03/09/2006, 00.00
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Long time needed for reciprocity with Islam, but process must start

The saga of the Muhammad cartoons, apart from its exploitation by fundamentalists and some governments, highlighted the conflict between a concept of freedom of expression that knows no limits, and respect for religious convictions. The "ambiguous" link between Islam and violence has been confirmed. In the Muslim world, there is a debate on freedom of worship, although it is violated practically everywhere. Then there is the "shortsightedness" of Europe and the west which do not pressure Islamic states to respect reciprocity of rights.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The cultural clash between Islam and the west that emerged in the Muslim world's violent reactions to the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, was the focus of questions put by AsiaNews to Fr Andrea Pacini, a lecturer in dogmatic theology and theology of religions at the Theology Faculty of northern Italy – Torino section – and in the ISSR of Piedmont's regional council, head of the Federico Peirone centre for Islamic-Christian relations of the archdiocese of Torino and consultant of the "Commission for religious relations with Muslims" of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

Below are extracts from the interview, which will be published in full in the April edition of the monthly AsiaNews.

The cartoon crisis brought to the light a "cultural conflict" between the enlightened west and the Islamic world. It's probable that the Danes were rash; it is also true that the revolts over the cartoons were exaggerated (and even manipulated). How can coexistence with Islam be contemplated in the west? Don't we risk repudiating our freedom?

I think the case of the satirical cartoons offers an opportunity to look at some important considerations. In the first place, we must ask ourselves if satire of religion is truly an exercise of the freedom of expression, as maintained by those who defend this initiative. Obviously no one denies that this right is fundamental in societies considering themselves to be democratic and pluralistic. However, it is also true that freedom of expression should coincide with other fundamental human rights (including freedom of worship) and it is limited by respect for matters which are central to the people's moral and religious sentiments.

And it is also true, naturally, that the various revolts undertaken by Muslims because of the cartoons were exaggerated and manipulated by more integralist factions and even by some governments, for political reasons, international or regional: these were given the opportunity to ride on the case. The satirical cartoons thus had the twofold effect of shaking the consciences of normal, moderate Muslims, who live their faith in a peaceful way, and on the other hand, of reinforcing the position of fundamentalist and radical Muslims who now have new reasons to call for jihad against the west.

The street protests and the cartoons scandal were followed by attacks on Christian churches in Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the killing of priests in Turkey and Nigeria. How come the publication of images of the Prophet is more scandalous for Islam than destruction of and violence against sacred buildings and people?

I believe contemporary Islam still has an ambiguous relationship with violence, inherited from the past, from its very roots. It is a given fact that there is space for the approval of violence in Islam: above all, it is licit to resort to violence to "defend" Islam and also to promote its expansion: this easily paves the way for aggressive behaviours which find religious justification. The most serious aspect, in our case, is the speed with which the responsibility of one single newspaper, spread to cover even Christianity itself.

Some weeks ago, the Pope made an appeal to the Ambassador of Morocco – for all Islamic countries – for reciprocity in freedoms. Is this realistic? Does the Islamic world consider this?

I think the Pope did very well to insist on the necessity of guaranteeing freedom of worship in all Muslim countries. There is the need to launch a process that will be long-term but which must take off. Not all Muslim countries are at the same level in this regard: in Syria, for example, freedom of worship of non-Muslims is widely guaranteed, in Egypt, there are some limitations but the situation has recently improved on a legal level; in Saudi Arabia, it remains very bad. In the Muslim world, the debate on such issues is there, especially given the presence of native Christian communities who claim this right as citizens. In any case, the path to full freedom of worship implies both the enactment of laws which guarantee it, and a change in mentality promoted also by a different reading of sources of Islamic doctrine.

How do you judge Europe and European governments, often very silent, detached from the Islamic world?

I think Europe should have more ethical awareness in its political relations with Muslim-majority countries, putting human rights and the right to freedom of worship on the agenda of concrete ties with them. It seems that these themes are generally relegated to second place: perhaps they are mentioned, but they are not stressed and formalized with sufficient clarity in political relations and in the formal instruments which define them.

Why don't western states, which have such a great interest in human rights, ever ask Islamic countries for reciprocity in the field of human rights, including freedom of worship?

I think it's because of shortsightedness, that is, because they yield to the presumed political or economic convenience of the present-day and lack a far-reaching vision of the future. It's enough to think about multi-year relations of the United States and Europe with Saudi Arabia, a traditional ally of the west on merely political and economic (oil resources) levels, but whose internal governance is a total contradiction of values not only western but in line with universal human rights. The serious side to this is the divorce between ethics and politics, which too often comes about.

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