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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day

For Lebanon, a different kind of occasion. Pictures from today's rally in Martyr's Square.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Cartoon Conundrum

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Last week a friend of mine asked me if I could shed any light on why the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad had the Muslim world in such an uproar. I have avoided writing back, resisting the challenge of attempting to voice my own uncertain perspectives on the issue. This is however, is my attempt to respond, not to answer the question, but provide some perspective and help inform so that everyone can form their own opinions.

I truly don’t think most people in the West understand what is so upsetting and many are genuinely shocked at the momentum and level of anger this controversy has generated. I think extremists are exacerbating and manipulating the situation and it is important for everyone to do their best to learn and inform themselves on this. Not just about cartoons. But about the bigger picture. Because these are the tips of some very large icebergs that are not going away any time soon.

There are a few (may I stress few) facts. Most other information is tainted by subjective interpretation, political, religious or cultural spin of varying degrees.

Fact: The cartoons were published last September. Little controversy was raised at the time. The BBC has a useful timeline of events outlining key events from the publication through to today.

Most people have not actually seen more than one or two of the cartoons, and it's no surprise the most provocative ones are the most re-published. The wide array of creativity and emotions depicted in the full spectrum of cartoons provides a more thought-provoking perspective on their publication and those involved in the issue. If you would like to you can see them here.

Fact: According to Islam, the Prophet Mohammad is not supposed to be ‘depicted’ (Despite this fact, there are numerous historical examples of this, by both Muslim and non-Muslims alike. There is GREAT website exploring some of these images in the present and historical contexts.)

The cartoons are also perceived by some as an attack on the Islamic faith and culture designed to foster seeds of hatred. As the BBC notes,
Many Muslims say that the cartoons are extremely and deliberately offensive, expressing a growing European hostility towards and fear of Muslims. The portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims in general as terrorists is seen as particularly offensive.

An attack on Mohammad (which is how the cartoons are perceived by some Muslims) is like an attack on Islam. I have seen a few descriptions explain this mentality like this: Imagine if someone was defaming or denigrating your wife or your family? Now Mohammad is someone that is beyond even that.

On one hand those protecting the cartoons and their publication have anchored themselves firmly to the ‘freedom of the press’ defense. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines in Article 19, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

That being said, there are professional, moral and ethical responsibilities that come with this freedom and power.

As one opinion article in The Daily Star, the largest English newspaper in Lebanon, noted:

These rights must be carried with reason, conscience, and shall be implemented in a spirit of brotherhood (the same set of standards which are widely applicable to any portrayal of the suffering of Holocaust victims). Furthermore, the offensive nature of the cartoons and the ill informed messages they carry do not meet the minimal standards of journalistic integrity and professionalism. Finally, a word of caution must be said: while the cartoons in themselves underlined the immediate causes of the current crisis (the spark that unleashed hell), its underlying causes are rooted deeper within much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Would these mass protests have been as violent before the U.S. carpet bombing of Afghan refugee camps following the September 11, 2001, attacks, before the deceptive American war against Iraq, under the false pretext of eradicating Saddam's WMD, or before the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, among other atrocities committed in the name of "democracy" during recent years?

Part of the problem with comedy, in my opinion, is that most humor is rooted in some element of truth. The Muslim/Arab world (which are not the same, but that is another discussion entirely) knows this. These images were not published in a void, but at a time where tension is already running high.

A few other articles I highly suggest reading (and I’ve read literally about a hundred now so I really suggest you read a bunch. Then judge for yourself.):

Before reconciliation with Muslims, things will get worse by David Inatius
The Right to be Offended in The Nation
Editorial from The Jordan Times (link no longer active)
What Mohammad Means to Muslims (link updated, original no longer available)

One Week Later

One week after the protests turned riots in Beirut...the building housing the Danish consulate...and statues downtown wrapped in the color of 'The Truth' campaign as Lebanon prepares to remember the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, one year ago Tues. Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Violence and Silence

Extremist voices have been drawn to the surface by the cartoon controversy that is gaining speed like a brushfire. Unfortunately such polarized momentum leaves little room for the voice of moderates or any form of engaged discussion and dissent. The debate over the cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad and its implications have burst into such sensitive territory that some of the responses are reminiscent of the post-September 11th mentality in America.

Following the terrorist attacks in the United States and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, those who wanted to speak out against the war in Iraq were quickly labeled as anti-American individuals that did not support U.S. forces. Some even went so far as to say those against the war were on the side of the terrorists.

The idea of being condemned as anti-American is an upsetting concept to many living within the U.S. and such allegations had a strong chilling effect. People were intimidated into silence. They were unsure how to voice their views without being instantaneously attacked by their own countrymen.

This is the same crisis that faces Muslims today in the face of the widespread rioting and violence that the controversial Danish cartoons have sparked worldwide. Anyone who speaks out against the protests and violence is criticized for not being upset with the defamation of the prophet or the degradation of Islam, when in fact there is no such correlation.

A person could easily be upset by the images AND upset by the reactionary violence and hate speech prevalent in the protests. Yet the issue has been hijacked by the voice of extremists that say they are defending Islam. They protest that the cartoon images are slanderous, incite religious intolerance and hatred, while carrying signs that say “Exterminate those who slander Islam” and “Europe you will pay, your 9-11 is on its way!!

How dare they. I live in Lebanon and as this controversy has erupted I have been both Beirut and in the southern region of the country. Many Muslims and Arabs are angered by the cartoon images and by the response of the Danish government. Most are ashamed and humiliated by the physical and verbal violence of the protests. But some are also at a loss of what to do. They are afraid to speak out and be condemned for standing against the protests (i.e. for the cartoons and their acceptability). This correlation may be fictitious, but in the realm of public opinion the connection has been drawn, and that makes it a social reality.

The escalation to screaming threats and condemnation has silenced the real debate about where lines should be drawn and what should be done from where we stand today. People on all sides are victims of oppression. No one is being heard. There is a need for debate. There must be room for an open and engaged dialogue. It is important that the issues brought to a head by this situation are addressed. And that requires the active participation of Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Iranians, Lebanese, Afghanis (the Arab world, though I hesitate to use the phrase), the United States and anyone and everyone else who feels affected by this controversy.

Anger does not assume aggression. Conflict does not require violence. Dissent does not signify betrayal.

I hope the people of the world can learn from the mistakes of moderate Americans, who allowed themselves to be silenced for fear of being ostracized and condemned by their own.

The ability to think for ourselves, to question and debate the status quo and to respect others’ ability to do the same is a key part of what makes us human. There can be respect and disagreement. Creativity and change are not sparked by homogenization or group think

Silence is not the answer.

Violence is not the answer.

I don’t pretend to have the answers but I believe this much is true.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Quick Updates: Riots and the South

It has been a crazy and interesting time, for me, for Lebanon and around the world. For the last week I have been in Nabatieh in the south of Lebanon, where I will be helping to implement a new program. I was invited down by Maria, our partner for the project. She works with the Kamel Yousef Jaber Cultural Center, started by MP Jaber, a very friendly and smart man I discovered when I met with him on Sunday.

Nabatieh is a mainly Shi’a community with a strong Hezbollah presence. There are images of Hezbollah fighters that have been killed and flags hanging throughout the town and neighboring areas.

I have a lot of stories and pictures that I will hopefully get up this week but the short list:

1. Went to the Israeli border, after getting special permission because foreigners aren’t allowed in that part of Lebanon without being granted access. It was remarkably and deceptively peaceful, a nice green field with the Israeli houses on the far side of the fence. No guards in sight but there was a shooting the night after I was there. And you couldn’t step off the road because the region has not been cleared of all the landmines.

2. Saw the former Israeli prison where they held Lebanese during the occupation (now turned into a museum by Hezbollah).

3. Drove up into the Bekaa Valley where I got to play in the snow, see the waterfalls in Jezine, and have lunch at the Kefraya Winery.

4. Spent two nights watching the processions for Ashura, or the Muharram festival (which is what it really is but most people, including locals just call the entire 10-day remembrance period Ashura). Lots more on this after this week.

5. Had many long and educational discussions about the region, internal politics, daily life during the war and the Israeli occupation, the role of Hezbollah, relations with the US, future directions for the country, Iran, Syria, how to engage young people and give them alternatives to violence and I swear the religious and political history of this country alone are going to take years (maybe a lifetime?) for me to get straight!

6. Visited an orange/lemon farm and ate straight from the trees.

OK that’s all I have in me to report for now…yes, there were big protests in Beirut, I’m fine and will give you a damage report after I head to the office tomorrow and see that part of town. But today everything is pretty much back to normal. A bit tense but to be expected. There was a small anti-protest today and lots of condemnation of the behavior of the rioters by religious and political leaders alike (and a lot of blame getting tossed in Syria’s direction, a majority of the people arrested were Syrian, then Palestinian and then Lebanese). I have had some interesting conversations about this whole controversy as well and am saddened to note that while the protests are spreading around the world, it is the violent outbreaks that take the headlines.