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By Kevin A. Stoda, Kuwait
At the end of March, the AWARE CENTER in Surra , Kuwait , hosted an important discussion led by Dr. Fawzans Al Fares of the College of Technology in Kuwait . Al-Fares led a discussion on the sensitivities of Islam and Muslims.
This presentation and discussion was held during the very week when a right-wing Dutch politician released an intentionally provocative --and anti-Islamic--film on Islam and in the wake of the re-release and re-publication of the vastly controversial Danish political cartoons on the Prophet Mohammed.
The AWARE CENTER focuses on providing a forum for Westerners and Arabs to get together face-to-face, and on this evening, March 27, 2008 there was great interest in this topic--as reflecteded by the wide-range of nationalities at the diwaniya (or meeting in Arabic) that evening. On this evening, there were audience- and participant members from many countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America & representing many different faiths and educational backgrounds.
Dr. Fawzans Al-Fares, a PhD in artificial intelligence, began this evening�s discussion by indicating that he was looking to make a bridge between himself and others in hopes of improving interaction and carrying out interchange with one another. He added, �Muslims are sensitive to several issues, i.e. cartoons and articles about Mohammed. How far are we sensitive? Is everyone the same on this issue?�
Dr. Al-Fares continued, �If one has high sensitivity, he will have a blocked mind on a certain subject, i.e. he will shut down.�
Personally, Dr. Al-Fares conceded, �This happens to me when I am sensitive, but after a few days I can settle down and put the information in the more balanced way. That is, after further time and analysis.�
Some of Al-Fares� other questions to the audience were:
-What are the limits of freed speech and press? i.e. we are not concerned about freedoms but limits.
-Should religious figures and relics remain sacrosanct or otherwise?
-How should Muslims react whenever their religious figures are insulted and blasphemed?
Dr. Al-Fares added, �Should we respond to such an attack as we would against a virus? If attacked, how should we respond? How important is the issue in terms of a call for a reaction?�
In converse, Dr. Al-Fares also noted that no one always accurately predicts well what �the reaction� of one individual will be to any particular affront�let alone the mass (or variety) of Muslims, making up to 1.5 billion people on this planet.
Dr. Al-Fares was concerned that some of the violent and most vocal responses seem to reek of bigotry--as much as symbolizing respect for their faith.
There were nods by some of the members of the audience to this.
Many Muslims at the AWARE CENTER that night emphasized that the violent responses to the Danish Cartoons and subsequent calls for boycotts represented only extremest minorities among the entire Islamic population on this planet.
Dr. Al-Fares asked, concerning the Danish cartoons, �Did the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) behave as the cartoonists depicted him? Or were the cartoons simply satire? In short, what or who is the benefitiary of doing such a cartoon?�
Replying to his own query, Dr. Al-Fares later replied, �Naturally, the intent of creating such cartoons is to have them published in the media, but with what intent?�
Dr. Al-Fares, who had lived in the UK while working on his doctoral degree, indicated that he had learned that such cartoons were a means of exploring and probing prejudices, talking about misunderstanding, and eventually possibly reducing biases while further exploring the facts or raising still more related issues.
Some Muslim members at the AWARE Center that evening indicated that they felt that the recent republication of the controversial Danish cartoons was simply �a second (intentional) testing� of Muslims. Some of these same Muslims indicated that the violent responses by some corners of the Islamic world indicate that Muslims have failed again to simply treat the cartoons as satire, rather than as a personal attack on their faith.
Dr. Al-Fares also asked members of the audience to consider whether in the West only the prophet Mohammed (or Muslims in particular) were attacked in cartoons and in media. Naturally, members from Europe and North America responded that jokes involving Jesus and other symbols of Christianity are abused or ridiculed by the arts, media, and cartoonists, too.
In the U.S.A., Americans were upset and aghast that a federally funded art project some years ago had produced a tiny figure of the crucifixion of Christ set in sperm.
Nearly three decades ago, the great comedians of the UK produced the film, The Life of Brian, that finds the character of Brian crucified and singing, �Look on the Bright side of Life�.
One Swedish member of the audience shared, too, that in Sweden there had recently been a controversial art production, which angered many believers by defaming the figures of the Christian faith.
The bottom line for the Westerner Non-Muslims present, though, was that people in the west did not generally go out and try to lynch the producers of such characterizations of their faith. They didn�t go out burning down buildings--and most never led boycotts in response to such satire or provocations.
Again, some of the Muslims present pointed out that there were billions of Muslims who did not respond violently to the caricatures of Mohammed.
Some members in the audience at the AWARE Center focused on the concept of what the limits on freedom of speech are or should be. For some, freedom of speech is the concept of being able to speak freely without censorship.
For others, freedoms should be limited by how they affect others. In this way, the preference in defining freedom of speech involves recognizing that �my freedoms� begins to be mediated when I interact with (or am mediated by) the spheres of freedoms of others.
Dr. Al-Fares noted that limits and restrictions on freedom of speech exist in theories on governance, theories on defining what truth is, and in theories on what tolerance means. �Limits can be used to guide us�not necessarily simply to restrict us.�
One Ugandan member of the audience noted again, �My freedom is limited to where others� freedom begin.�
One American noted later, in reply to this famous position on seeing �my freedom as related to other persons� freedoms�, that even in the United States and in the United Kingdom--two western lands that strongly support freedom of speech�the governments and courts maintain different rules for defining what the limits of personal space and freedom are.
For example, in the UK the bar for infringing on the freedom of another is set at a lower level than in the U.S. This enables public figures like Madonna to take detractors to court for their words much more readily in the UK than she would or could do in the United States of America .
As indicated above, several Muslim in attendance and involved in the discussion that evening, indicated that they were upset by the violent and radicalized reaction of some groups of Muslims to the Danish cartoons.
Several noted, in contrast, the behavior to criticism modeled by the prophet Mohammed himself, during his own lifetime and in his own interaction with hecklers had been an example of tolerance toward his own detractors. They cited several hadiths to back up their statements.
Moreover, it was also noted by these same Muslims that Mohammed had indicated that Muslims were not to make fun of people of other faiths at all.
This is possibly why making fun of Christendom has not been a prominent Muslim response to the Danish cartoons.
Another African Muslim, who had lived in the UK , also noted that in her interpretation of Islam and the Koran, she was not permitted to make fun of Western Faiths in the same way that the West had made fun of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.
At this point, some Northern Europeans encouraged her and other Muslims present to consider taking part in the satire of the West, i.e. learn to speak the language of the West when talking with the West.
One other point was made by a Kuwaiti, who had been sent on a delegation to Denmark some years ago in the wake of the first printing of the controversial cartoons. He and his fact finding group of Kuwaiti representatives discovered a lot of things about the mixed Danish society upon their visit.
First of all, they discovered that the Danish cartoonists there knew next to nothing about religion�nor was the man interested in culture or religion.
Second, the Kuwaitis found many Danish unaware of Islam but generally welcome to receive information on Islam. The same could also be said of their knowledge of the Islamic parts of the world�the Danes were interested but relatively uninformed. Meanwhile, the few Danish Muslims were fairly secularized and were not so much affronted by the cartoons, i.e. they didn�t take them so seriously.
Third, they found that many Danish firms and individuals who were aware of issues in Palestine and Iraq were actively donating lots of money for aid and assistance. As a matter of fact, one of these Danish firms is the largest private contributor of Palestinian aid in the entire world.
From this experience, several Kuwaitis came home feeling that the cartoon issue in Denmark had little to nothing to do with any growing cultural war between the East and the West�that is, if Muslims refused to make any big issue out of them.
Dr. Al-Fares added that sometimes we are angry or led to be angry by other things than what we find ourselves venting out our anger on.
For example, as an expert in artificial intelligence, Dr. Al-Fares notes that even things like individual and social biorhythms can lead to anger and discomfort. These, in turn, affect our redefinition at times of what our personal space is or what our hot-buttons are.
One Egyptian noted, � �We Muslims� is a concept which disappeared from the face of the earth a long time ago in reality.�
He added, ��We Muslims� are all different. Similarly, there were many people in the West who were angered by the comments Pope Benedict made a year and a half ago. People in the West are all different, too.�
One final issue in the discussion related to the lack of forums in the Arab and Islamic world for civil society to grow and vent its concerns. In many countries, demonstrations are the only form of protest that people know.
That is, in some societies, circumventing the law by taking quick violent acts before the police of the law is restored is considered the prime means of protest in too many societies from Africa, the Middle East to Asia.
Meanwhile, education in the West and in the East is failing us all in terms of cross-cultural awareness and understanding. In other words, we are not knowledgeable enough about the other.
Summarizing some of the final comments at the meeting, the following issues are raised:
(1) in the East, Muslims need to be encouraged to more freely discuss and debate in and out of mosques. Moreover,
(2) in and out of mosques local culture of violence and suppression should not be allowed to trump the more peaceful and tolerant traditions in Islam.
(3) Too many of those who have been violent don�t really know nor want to know their own faith. In turn,
(4) these same individuals have not made efforts to know much about other cultural environments.
(1) In the West, westerners also need to know more about Islam, the 44-plus Muslim lands of the world, and differing opinions among its peoples.
(2) Currently, too few westerners know any good Muslims by name�nor do they know of any other Muslim heroes aside from the more violent ones.
(3) Finally, westerners need to learn to distinguish between culture, religion, and terrorism.
Dr. Al-Fares noted that for some westerners, when asked to name famous Muslim leaders or heroes, most westerners could only name people, like Osama bin Laden, Nasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
As Al-Fares shared this information, a murmur arose in the audience.
This was the first time that such a vision of their faith by westerners had been perceived by some Muslim members of this Middle Eastern audience. Some had never realized before that evening how much, based on media and movie hype, the West was coming to fear Islam as a violent faith, i.e. not the true faith they desired to practice and live out.
Several listening that night stated that they must do better at lifting up alternative heroes to the West.
Finally, one Scotsman pointed out that between any �event�, like the printing of the Danish cartoons, and any �reaction� to that event, there exists �choice�. The perception in the West seems to be that Muslims, who are violent and out damaging the image of their faith, are pretending that they don�t have a choice but to act otherwise.
The west as a whole questions this move as most there don�t attack structures when films, like the Last Temptation of Christ is shown.
In contrast, in places like Egypt and in India the film, The DaVinci Code, had to be banned because of protests by some Christian groups�some of which were in some cases violent protests or protests that came to threaten with violence.
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KEVIN STODA-has been blessed to have either traveled in or worked in nearly 100 countries on five continents over the past two and a half decades.--He sees himself as a peace educator and have been-- a promoter of good economic and social development--making-him an enemy of my homelands humongous DEFENSE SPENDING and its focus on using weapons to try and solve global (more...)

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