Despite the offensive cartoons, our apology to Denmark

Kamil-Alexandre | Montréal | 2006-02-14

As if things were not complicated enough for Syria after the never ending international Hariri-murder investigation, last week Syria jumped into the center of the Danish cartoons fighting ring. Thousands of Islamic fundamentalists marched towards the Danish embassy and set it on fire.

Syrian government claimed there was nothing they could have done to stop the crowd that burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus last week. One wonders if the same crowd decided instead to try to burn down, say, the Central Bank building, would they have been allowed to succeed. The answer is probably ?no?. The Syrian authorities probably did not organize the violent demonstration, but they did not feel they need to risk frustrating and confronting the demonstrating angry Syrian fundamentalists for the sake of the small nation of Denmark.

One of many Danish humanitarian workers in Syria During WW1 Upper image (1915) from, lower image courtesy of Ayman Haykal)

The Syrian foreign ministry ?regretted the violence?. In comparison, Lebanon officially apologized, its Interior minister immediately resigned, Lebanese Muslim leaders (both Shiite and Sunnis) took clear stands condemning the violence and any attempts to damage Muslim-Christian relations.

Most Syrian bloggers expressed their anger at the paper that published the cartoons, and they supported peaceful reactions of the sort of sit-ins and vigils. But they also made it clear that they were very saddened to see the Danish embassy in Syria destroyed. Dr. Ayman Haykal, from the popular Damascene Blog wrote: ?Many countries have limits to freedom of speech when it comes to religious sensitivities. In 2003, Greece sentenced a cartoonist to 6 months in prison because of the way he depicted Jesus in a book he published. So the idea of "having limits" is not so alien in Europe.? Then he added: ?I wanted the Muslim reaction to be different. The sit-ins and vigils that were organized in Damascus before Saturday's violent demonstrations were very peaceful and civilized. The idea of boycotting Danish products was also a good idea. Everything went well until the mobs took out to the streets on Saturday. It is quite unfortunate to see that the Muslim street is still controlled by extremist ideas that are, in fact, very un-Islamic. The mobs harmed the cause and gave another blow to the image of Islam.?

The cartoons were surely in very bad taste, Muslims are justified in observing that Europeans are sometimes (not always) sensitive to other religions? limits but not to Islam?s. Yet one has to realize the limit of his own circle of influence and control. Are we to expect the Europeans for example to not eat Pork and not drink because Islam does not allow it? Are we to expect the Europeans to not eat meat at all because some Asian religions do not allow it? Are Muslims also willing to abide by respecting all those sensitivities of other religions and ethnic groups around the whole world? ... In a very different and extreme example of how complicated and unpractical this arranegemt can get; the Iraqi prime minister who was often starting his answers to questions from opposition party members in the Iraqi parliament by the popular Arab phrase: ?I ask for God?s help from Satan? (A'ouzou billah min al-shaytan alrajeem). The three representatives of Iraq?s Kurdish Yezidi minority (Satan worshippers, cult of angels) complained that the prime minister is not sensitive to their religious sensitivities and demanded that he stops cursing Satan.

The prophet had made it clear that Islam will respect the rights of worship of others. Yet, the demonstrators in Syria and Egypt were stepping on, and burning the flag of Denmark. A flag that is made from a symbol that the Christians revere ? their cross, that symbolizes Jesus. Does this call for reciprocal violence and rage from Christian fundamentalists around the world? Should the Untied States cut its economic aid to the whole nation of Egypt as a result to teach the demonstrators a lesson on how to respect Christian symbols?

As Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy wrote: We always complained that Islam is often held accountable for the actions of the violent few. We should not hold the nation of Denmark accountable to the actions of the publishers of the cartoons.