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The dispute over the Muhammad cartoons has reached a level of aggression that no longer bears any relation to the original cause – and which threatens to become a danger to the Muslim states themselves. In the Lebanese capital Beirut, the Danish embassy in the Christian quarter was set on fire, the interior minister offered to step down. The causes of this turmoil lie within Lebanon, says the Lebanese writer Abbas Beydoun, arts editor of the As-Safir newspaper, but it also reflects the troubled relation of Muslims to the West.

09/02/2006

On the heels of the anti-Western reflex

An interview with the Lebanese writer Abbas Beydoun about the unrest in his country and what is behind it.

Süddeutsche Zeitung: Who were the rioters in Beirut?

Abbas Beydoun: Most of the demonstrators were Lebanese Muslim Brothers, but there were also so-called Salafi groups and Islamic fundamentalists. Some made the journey from Palestinian refugee camps, there were a few Syrians.

There are claims that the unrest was primarily orchestrated by the Syrians.

Those who look for the culprits beyond our borders are shirking political responsibility and obscuring the facts. There is no doubt that many Lebanese were involved, above all extremist groups. But it was not a demonstration by a single group, a single party or a single country, it was an Islamic demonstration. And this demonstration obviously got out of hand.

So was the violence also a consequence of the way the demonstration unfolded…

…no, one must be precise here. There was no provocation by the police, the security forces actually had to defend themselves. They had sealed off the area around the Danish consulate, but they were too weak. Some of the demonstrators certainly came with the intention of running riot, especially in East-Beirut where many Christians live. They seek to justify this aggression with their world view, attacking not only the “unbelievers” but also their own state.

So do the roots of the violence lie inside Lebanon itself?

In my view, these events are, on the contrary, an indication that developments in Lebanon cannot be separated from those in the Middle East as a whole. The Sunni political elite around the family of the murdered former president Rafik Hariri counts as national, pro-Western, pro-democracy and with good international connections. In spite of this, there were many Sunnis among the demonstrators at the weekend, but few Shiites. One can even consider the protests as an expression of Lebanese resistance against the political situation in Iraq. One finds anti-Western sentiment in Lebanon, but clearly also the anti-Shiite stance of someone like Zarqawi. And this means that the anger over the cartoons is a reaction to relations between the West and the Islamic world per se.

The dispute has many dimensions.

Yes. On the one hand, the affair is an expression of Europe’s complicated coming to terms with Islam. The old continent suddenly finds itself confronted with a new religion. Like the dispute over headscarves in France or the riots in French suburbs, this conflict, too, is an indicator for the integration and acceptance of this other religion. Islam is not part of European history. The message being sent to Muslims is that they do not belong to Europe’s rational, Christian traditions. There is legal equality, but social inequality.

But is it not a question of the separation of religion and society that has taken place in Europe but not in Islamic states?

Yes, of course, in Europe religion is a personal matter, one has not just one but a multitude of identities. Religious identity is only one of these, if at all. But many Muslims define their identity primarily in terms of their religion. It takes the place of society or even the state. Which is why they see the cartoons as an attack on the prophet, on their religion – and on their identity. This is something many Europeans do not understand.

Many Muslim states are exploiting this dispute for their own ends. But how great is the anti-Western reflex in the Islamic world that makes such a mobilization possible?

For some extreme Islamic groups, the West embodies the epitome of unbelief, the aggressor against Islam. We saw this is the reactions to the French ban on headscarves, which were far more violent than the reactions to the headscarf ban in Turkey that was far stricter. In this way, the extremists use defending religion against the “West” to construct an identity based on the rejection of difference.

In the Middle East, the concept of the holy has a totally different value than it does in Western societies. The Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifeh, for example, included a verse from the Koran in one of his songs. This drew fire from guardians of the faith because religious texts in non-religious songs are considered reprehensible. Naturally, there are liberal clerics. But when the holiest of holies is attacked, even these advocates of liberal religious values are unable to intervene. Today, the prophet and the Koran cannot be touched. Critical studies on the prophet are unthinkable.

One of the cartoons showed Mohammed as a bomb: Islam as a religion of terror.

Many Muslims were offended not only by the content, but by the violation of the ban on images of the prophet. But this does not mean all forms of criticism are forbidden. In Arab newspapers, one can find bitingly ironic cartoons against religiously sanctioned polygamy, against Islamism, Osama bin Laden or narrow-minded religiosity. Religion is most definitely the subject of critical cultural production. But there are tight limits.

But for the Europeans, it is not just about images, it is about their own legal tradition.

Europe is discussing the dispute over the cartoons in a legitimate way: freedom of opinion is constitutionally guaranteed and part of the culture. Many states have expressed their support of this. Among Muslims, however, this has created the impression that the West is banding together as one against Islam. This has created a kind of “Islamic” paranoia. The dispute with Denmark has become a conflict with the West.

Some Muslims, but also Europeans, are now calling for special protection for Islam, or to be more precise, for the Koran and the prophet in Europe. And I often ask myself if there is not indeed a responsibility towards weaker cultures and societies.

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Abbas Beydoun, Lebanese poet, born in 1945, is one of the most influential intellectuals of the Arabic world. He has published 11 volumes of poetry since the 1980s. Many have been translated into several languages (French, German, English, Spanish, Catalan and Italian). Beydoun is the feuilleton editor of the daily newspaper As-Safir, published in Beirut. See also his article "An Arab wall has fallen".

The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 8 February 2006

Translation: Nicholas Grindell
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