Behind the cartoon war: radical clerics competing for followers
By now almost everyone has pondered the outrage in the Muslim world over the 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad that were published on Sept. 30, 2005 in a Danish newspaper.Skip to next paragraph
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Much of the discussion has centered on Muslim perspectives and sensitivities, but few people realize this affair erupted from a crisis in leadership of European Muslim communities, where radical imams are battling to gain the religious authority.
As European Muslims seek new identities and voices, they form a target for radical leaders. And because of the competition for followers among these Danish radical-minded Muslim groups, the "cartoon war" that could have been battled out on Danish grounds, grew into an international episode.
Radical groups have vested interests in what the Swiss-Egyptian Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan refers to as "couching socioeconomic problems in religious terms," and fostering a "minority obsession." Both provide Muslims in Europe with endless opportunities to avoid civic discussions and put themselves on the sidelines while blaming others for keeping them there.
To place Mr. Ramadan's point in a broader perspective, it is necessary to understand how three forces are at work to prevent Muslims from naturally integrating into European societies. The first comes from Western political, cultural, social, and economic influences that position Muslims in the lower classes. Second, within these communities are internal clashes and competitions of Muslims from different countries and cultures. Third, these differences are exacerbated by the European press.
In many European countries, the state provides Muslim schools, special vocational programs, child support, and medical and social security for guest workers. What the state has largely failed to provide are civic discussions among its citizens and immigrants that could lead to mutual understanding. Relying on interfaith discussions is not enough since many Muslims are reluctant to engage with Christian groups for fear of diluting their faith. There is even a term for this called "Westoxification."
Muslims in Europe hail from a variety of cultural backgrounds, which affects their religious practice and desire to integrate in the new countries. To radical leaders, this presents an opportunity to unify these populations under the banner of their Salafi-Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and warn against becoming citizens of their adopted countries. This strategy is what keeps Muslims from reaching positions of power and influence within the broader European community. The Dutch police force, for example, requires its officers to have a Dutch passport.
Of course many Muslims don't buy into these schemes. They get diplomas from European schools and become successful professionals while staying faithful to their religion. But Muslims who are struggling to move up the socioeconomic ladder while maintaining their identity remain vulnerable targets for radicals.