Building dialogue: Beyond the Cartoon Crisis

Open seminar - registration required
Further material

Tue 14.3.2006
Auditorium of the Parliament of Finland
New Annex Building, Arkadiankatu 3

A seminar organised by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs together with the Spanish-Turkish initiative: "Alliance of Civilizations", the Spanish Embassy, the Turkish Embassy, the German Embassy, the French Cultural Centre and the Finnish Parliament

Report from the seminar Building dialogue: Beyond the Cartoon Crisis, 14 March 2006
(Charly Salonius-Pasternak)

Building a dialogue beyond the cartoon crisis was the main theme of the March 14, 2006 seminar held at the Finnish Parliament’s New Annex Building. The seminar was organized by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, together with the Spanish-Turkish initiative: “the Alliance of Civilizations”, the Spanish Embassy, the Turkish Embassy, the German Embassy, the French Cultural Centre, and the Finnish Parliament.

The seminar was opened by Liisa Jaakonsaari, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Finnish Parliament. She explained that the seminar would not address the arguments about the cartoons published in Jyllands-Post, but that the organizers felt there was a need to discuss the underlying issues in a more analytical manner. Therefore, Ms. Jaakonsaari said that the seminar would address and discuss in a broader context questions relating to freedom of speech, human rights, and diversity. The key questions she said must be asked are: How are relations between Europe and the Muslim world? Is there a genuine respect for each others’ perspectives? Or, are we both trying to impose our own perspectives on the others?

The keynote speaker was the Foreign Minister of Finland, Mr. Erkki Tuomioja: See speech under the link above, presented nearly verbatim.

Session I: Understanding the crisis and what comes next

The first session, titled “Understanding the crisis and what comes next?” was led off by Professor Francois Burgat, Associate Fellow of the Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman (IREMAM) in France. Professor Burgat began his speech by bringing up the path that has gotten us to today, from 1990 onwards – when the idea was born that as long as Muslims would insist speaking Arabic, they could not appropriately communicate and understand Europe and democracy. Professor Burgat emphasized that this was a significant problem, that creating a framework where just speaking different languages would prevent us from understanding each other would be disastrous.

Using metaphors and a comparison between the Falklands War and the Middle East Professor Burgat then spoke about the role that the United States and Europe have played in why democratization went so wrong in the Middle East – starting with the 1953 Mossadegh overthrow, when USA and Europe started to get rid of leaders who threatened their economic interests and political sensibilities. This started a trend of allowing local rulers-elite to step on all aspects of freedom and democracy, torturing people, throwing them into jail etc.

Professor Burgat then rhetorically asked how this crisis occurred. His answer was “regimes in the Middle East,” who wanted to present a message for Europeans and the USA to “stop fooling around with clean elections” – if ‘clean elections’ are what you call for, people like Hamas are the people who will be elected.

Finally Professor Burgat urged the listeners to forget the cartoon issue for now and address the hardcore issues in the Middle East. He suggested it boiled down to: “If you treat me well, I can accept a joke every now and then. If you step on my face, occupy my land, mistreat me, and you want to promote an idea that it is my culture that promotes violence, and that it is I who should change because I react to this, then” that is the wrong approach. He summarized this by suggesting that either we are moving to a conflict, or we have misinformation, or there is a fear that ‘the wrong people’ will be in charge.

Ercan Karakoyun, Head of the Berlin Office of the ‘Forum for Intercultural Dialogue’ in Germany spoke next about ‘Community relations with Muslim minorities in Europe’. Mr. Karakoyun focused his speech on addressing two questions from a Muslim perspective:
Why are Muslims so sensitive to cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad?
Which lessons do we have to learn from the incidents of last weeks?

Regarding the first question Mr. Karakoyun emphasized the need to talk about the root cause of why Muslims seemingly cannot tolerate any negative depictions of Mohammed. There are three points he wanted to bring up regarding this, from a Muslim perspective:

1) The prophet came to remove idolatry. Since there are no original pictures, any representation of the Prophet would only be a representation based on fallible human ideas. (Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are infallible in Islam.) Since no one wants to be misrepresented it is therefore not appropriate to make or draw representations of the Prophet.
2) Muslims have a deep love of the Prophet. Muslims know the Prophet lived a virtuous life, and worked to establish a world of peace. This is the reason why Muslims were so offended by the cartoons, because the cartoon depictions were so far from ‘fact’ and faith-based image of Mohammed.
3) The colonial history of Europe, war on terror etc. make Muslims feel that the caricature incident was just one of a long history of attempts by Europeans to stain and wipe out Islam, the Prophet etc.

According to Mr. Karakoyun, the non-muslim world does not really understand the Prophet, but he also allows that many Muslims do not understand the Prophet. He urged everyone to learn to understand the Prophet objectively.

Mr. Karakoyun concluded his comments by noting that freedom of speech and expression are necessary for democracy. But similarly, respect of other people is important, too. Media’s right to freedom does not relieve it from taking responsibility. Finally, Mr. Karakoyun reminded the audience that Christians and Muslims make up half of the world’s population and need to learn to live together. Compassion has a central role in this, and man has a responsibility to show compassion to all living beings.

The final speaker of the first session, Dr. Abdul Latif Arabiat, is the former speaker of the Parliament of Jordan, and began his speech traditionally, ‘Salaam Aleikum’ [peace be upon all of you]. Dr. Arabiat noted that he was asked to speak from a Middle East perspective, but after asking himself who are those in the Middle East, he could not discover such a concept. He prefers to think of it as a Muslim and Arab World, which is a new definition compared to the geographic regions (near east, middle east, and far east) ‘created’ by former U.S. military officers.

More importantly, Dr. Arabiat asked whose views it is that are being talked about? In reality it is not just the Middle East but rather 1.4 billion women and men all over the world. These 1.4 billion people are one nation, defined by their religion. Dr. Arabiat emphasized that the Koran includes verses that state that Muslims are one nation. It is a matter of faith to believe in this concept because it is only the occupation by foreigners that has created over 40 ‘muslim’ states with 73 new borders. It was not Muslims who drew these borders and gave new names that are different from history. For example, Syria, Jordan, Palestine etc. were one nation in the past.

Dr. Arabiat then turned his attention to the cartoon crisis and secularism itself. He started by rhetorically asking, what does secularism mean to Muslims? Nothing, there is no history of it in Islam, to separate state and religion. He then challenged whether it was correct to call the American administration [government] secularist since President Bush says he has received a message from God to invade Iraq and support Israel.

Dr. Arabiat then turned to concerns over terrorism and again started by asking questions: Who benefits from Terrorism acts? Who initiates them? Who directs them and why? Dr. Arabiat said he feels ashamed of all the increased security he passes in all airports around the world, and that much of it is viewed to have been necessitated by terrorists [by implication Muslim-Islamist]. However, Dr. Arabiat notes, one should look at the issue in depth and ask who used, supported, trained and equipped Bin Laden and Al-Qaida, and used them for 10 years in Afghanistan? (USA). While he does not believe in this ‘whole formula’ – he would like to explore it more.

Dr. Arabiat noted that 80% of the world’s refugees are Muslims and that Muslims are insulted by this.

Dr Arabiat then moved to more specifically address the ‘cartoon crisis’, saying that the demonstrations were in his view simply a spontaneous response from all those who felt the cartoons were an insult to them. That the Danish Prime Minister had stated that he could not apologize for the cartoons because there is freedom of speech was according to Dr. Arabiat a double standard, because it did not apply to anti-semitism. As examples Dr. Arabiat listed the denunciations by westerners of Iranian comments about the holocaust and the jailing of David Irving in Austria; Dr. Arabiat wondered out aloud where the defenders of free speech were in those instances.

Session II – Building a dialogue

The second session, on building a dialogue, was chaired by Dr. Tapani Vaahtoranta. Setting the stage Dr. Vaahtoranta briefly noted that the joint Spanish-Turkish initiative: ‘The Alliance of Civilizations’ is an example of the kind of dialogue and attempts at building increasing connections and networks of connections between individuals, NGOs, states, groups of states, that are increasingly needed in the future.

The first speaker of the session was the Spanish Ambassador Maximo Cajal. He briefly summarized the chronology of ‘The Alliance of Civilization’ initiative by Turkey and Spain, and then read the speech under the link above.

The second speaker was Ambassador Ali Yakital who after offering an opening thank you to the organizers and presenters read from the speech under the link above.

Saska Snellman, the arts editor for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, started his comments by saying that there had been much discussion within the paper about publishing the cartoons, but that in the end the decision was made not to do it. He thought it was a sound decision because it was not felt that it was necessary to print the pictures to show the paper has freedom of speech. Mr. Snellman shared Ambassador Yakital’s view that the fight is not between the West and Islam, but between tolerant views and intolerant ones. These conservative views, as Mr. Snellman called them, can be found around the world, USA, Europe, Finland, and these traditional views and societies cannot remain isolated in a modern globalizing world because free minds will always conquer.

The following speaker, Kirsti Westphalen, Councellor at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, read from notes published on the FIIA website.

The final individual to comment during Session II was Imam Khodr Chehab. He began by stating that Muslims in Finland are a part of a Muslim nation [presumably meant Ummah]. They aren’t from Mars or anywhere else, they are from this earth. Finnish Muslims organized events in response to this blasphemy: a peaceful demonstration and presenting an address to Finnish and Danish authorities in Helsinki.

As a part of the Finnish society, Imam Chehab said local Muslims felt that they are at the beginning of something. He still feels like a guest in Finland, though his 13-year old son – born in Finland – perhaps no longer feels like a guest. Imam Chehab then expressed the view that Islam is a religion that is very poorly understood in the west, and that history plays a big role in this. He did not feel that there was a need for a European Islam, nor for an American Islam, nor for a New Islam. Imam Chehab felt very strongly that as a religion Islam respects and coexists with other people. Imam Chehab continued by stating that Islam respects and lives with others and that others have cherished the mercy of Islam and the Prophet. Repeating a tired (and demonstrably false) claim Imam Chehab stated that if there was bloodshed in the past and one looked at the facts one could see it was never started by Muslims. In conclusion Imam Chehab felt Finland handled the cartoon crisis in a respected way and noted that a word said by an Imam in Helsinki will in a short time be heard by Imams in Honolulu, Paris and around the world.

Dr. Vaahtoranta closed the seminar by raising a point made days earlier by Timothy Garton Ash when he spoke about the lack of a European identity, and how to create it. Dr. Vaahtoranta noted that Garton Ash’s point was that a European identity cannot be based on geography, religion, or conflict with ‘others’ (USA, Russia etc), but on how we Europeans address the major problems of the world today. The cartoon crisis doesn’t have to do just with the Muslim world, but with Europe and how Europe deals with it. We are not in a clash of civilizations, but also not going in the right direction. Dr. Vaahtoranta then thanked the excellent speakers and their contributions and the German, Turkish, Spanish Embassies, and the French Cultural Center for helping to organize the event.