“All evils are equal when they are extreme.”
Pope Benedict XVI yesterday ended a trip to Lebanon, the only Arab country headed by a Christian and the only Arab country whose citizens have tried to coexist with a decent level of transparency, even though they have not escaped armed confrontations from time to time.
The main positive thing about Lebanon is that nobody there hides the tension that underlies religious and sectarian differences. This allows for a healthy coexistence provided that all parties act reasonably and reach an understanding about their priorities, and as long as foreign agendas, whether regional or international, are not allowed to disrupt this coexistence.
This is not the case with the rest of Arab countries which find it difficult to cope with diversity and accept difference. It is also not even the case in the developed world where a many members of Muslim communities have failed to adapt. This was obvious in the irresponsible reactions that followed the release of a despicable and malicious movie.
In the West, the problem takes a different shape than in the Arab and Muslim world. It is clear that demographic, economic, and social factors contribute to the cultural alienation felt by second and third generation Muslim youth in Europe, Australia, Canada, and even the United States.
Dealing with this phenomenon requires an elaborate discussion which is beyond the scope of this article, but for the time being one may raise the following points:
*First, there is a real intellectual crisis in the Muslim world which is no longer possible to overlook. It becomes obvious in the way some Islamist groups deal even with Islamic governments that came to power in their respective countries. This does not only apply to Egypt and Tunisia, but was also the case in the only modern state that was officially created with an Islamic identity: Pakistan. The increasing popularity of the Taliban-Qaeda experiment with its jihadist ideologies and black flags is the ideal way of tarnishing the image of Islam and proving right the theories of Western extremists. These extremists, in turn, while falsely claim to represent the Christian faith are no different from their Islamist counterparts; indeed, they adopt similar fascist and fundamentalist principles but across the hedge.
*Second, fascist ideologies that claim exclusive theological and social righteousness while accusing others of apostasy are not exclusive to a specific religion. We have been exposed to the ugly face of Christian fundamentalism in the United States with the emergence of groups like the Tea Party which has been trying to strip the Republican Party of its identity and essence; and the same goes for Jewish extremism as in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu’s power base and his destructive ambitions. It is no different either with fundamentalist Hindus who destroyed the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, India in 1992 at the instigation of far-right Hindu officials.
*Third, it is no use fighting extremists in a given religious group with the might of the extremists of another group. History has taught us that extremism can be defeated only by moderate enlightened forces with its own religious, sectarian, or factional camp. In other words, Islamic extremism does not weaken or defeat Christian extremism but rather encourages and justifies it, and vice versa. This applies to all forms of religious and sectarian extremism. That is why there is no way to fight extremism, which has now become more rampant than ever, thanks to the telecommunication revolution and advancement of lethal weapons, except through the unification of moderate factions, the true beneficiaries from the culture of coexistence and the dialogue of civilizations.
*Fourth, the zealots who rose to “defend” Islam and get back at the makers of the movie must ask themselves who or which parties would benefit from this fabricated sedition. In fact, that those who funded or worked in the film were well aware of the reaction it would trigger, judging at least by previous cases like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the infamous Danish cartoons.
The intention is, therefore, very clear and the response has been carefully calculated, and there are, indeed, certain parties who are benefiting from this chaos. Did any of the people, who took to the streets waving black flags, think for a moment how useful this escalation could be for those parties?
I believe that the first beneficiary is the far-right in the United States which adopts the “clash of civilizations” theory unlike the Democrats. The timing -- a few weeks before the presidential elections -- is also quite indicative. Waving al-Qaeda flags is itself more than enough for the Tea Party and the extreme right to get the support they badly need and score a victory in the elections.
The second beneficiary is the Israeli far right which has always been trying to convince the West that trying to befriend Arabs and Muslims is futile as they will always be the enemies of the Western civilization, and because it is impossible to trust them especially as far as democracy and human rights are concerned.
The third beneficiary is the remaining dictatorships in the Arab and Muslim world which brutally suppress their people under the pretext of fighting extremist groups. These regimes claim they represent moderation while their enemies -- the majority of the people that is -- are extremists. Yesterday, in a meeting the Pope held with Lebanese politicians, an MP who belongs to the Tehran-Damascus camp said bluntly before the media that members of this camp “want Lebanon to be a diverse country in which all religions and sects can peacefully coexist, while both religious extremists and Zionists attempt to destroy this “beautiful” model in Lebanon and other countries in the region”. “The Pope’s visit”, he added, “demonstrated that there is a spiritual superpower out there that rejects extremism and promotes diversity”. Furthermore, a senior Maronite cleric, who unfortunately is a university president, even went last week as far as questioning “the Arab Spring,” which he argued is threatening Christian existence in the East.
Finally, waving black flags does not defend Islam and certainly does not dignify Muslims. The solution lies in a set of U.N.-sponsored legislations that consider deriding one religion an insult to all religions, and subsequently bans insulting Islam and Muslims by law as is the case of questioning the Holocaust.
The writer is a columnist at Asharq al-Awsat where this article was first published on Sept. 17, 2012