Cairo - Last week, Dutch MP Geert Wilders released his movie Fitna, attacking Muslims and the Qur'an, amidst wide international worries that airing the movie would only lead to further cross-cultural tensions, and perhaps violence. Influential Muslim figures, including some Salafi Saudi scholars, had threatened to boycott the Netherlands while official figures in Iran threatened to review diplomatic relations with the country if the film was aired. Once again, the overall cross-cultural scene seemed less than promising.
Thankfully, the reaction of Dutch Muslims was sedate. However, it is clear that people like Wilders feed on the type of contentious atmosphere leading up to the film's release. Opinion polls demonstrated an all-time-high popularity of his political party after the brutal assassination of Theo van Gogh, and again after the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy.
Wilders opts for political gains that come at the cost of long-term strategic interests, such as mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence. Only a few days ago, a Danish teenage Muslim was insulted, harassed and then beaten to death by teenage racists in a contentious Islamophobic atmosphere, while Wilders' movie seems to be provoking more violent reactions from Islamic political groups, who are also feeding on the hype surrounding the film to advance their radical ideas.
Moderates of both sides should make a quick move to prevent radicals from determining the course of events surrounding this debate. The Dutch Constitution prevents the government from banning the movie, and I am personally sceptical towards any attempt to silence an idea. Such subjective decisions open the door for totalitarian regimes to restrict the freedom of expression of their opposition.
But sponsoring such provocations should be equally rejected. It is true that boycotting the Danish economy or reviewing diplomatic relations is irrational and both ethically and politically wrong because it makes sweeping generalisations, overlooks constitutional and legal realities, and inflames tensions.
Yet boycotting media outlets that choose to sponsor hatred, and companies choosing to advertise and sponsor these outlets, is one possible response. Selective boycotts could be championed by promoters of tolerance on both sides to marginalise racism and hatred.
However, boycotts will not operate as stand-alone solutions for such conflicts. In fact, boycotts are the red flags that send alarm signals when things seem to be getting out of control. They also signal the failure of sustaining a constructive dialogue that is based on mutual respect and appreciation of diversity.
For such dialogues to succeed, Wilders' film and similar provocations should be ignored. Highlighting these provocations in the media only serves to feed radical sentiments.
Ignoring the provocative insults does not mean overlooking the critique therein. Inquiries, misconceptions and critiques should be dealt with in a healthy atmosphere, where common ground is identified and different perspectives are scrutinised.
Instead of the long series of condemnations and denunciations following each round of these insults, governments from both sides should sponsor and promote initiatives that create this kind of atmosphere.
A successful dialogue never takes place over a few days or weeks. In fact, it would be impossible for such a discourse to cover the wide range of contentious cross-cultural issues in a few sessions, especially with mounting frustration and mutual mistrust. It should therefore be ongoing and take different forms, including student exchange programmes, seminars, lectures, conferences and exhibits, while building self-sustaining institutions that scrutinise cross-cultural issues and would guarantee continuous interaction.
One of the fruits of this dialogue should be a "code of ethics" for intercultural relations sponsored by governments, academia, major media, and cultural and religious institutions. While the code should not necessarily be embedded in domestic legislation, it should draw lines between constructive criticism and insults, and pave the way for constructive responses.
Freedom of expression has been increasingly manipulated over the past few years, and has been used as a pretext for insult, one that contributes to widening the gap between different cultures and civilisations. To ensure this freedom is not compromised, moderates on both sides should step in and find a sustainable mechanism to bridge the divides in our increasingly globalised world, in which racism and radicalism have a devastating effect on everyone.
* Ibrahim el Houdaiby is a board member of IkhwanWeb.com, the Muslim Brotherhood's official English-language website. He has a BA in political science from the American University in Cairo and is working towards an MA in Islamic studies at the High Institute of Islamic Studies. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 1 April 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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