World

Islam and the West: Clash or Coexistence?

An excerpt from the book Who Speaks for Islam?

Looking at certain world events through Muslim eyes helps us understand the global anger and outrage that fueled the now infamous cartoon controversy.

Newspaper cartoons, including one depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban -- first published in Denmark in 2005 and then in other European cities -- set off an international row in 2006. Protests erupted in an arc stretching from Europe through Africa to East Asia. Muslim journalists were arrested, and newspapers were closed for publishing the cartoons in Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen. European countries evacuated staffs of embassies and non-governmental organizations, and Muslim countries withdrew ambassadors.

The fallout also had economic repercussions. According to the Gulf News, Danish exports that had averaged more than $2.6 billion a year dried up as consumers in Muslim countries shunned Danish products in protest. Danish dairy firm Arla Foods reported losing $1.5 million per day as a result of the regional consumer boycott that brought its sales to a standstill.

The cartoon controversy once again highlighted these questions: Is Islam incompatible with Western values? Are we seeing a clash of civilizations, a culture war? While many answer yes, others counter that the issue had little to do with a defense of Western democratic values and everything to do with a European media that reflects and plays to an increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic society. Still others charge that the rush to reprint the Danish cartoons was as much about profits as about prophets.

Here again, data from the Gallup World Poll serve as a reality check on the causes for widespread outrage. As we have seen, a major complaint across Muslim societies is that the West denigrates Islam and Muslims and equates Islam with terrorism. The cartoons did not satirize or ridicule terrorists like Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but chose instead to satirize the venerated Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims regard as the ideal model of Muslim life and values, in what was seen as a direct attack on Islam and a denigration of the faith.

Did Muslims react so strongly because they did not understand or believe in freedom of speech? Gallup's data, which demonstrate Muslim admiration for Western liberty and freedom of speech, indicate otherwise. The core issues of this apparent clash, or "culture war," are not democracy and freedom of expression, but faith, identity, respect (or lack of it), and public humiliation. As France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk observed in The Associated Press in the midst of the cartoon controversy: "We gain nothing by lowering religions, humiliating them and making caricatures of them. It's a lack of honesty and respect." He further noted that freedom of expression "is not a right without limits."

Many British and French citizens agree. Gallup's national representative polling in both countries shows that a majority of Britons (57%) and a plurality of the French (45%) say that newspapers printing a picture of the Prophet Muhammad should not be allowed under protection of free speech, while 35% and 40%, respectively, say it should be allowed. Britons and the French are even stronger in their disapproval of other expressions potentially covered by free speech: More than 75% of both populations say that a cartoon making light of the Holocaust should not be allowed under protection of free speech, and roughly 86% of the British and French public say the same about newspapers printing racial slurs. Clearly, for many European citizens, free speech is nuanced and contextual, not a black and white absolute.

Based on the largest and most in-depth study of its kind, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think presents the remarkable findings of the Gallup Poll of the Muslim World, the first ever data-based analysis of the points of view of more than 90% of the global Muslim community, spanning more than 35 nations.

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