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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Healing the cartoon row wounds
By Roger Hardy
BBC Islamic affairs analyst

The great and the good from Europe and the Muslim world spent two days at a quiet retreat in southern England this month in an urgent effort at crisis management.

Pakistani burn Danish flag during a rally in Lahore,
Some saw the cartoon row as sign of a "clash of civilisations"

The mood was sombre.

"There is no trust," lamented a senior Muslim diplomat. "Dialogue has failed. We need a historic reconciliation."

The soul-searching was prompted by the bitter controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The republication of the cartoons in several European countries - after they first appeared in Denmark last year - provoked a wave of Muslim anger and dire warnings of a "clash of civilisations".

The row is a symptom of a deeper malaise. Tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim in Europe have been building since the Madrid bombings in 2004 and the attacks on the London underground last year.

Anxious to limit the damage, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) - the main international body which seeks to speak for the Muslim world - decided to organise two days of high-level brain-storming.

As well as OIC officials, the event brought together senior figures from the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations, as well as Muslim and non-Muslim academics, journalists and human-rights activists.

The green and secluded setting was Wilton Park, a conference centre in Sussex which serves as an arm of the British Foreign Office.

Hate crime

Under the rules of engagement, I can tell you what was said but not who said it.

Such encounters face intrinsic difficulties.

Regent's Park mosque in London

The EU and the OSCE are rich men's clubs. Most of the OIC's members are poor.

"Hegemony produces animosity," remarked a Malaysian diplomat. "We must treat one another as equals."

The cartoon affair exacerbated the feeling among Muslims that the West and the Western media do not treat them as equals, but routinely belittle them and their faith.

Muslims want to counter "Islamophobia" - fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims - which they see as a form of hate crime.

But how?

As a Muslim judge told the conference, you cannot outlaw fear and hatred - only their expression - and even then you run the risk of trampling on basic freedoms.

During the cartoon crisis, European governments tried to reassure Muslims that they understood their feelings. But they were unwilling to tell newspaper editors what they could or could not publish.

Governments could sometimes "remind the media of their responsibilities", as a senior British official put it, but that was as far as they could go.

Integration debate

The conference discussed how to integrate Muslims into European societies.

The London bombings were carried out by four young Muslims born and bred in Britain.

This fact, as the senior British official ruefully acknowledged, shocked those who had supposed that Britain had a "reasonably well integrated society".

As a result, greater engagement with the Muslim mainstream was now both a domestic and a foreign-policy priority.

Optimists felt Europe's Muslims could be the "missing link" between Islam and the West.

But one Danish Muslim felt European Muslims had to focus on European concerns.

He and his colleagues had found, for example, that they could engage in Jewish-Muslim dialogue, but only if they sidestepped the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Clash of ignorance?

Is there an unbridgeable gulf of misunderstanding between Islam and the West - a "clash of ignorance", as an Austrian diplomat put it?

30 Sept 2005: Danish paper publishes cartoons
CPS:FACT>10 Jan 2006: Norwegian publication reprints cartoons
31 Jan: Danish paper apologises
1 Feb: Papers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain reprint cartoons
4-5 Feb: Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut attacked
6-12 Feb: Twelve killed in Afghanistan protests
13-18 Feb: Violent protests break out across Pakistan
18 Feb: 16 killed in Nigerian protest
19 Feb: Police tear gas demonstrators in Islamabad, Pakistan

Danish officials were anxious to explain that they had learned lessons from the cartoon affair.

"We did not know the deep religious feelings of Muslims," said a former government minister candidly.

Some Muslims, for their part, sought to understand the fears and phobias of their non-Muslim neighbours.

"It is legitimate to be scared," a prominent European Muslim intellectual told the conference.

Muslim governments did not escape blame.

How can we urge the West to protect religious freedom - asked a distinguished Pakistani human-rights advocate - and deny it in our own countries?

Pointed questions were asked about the rights of women and minorities in the Muslim world. Were Muslims not sometimes guilty of a double standard?

Some felt the only solution to the crisis in relations between Islam and Europe was through education.

Britain had experienced three decades of multi-faith education in its state schools, and this was beginning to bear fruit.

The influence of the media was, in comparison, shallow and short-term.

Echoing the call, an Egyptian participant said educational reform was at the heart of a new and growing demand for a "cultural revolution" in the Muslim world.

But no one could see quick or easy solutions.


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