The film and Muhammad cartoons: its time for a healthy secularism in the West and Islam
by Samir Khalil Samir
The Islamic world suffers from a centuries-old frustration and emotionally reacts to every little criticism. At the same time the West provokes without restraint and respect. The solution to this clash of civilizations, lies within the Pope’s Regensburg Address and Ecclesia in Medio Oriente. Muslims also have to learn not to offend Jews, Christians and other religions. Rather than stifling freedom to criticize, we need to promote a criticism enlightened by reason.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Now that the flames and clashes have died down, we need to reconsider the publication of the anti-Islam film ("The innocence of Muslims") and the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad (published in Paris in Charlie Hebdo) to try to understand what caused the wave of violent reactions, which led to the deaths of dozens of people, injured hundreds as well as widespread destruction.

The concept of freedom is almost unknown in the Islamic world

Analyzing the situation, the first thing that emerges is that in Muslim countries the concept of freedom of expression is unknown, because we live in regimes that are basically dictatorships, which stifle this right. When someone says or does something, the whole community feels targeted and reacts against the community of the other (in this case the United States for the film, and France for the cartoons). This may be absurd but it is understandable because Islamic communities, in general, have not yet discovered and experienced the individual freedoms of conscience and speech.

Another point to highlight is the type of reaction to a speech responds with a speech, an image with an image, you can respond to violence with violence ... But there is no law to respond to a film with the violence that we have witnessed.

Yes the film is violent, but it is another category of violence, which requires a different quality of response. The trailer of the film I saw was a largely mediocre and aggressive. Ethically speaking, aggression it is not a good thing, but people have the right to attack at least in words. And this as long as there is no international agreement that says that religions are a taboo subject. In that case, such an aggression would become illegal.

However digging deeper, we must remember that there is a great frustration in the Muslim world in which we live because we feel very far behind the rest of the planet, when at one time we were very advanced, we were the pioneers in many sciences: astronomy, mathematics, medicine , philosophy, etc.. This makes us vulnerable and hypersensitive: someone only has to make a veiled reference to our situation, and we feel attacked. We must learn to live with our frustrations.

We must not limit freedoms, but provocations do not help

Unfortunately, there are also people among us who exploit the emotional character of the Muslim world, aided by ignorance and poverty, to rail against the West, to motivate this battle. Instead it would be worthwhile to look more rationality at things, to respond to allegations and aggressions in the light of reason, an illustrate the injustice and falsehood they commit.

The West, for its part, instead of helping us to educate this extreme sensitivity, attempts to limit the freedom of its members. Freedom should not be limited. But one must learn that spiritual provocation and aggression bear no fruit.

Many are now calling for  "Western countries to have a greater sense of responsibility". But in the case of the film no western country or government is involved: it is the work of an individual or a group of individuals; in the United States there is freedom of expression as long as it causes no harm to a people or community. We should not limit freedom. But we should be more ethical.

It is unacceptable to restrict freedom simply because we in the Arab world can't stand it! We must learn to use a critical spirit in all fields, including the field of religion. Until we have learned to use critical thought regarding our sacred texts (Bible, Gospel, Qur'an, etc..), we will not be able to dialogue, let alone free ourselves of fundamentalism.

Islam attacks Christianity and Judaism every day

On the other hand, it is wrong to think that the West is the only one to criticize the other (in this case Islam). Ever day, the Islamic world criticizes the West. The problem is how you criticize. Slandering others, spreading lies, is not part of freedom of the person. This film spreads calumny and falsehood, alongside elements of truth. And this is not ethical.

But the Islamic world needs to examine its conscience. For example, every day Islam attacks Christianity and Judaism in books - even in school books - and in the speeches of imams, which often teach lies, and yet no one says anything.

An example: every day we hear that "the Bible has been manipulated and falsified (tahrif al-Ingil)", without ever being presented with proof of this falsification. But this is an insult to what we hold most sacred! Or they say things about Jesus Christ that are not true. But they announce them, repeat them and propagate them. Muslims (like Christians, Jews, and all of them) have to learn to be more reasonable, and we - in this case Christians - must learn the right to respond to these allegations and falsehoods with rational arguments.

Following Benedict XVI, we have to overcome emotionalism, avoid being reactionary and state affirm reason. In this context, the  word "reason" refers to its use as defined in his Regensburg Address, which embraces the spiritual and ethical dimension.

The pope says that the West has separated rationality from its spiritual and ethical dimension. This is clearly visible in this little film or in the cartoons, but the Muslim world, in turn, has emptied the faith of rationality and it flounders in pure emotionalism. Thus, the conflict between cultures and civilizations is inevitable.

Freedom and rationality, secularism and religion

To overcome this situation everyone has a step to take, but can not impede freedom, or reduce it, while it is understood that no one has the freedom to slander or tell lies. To Westerners, I have to say you need to correct your rationality with a minimum of ethics, and to Muslims, that they must correct their religion opening it up to rationality and universality.

In the addresses given during his visit to Lebanon and the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, Benedict XVI speaks of healthy secularism and fundamentalism (Nos. 29 and 30), which are the problems we are discussing. The Pope says that we need a balance between politics and religion, without excluding any of them. Healthy secularism allows a fruitful bond to thrive between the political and the religious.

Lebanon seems to be more open to this double dimension giving space to each religious group and at the same time ensuring a law common to all, which helps coexistence. This model can help the Arab and Muslim countries, where religion and politics often overlap, eliminating freedom, but it can also help the West, which has eliminated the religious in its secular vision.

Ban all criticism of religion and atheism?

Now there are several organizations seeking international measures to stop these cases of insults to religions. The most important group that has taken this step is the Organization of the Islamic countries.

But the Islamic countries are likely to use these directives anti-blasphemy, as is the case in Pakistan, to attack all those who are not Muslims (Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, etc. ..). If the attempt is to give some general guidelines to avoid offending religions, I agree, but if this means clipping the wings of freedom and reason, so we can no longer speak of elements to be corrected in one religion or another, I do not agree.

Therefore it is very dangerous to accept this proposal, but it is also true that we have to agree on a universal level on respect for human rights, including religious ones. We must begin with their total application, since neither in the West nor in the Islamic world are human rights applied in full, although they to a greater extent in the West.

Unfortunately, in Islamic countries, for example, freedom of conscience does not exist. According to Islamic law, a Muslim who converts to Judaism, Christianity or any other religion, warrants death. But this is contrary to the Charter of Human Rights. Indeed, Muslims have written their own "Islamic Charter on Human Rights," but if it is "Islamic" it is not universal!

Every religion has to make its contribution to this reflection so that together, religious and atheists, we can arrive at a new humanism. This is the effort underway at the UN and UNESCO. An effort that has to be strengthened.