FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2006
The distasteful cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, first published in Denmark in September 2005 and subsequently reproduced in other media, continue to spark a chain of reactions ranging from peaceful protest to violence in many Muslim communities.
The international community must work together to put out this fire. A good start would be to stop justifying the cartoons as "freedom of the press," which only hardens the Muslim community's response. Another vital step would be to discontinue their reproduction, which only prolongs the outrage.
To non-Muslims, the image of the Prophet Muhammad may only be of casual interest. But to Muslim communities worldwide, it is of enormous spiritual importance. For the last 14 centuries, Muslims have adhered to a strict code that prohibits any visual portrait of the Prophet. When this code was violated and their Prophet mocked for the purpose of humor, Muslims felt a direct assault on their faith.
Reprinting the cartoons in order to make a point about free speech is an act of senseless brinkmanship. It is also a disservice to democracy. It sends a conflicting message to the Muslim community: that in a democracy, it is permissible to offend Islam.
This message damages efforts to prove that democracy and Islam go together. The average Muslim who prays five times a day needs to be convinced that the democracy he is embracing, and is expected to defend, also protects and respects Islam's sacred symbols. Otherwise, democracy will not be of much interest to him.
The cartoon crisis serves as a reminder that all hell may break loose in a world of intolerance and ignorance.
The global community needs to cultivate democracies of freedom and tolerance - not democracies of freedom versus tolerance. It is tolerance that protects freedom, harnesses diversity, strengthens peace and delivers progress.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, many in the Western world have shown increasing interest in the Islamic world. Yet this interest has not been accompanied by a greater knowledge and understanding of Islam. In December last year, the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Mecca lamented "the feelings of stigmatization and concern over the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia around the world as a form of racism and discrimination."
The West and Islam need not collide in a clash of civilizations. Many Islamic communities comfortably embrace some Western habits. Correspondingly, Islam has become the fastest-growing religion in some Western nations, including the United States. The Western and Islamic worlds can conscientiously work together to nurture a global culture of respect and tolerance.
The international community must not come out of the cartoon crisis broken and divided. We need to build more bridges between religions, civilizations and cultures. Government leaders, religious figures and ordinary citizens can go beyond supporting religious freedom - they can express solidarity with those who are defending the integrity of their faith.
We also need to intensify interfaith dialogue so that we may further tear down the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust - an undertaking that Indonesia has actively promoted.
Muslims around the world also have responsibilities. No one - certainly not Muslims - will be better off if the current crisis descends into open conflict and more bloodshed. The best way for Muslims to fight intolerance and ignorance toward Islam is by tirelessly reaching out to non-Muslims and projecting Islam as a peaceful religion. We also need to be forgiving to those who have sincerely apologized for offending Islam.
Indeed, at this difficult moment, Muslims might emulate the Prophet Muhammad's well-known qualities in dealing with adversity: composure, sound judgment, magnanimity and benevolence.
(Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the president of Indonesia.)