in Denmark and distinguished himself at the 2005 Warsaw conference by his virulent attacks on Western media and on George W. Bush, proposed that European Muslim groups open a serious dialogue with Jewish groups, putting aside past disagreements in the interest of a common continental civility.
Some European Muslims, then, have understood that unless they adapt to Western European norms, they face, to paraphrase the Turkish diplomat Orhun, further deterioration of the social environment in which they live. If Euro-Muslims have turned the corner toward a new recognition of their responsibilities, optimism about the defeat of the radicals and their jihad may be justified.