Monday, February 8, 2010
The damage of silence
By-Dominic Asquith British Ambassador to Egypt
Over the last days of 2009, the streets of Karachi, Muzaffarabad and Baghdad became the latest battle ground of suicide bombers blowing up other Muslims in the name of Islam. Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed as its own an attempt by a young, well educated, wealthy Nigerian to destroy the lives of nearly 300 passengers in the skies above the US at Christmas. The young Nigerian had earlier posted on his blog that he imagined how “the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win (Allah willing) and will rule the whole world and establish the greatest empire once again.”
The early days of 2010 have witnessed the murder of Christians in upper Egypt on the steps of their Church as they celebrated the birth of Christ – whether sectarian or not, the choice of targets and timing was clearly designed to create effect. Some used the Swiss referendum on minarets as “evidence” of an unchangeable “Islamophobia” in the West. In the same way, others are citing the recent attacks and their justification by those who carried them out as proof of an unbridgeable divide between Islam and non-Islam.
We have to prove both sets of people wrong. As in the Swiss context, the reaction from opinion formers is going to be decisive. The West suffers from acts carried out by people claiming to be Western but which the great majority would disown as unrepresentative. Denouncing these acts as wrong wherever they occur and credibly demonstrating that they are unrepresentative is a responsibility shared by all persons of reason.
The Head of the Civil Rights Congress in Kaduna (Nigeria) said that “for the past 30 years we have witnessed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in this part of the country” with some groups funded by individuals and countries from the Middle East. Again in Nigeria, the secretary-general of the Islamic Network for Development said that for anyone to contemplate such an act was inhuman. The Muslim Public Affairs Centre based in Lagos said the attempted attack was a complete violation of the teachings of Islam.
What is essential is that those in positions of authority need to make the same points. The life of a Shia killed celebrating Ashoura or a Christian celebrating Christmas is just as valuable as that of a passenger on Northwest Airlines flight 253. There is no scope for saying one is more or less innocent.
If the reaction is silence (particularly when the choice of dates for committing the crimes is clearly purposeful), some will assume that the argument of the extremists is justified: that it is permissible to kill someone just because he or she is a “Westerner” (or indeed just happens to be in a Western location) or is from a different sect or a different religion. Since Muslim extremists are justifying their actions, the perception will be created that they speak for Islam – unless others contradict them, Muslim and non-Muslim. We all need to tell them – loudly: “You are wrong”.
The effect of such extremism, if left unopposed, is to create a vicious circle. Fear by non-Islam about Islam will mean less interaction, less understanding and greater prejudice – and greater fear … and so we go round again, but more destructively. We need to support each other in breaking this vicious circle.