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.

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.

The same can be applied to the children of immigrants who are navigating life between an open Western society and the culture from their parents' country of origin. They wrestle with deeply conflicted identities and allegiances. Radical Muslim groups know this and often try to influence and recruit children and teenagers as they travel home from school.

During the past decade, secularized Muslims such as the famous Ayaan Hirshi Ali have called attention to the radicalization of Muslim youth. These are newsworthy moments and both the Danish and Dutch press developed a pattern of highlighting extremist trends within the Muslim communities. Muslim phobia is the result. Indeed, the publication of the cartoons started as an attempt to confront Danish fears of Muslim radicals.

But instead of a civic discussion to examine the limits of free speech and the deeply held beliefs by Muslims regarding images of their prophet, a group claiming to represent all Danish Muslims traveled to the Middle East to bring the cartoons to the public's attention there. Its leader was Ahmad Abu Laban, an imam of Palestinian descent and radical Salafi-Wahhabi inclinations, who after living for nearly a quarter century in Denmark has a limited command of the Danish language and delivers his (often emotionally laden) sermons in Arabic.

The European reality creates a conflicted mode of existence for radical leaders: They would like to apply Islamic law but have no desire to abolish the liberal local laws that allow them freedom of speech to rail against European society.

Mr. Abu Laban's move to take the offending cartoons to the Middle East could be seen as a strategic move against other radical groups to become the "sultan" of Denmark. While he claimed in a National Public Radio interview that his trip to the Middle East was an effort to "dialogue among civilizations," his refusal to communicate with the Danes who have hosted him for the past 25 years will do nothing to further the cause of Muslims within Europe.

Despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric from the European press, there are many Danes willing to entertain conversations with Muslims to find solutions for their shared social problems. Perhaps this cartoon episode will serve as a wake-up call to all Europeans - Muslims and non-Muslims - about the urgent need for true and honest interaction. All of us are interested in the ideals and freedoms we fought hard for. But Europeans need to discuss how much freedom we allow ourselves when it means insulting others. We also need to face the reality that strands of racism and discrimination shape the fabric of our societies.

But whatever constructive initiatives take place, these will falter if moderate Muslims refuse to take responsibility for themselves and their fellow Muslims. They must insist that they will not be represented by radical views only, and they must control destructive elements in their midst.

The words of 13th-century Muslim poet Jalaluddin Rumi could not be more applicable regarding the current situation: "Whoever acts with respect will get respect. Whoever brings sweetness will be served almond cake."

Nelly van Doorn-Harder, a professor of world religions at Valparaiso University, specializes in Islam.

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