Cartoon furor allows faux moderates to market themselves as an alternative to the "extremists"
March 6, 2006
Europe's Muslims divided in wake of cartoon furor
Radical voices protested the loudest, but 'progressive' groups are beginning to challenge traditional ideas.
By James Brandon
LONDON - As protests against the Danish cartoons fade, Europe's moderate Muslims are facing difficult choices about their faith, identity, and values.
"The middle ground in Muslim communities is between a rock and a hard place," says Omar Shah, an Afghan-Danish commentator on Muslim affairs. "The moderate majority is having to decide where they stand."
During a month of flag-burning protests in Europe against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the voices of Islamic radicals were the loudest. As the flames die down,however,it is increasingly clear that the cartoon affair has reignited difficult debates within Europe's 20-million-strong Muslim community. Though radical organizations have gained strength, new "progressive" Muslim groups are beginning to challenge traditional ideas.
In Denmark, where the cartoons were first published, Muslims who want to live in a pluralistic, secular, and tolerant Danish society have formed a new group to publicize their ideals.
"We want to use this group to tell ordinary Danes that we are also Danes first and foremost, " says Fathi El-Abed, a spokesman for the group, Democratic Muslims. " We want to [tell them], 'We are democratic just like you - the only thing different is that we come from a Muslim background.' "
"I have been in Denmark for 17 years but I was not part of the integration debate because I just thought that everything would work out," says Mr. El-Abed, who is of Palestinian origin. "But since this crisis came, I decided that I can no longer allow others to speak on my behalf ... many others are in the same position."
The new group's leader, Naser Khader, a Syrian-born Social Democrat MP and self-described "cultural Muslim," is already a well-known figure in Danish politics. His fame stems partly from his "Ten Commandments of Democracy," which include a strict separation of religion and politics, unreserved support for freedom of expression, and a rejection of violence.
"Danes see him as a role model - as the ideal Muslim - but many immigrants see him as a sell-out," says Mr. Shah. "A lot of them see [him] as someone attacking Islam. And some of them really despise him actually."
In Britain, meanwhile, the new Progressive British Muslims group defended newspapers' right to publish drawings of the prophet. "Although it is forbidden for Muslims to pictorially display the Prophet Mohammed, it should be remembered that living in a pluralistic and secular society Muslims cannot expect those who do not follow Islam to respect its boundaries," said their spokesman, Dr. Shaaz Mahboob, in a statement.
As moderate Muslim groups have begun to organize more aggressively, so, too, have radical groups.After months of keeping a low profile following the London bombings, Britain's most prominent radical group - Al-Gharabaa - reemerged to protest outside the Danish embassy, demanding the murder of the cartoonists.
"This rally was a way for them to reassert themselves within the Muslim community," says Abdulrahman Malik, contributing editor of the Muslim news magazine Q News. "They are trying to regain the ground they had lost."
The group used the publicity to attack multiculturalism and integration, and to reach out to Muslims disillusioned with life in the West.
Anjem Choudhary, the group's spokesman, also attacked mainstream groups like the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), who try to work with the British government to promote their agendas.
"The MCB and the MAB don't represent anyone apart from themselves," said Mr. Choudhary. "They are the lackeys of Blair's government. If the MCB held a demonstration how many people would come? Nobody."
Across London, Choudhary's group has since become more visible. One Saturday last month in East London, three members of Al-Ghurabaa were openly recruiting new members on a busy shopping street.
"We say to the West you are not allowed to dictate to us what we say," explains a young man, Ali, as his colleagues hand out brochures on Islam to non-Muslims. For Muslims, he had pamphlets such as "Joining the Police: contribution or apostasy?"
"Whatever our religion allows us to say we'll say it," Ali adds, as his colleague quietly hides a stack of leaflets reading, "Kill those who insult the Prophet." The three volunteers estimate they've handed out more than 500 leaflets that morning, with many people stopping to talk to them.
In an effort to compete with groups like Al-Ghurabaa, mainstream groups in Britain have become more radical.
"If you insist on stepping on us, it's not peace you get. Let it be understood - don't mess with the prophet," the MAB's Dr. Azzam Tamimi thundered during a rally in London's Trafalgar Square last month.
Such inflammatory talk might be expected to lead many Muslims toward the progressive organizations. But even non-practicing Muslims are often wary of groups led by people like Khader, who criticize not just extremists but traditional Islamic practices, says Shah.
"All these groups who call themselves progressive are just marginal at the moment," concludes Malik. "But they are a voice that needs to be heard ... only time will tell if they turn out to be significant."