Ethar El-Katatney

Danish + Muslim = Happily Ever After?

Posted in Det Frie Ord by Ethar El-Katatney on February 2, 2007

CAIRO: “Danish Reporter in charge of publishing cartoons about our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, has burned to death in a fire, and the Danish government has been concealing the fact.”

This rumor traveled like wildfire from phone to phone in Egypt last month, attesting to the fact that the infamous “Danish cartoon crisis” is far from forgotten in Muslim minds.

Quick recap of the scenario: The Danes say, “We are free to publish what we want.” The Muslims say, “You are not free to insult our Prophet.” Chaos ensues.

I am not here to debate on the validity of either party’s concerns (which, might I add, would be akin to flogging a dead horse), but to examine the effects the cartoon crisis has had on me and my community, and to try, in my own small way, to tackle the question: Where do we go from here?

Back in school, we were taught a concept called association. If I ask you what comes to mind when I say “Aladdin,” you’ll most probably say “lamp,” or “genie.” If we apply this concept by asking an Arab or Middle-Eastern Muslim what they think when they hear “Denmark,” the answer will immediately be “cartoons.” Cartoons equal insults, which equal “we hate you.”

Then the conspiracy and Zionist theories come to the forefront.

As an Egyptian student in an international university, I am constantly bombarded with misconceptions, which I have to refute as clearly as I can. I am never offended when I am asked a question, and in fact I welcome a critique or an inquiry. The only thing to remember is as the saying goes, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” I have no problem with someone asking me if Islam was spread through coercion, but not them telling me that my religion is one of violence.

I had never met a Danish citizen before the cartoon crisis, but because of my background and experience with “the other” (so to speak), I’d never pictured the Danes running around with horns and tails. I was disappointed with the cartoons though, and like almost every Muslim student, I attended a protest held at my university, in addition to writing disapproving articles in my college newspaper.

But then I got the chance to travel to Abu Dhabi, and later on to Denmark, to meet actual Danes. To my surprise, I bonded incredibly with a lot of them, and made friends I’m still in touch with, some who came to Egypt and even had dinner with my family. But what did I learn from our interaction?

First and foremost, I learnt that contrary to popular belief, the Danes aren’t all infidels who seek to destroy Muslim faith with a sardonic smirk, but rather people who believe in their rights as firmly as I believe in the five pillars of Islam. It’s sad to think that people who used to be our allies are now considered our worst enemies, and at best no longer our friends.

The wound caused by the cartoons is not going to heal, but rather will fester for successive generations. My ten year old brother may not have known anything about Denmark or even seen the cartoons, but he knows that we were “insulted” and “not respected” by its people.

One of the Danes I met said something that struck a chord with me. He said, “You cannot demand respect, you have to earn it.” His words ring true, and yet there remains one fundamental problem: There is no way that all Muslims are suddenly going to wake up one day and be perfect Muslims, and it is a sad, but true fact, that judgment is usually passed on the majority by the actions of a minority.

People have judged my religion, and in turn its leader, according to the behavior of a minority. In essence, they’ve blamed the textbook for a student failing the course. Is this fair?

Was it fair to the Danes who were 100% against the cartoons to be lumped into a category with those who weren’t and those who hated Islam?

Everyone generalizes and steryotypes, but though finger-pointing may make us feel better, it doesn’t help us solve any problems. I have Danish friends, but that doesn’t mean everything is rosy. There are certain things we vehemently disagree with. Do we ignore them? Or will acknowledging them mean we have to come to a standstill? And if so, then how do we overcome it? Will we ever be able to keep things sacred and still be free to say whatever we want? The Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, said, “Speak the truth even though it be bitter.” Regardless of your own personal creed, I’m sure you all believe this is good advice.

And the truth is, I believe that the world is not a very friendly place right now. A trapped animal may bite its own leg to get out of a trap, and it is easier to accuse others than it is to take the time to find the root of the problem and fix it.

I believe that the cartoons weren’t necessarily trying to insult our Prophet per say—the people who drew the cartoons didn’t even truly get the chance to know him—but were using them as a way to criticize Islam as they see it today. Therefore, the major problem is in how we are presenting our religion to the world, and the solution is as simple as this:

If we want people to think that our Prophet was a great man, we have to emulate him and educate others about how he lived his life, not burn down embassies or retaliate like children by holding anti-Semitism cartoon contests. At my university, we had a donations campaign to collect money to give back to the Danish government after their embassies were burned. We did that because that is what Islam is. This is how we fix our image and mend our tarnished reputation.

To conclude, I will leave you with a quote by Evelyn Beatrice Hall that I believe in wholeheartedly. She said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Just do it with a modicum of respect; you don’t need to tell me that my Prophet was a terrorist. And if you remember that your freedom ends when it begins to encroach on the freedom of another, we’re going to be just fine.

Published in the Danish Monthly Det Frie Ord (The Free Word).
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