Europe and its Minorities

February 21, 2006

I am currently reading Elie Wiesel’s horrifying account of the holocaust, Night, which he wrote about fifty years ago in the aftermath of experiencing the holocaust firsthand. Reading it, one is left with little doubts that holocaust did take place and that an “immense and terrifying madness erupted in history and in the conscious of mankind” that led to the systematic extermination of vast numbers of European jewry. In fact, reading the novel one almost begins to identify with the author’s doubting the existence of a God that chooses to stay on the sidelines.
Denying the holocaust, a relatively recent and well-documented historical event, would at worst be a factual error, no more than that. One would think that no country in the world with a rule of law and respect for basic human liberties criminalizes erroneous historical claims, or jails people for committing factual errors and expressing personal opinions about historical events. Especially countries that purport to upholding freedom of expression, and excercising and defending it to the point of insulting hundreds of millions of people would be expected to defend the freedom to express controversial -or outright wrong and stupid- opinions. However, expressing doubts about holocaust is a crime in 10 European countries, and the jailing of historian David Irving is a case in point.
The timing of Mr. Irving’s demise could not be any more ironic, or embarassing: it comes at a time when many European governments and numerous non-governmental and civil society organizations have gone to lenghts to defend the publications of a series of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish paper. This blog joined a call to uphold and defend freedom of expression, including the freedom to question sacred matters and religious matters. By the same standard, it finds the Austrian courts decision to imprision Mr. Irving for denying the holocaust preposterous and mystifying.
Up until here, my agnostic views on freedom of expression, the holocaust, and Prophet Muhammad.
But how can one understand the glaring contradiction that has eruped in the mind of the European man between denying freedom of expression on one occasion and upholding it on another?
A cynical person would say that Europe has lately had a lot of trouble coming to terms with its increasing Muslim minority. From the hypocritical headscarf ban, to the Parisian riots of last year, to the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, and now to upholding statutes that criminalize the denial of holocaust, there is no doubt that many European countries are employing double-standards, and actively discriminating against their Muslim minorities. We are witnessing remnants of a colonial attitude towards Muslims, one that is condescending, patronizing, and full of contempt. One that sees Muslims as unenlightened, and given to the forces of religion, myth, and magic, like Europe itself during its own bad old days (the Dark Ages.) Europe, of all places on Earth, should pay more attention to its relations with its religious minorities.
Now to a person who is not so cynical: well, a person who is not cynical would be dumbfounded and confused about the whole thing, and would soon have to buy into the cynical perspective. This is what just happened to me.

Statement from Afghan Civil Society Organizations

February 16, 2006

In an attempt to balance out the views expressed in an earlier statement in response to the cartoon controversy and the protests ensuing from it, I am posting another statement that was sent to me by a friend from an Afghan Civil Society organization, ostensibly on behalf of a number of such groups. The statement is posted below, as is, and without edits.

On a related note, I have been roaming around the Farsi blogworld for the past few days and have seen the obsessive focus of every writer on this singular subject. With a few notable exceptions, most other blogs are myopical in their attention to this and no other subject. It feels as if the blogwriters have staged their own version of street protests (with the blogworld’s version of stone-throwing and violence, i.e. back-and-forths, accusations, defenses).

While the issue in question is an important one, and merits response -especially in the way that it has crystallized the tensions that apparently inhere in Europe’s relations with its minorities, and with the Muslim world- it is painstakingly over-analyzed by now. One wishes there was a moratorium on this subject until a single, intelligible response was sent out to the outside world. I feel like my compatriot blogwriters have used the subject merely as fodder for their intellectual mills and have forgotten their responsibility: that they are expected to speak out on their and many other people’s behalf.
But then again, maybe they are taking their time to agree upon a single message.
In the mean time, I shall wait and see.

Statement of a Number of Afghan Civil Society Organizations
Respect to Religious Beliefs

The Afghan civil society, affirming the universal rights of freedom of expression, considers the disparaging act of depicting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in caricatures, contradictory to the values of freedom of expression and therefore, condemns it.

We believe that mocking religious values, while negating the fundamental human rights and international conventions; would also damage the culture of tolerance and widens the gap between human cultures and religions.

As the world is becoming a small but global village such proceedings not only entails scattering within the human family but also undermines the efforts for peace and solidarity around the globe.

The civil society of Afghanistan, likewise, does not consider resorting to violence a rational solution to religious, social, cultural and political problems.

Therefore, we urge that people from all cultures, civilizations and religions, pave better grounds of dialogues with respect to and acceptance of one another. Realization of such a vision can liberate the human race from all forms of torture, contempt and humiliation as well as facilitates to have a beatific and immune life which every human being deserves in our common home, the earth.

A Call to Avert a Clash of Civilizations

February 11, 2006

(The statement below was prepared by a group of intellectuals, academics, and scholars -including yours truly- in response to the protests over the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. If in agreement, you may have your name added to the list of the undersigned by leaving a comment.)

A Call to Avert a Clash of Civilizations around Freedom of Expression
(Statement by a group of Muslim scholars, academics, and journalists)

February 8, 2006

As a group of scholars and intellectuals from various Muslim societies, we the undersigned express our deep concern over the latest wave of attacks on freedom of belief and expression that we have been witnessing in response to the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and elsewhere in the European press. We affirm the inviolability and universality of the basic human rights to exercise and defend freedom of expression and to organize and engage in peaceful protest. On the other hand, we regard violence, threat, and intimidation as methods that suppress open discourse, promote self-censorship, and eventually put an end to the process of dialogue between civilizations.

Inasmuch as reasoning is part of the human nature, the realm of religious belief is not immune to critical analysis. This is particularly true of Islam in view of its profound impact on the political, social, and cultural landscape of Muslim societies and its centrality to world politics today. Especially in parts of the world where the concept of red-tape and censorship is an anachronism, it is unreasonable to expect that open discussion of Islam’s political role remain a taboo, or the use of some of its directives by opportunistic and radical elements enjoy invulnerability to criticism. Further, it is our belief that criticism seeks multifarious channels for its expression and is not limited to satire and caricature, and to the extent that the recent caricatures of Prophet Muhammad have been singularly the target of protest and anger, we conclude that there are other elements at work that give shape to these protests.

Insofar as there has been no dearth of dissenting voices within the Muslim world that have faced similar reprisals under the pretexts of blasphemy, we are led to believe that the latest episode is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Rather, the stark absence of open discourse and dialogue within Muslim societies is an aftereffect of the totalistic control of various aspects of life throughout the histories of many of these societies. One cannot explain the violent backlash to the publication of the caricatures except by resorting to this history of control and conformism.

We further express our deep concern at the political opportunism that has led to the hijack of freedom of expression as a potent political tool in the turmoil that currently engulfs the Middle East, especially in the aftermath of the victory of Hamas in Palestine, the Iranian nuclear crisis, and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. There is no doubt that the ongoing discussion over the limits and bounds of freedom of expression is highly politicized. Therefore, it is high time that intellectuals and academics everywhere rise to the occasion and prevent the further politicization and exploitation of the current situation by extremists on all sides. We believe that it is uniquely important that intellectuals and academics within the Muslim societies take a stance on this issue.

In the end, reaffirming our belief in the inviolability and universality of the right to freedom of belief and expression, we condemn all resort to violent, illegal, and undemocratic means of confronting international issues. We call upon all the leaders of Muslim societies to work towards creating more open political spaces and building the foundations of civil society within their countries, and to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities therein. Now more than ever there is a need to demonstrate in action that a culture of dialogue is the most rational, effective, and peaceful method to deal with issues of national and international gravity.