A renewed controversy and a renewed opportunity [Archives:2008/1135/Opinion]

March 6 2008

By: Walid Al-Saqaf
Living in Sweden, a country with close ties to Denmark, where the republishing of the Mohammed cartoons resulted in a renewed controversy, I have come close to understanding how people in this region think, and I have hence come up with my own conclusions.

Although many may think that the republishing of the cartoons by some 16 newspapers in Denmark and at least two Swedish newspapers should be seen in negative light by Muslims, I essentially believe that it can in fact be turned into their advantage.


It's because it created more interest in Islam among the people of the Nordic region in particular and the West as a whole. Indeed! The more press coverage this issue gets, the more questions are raised about the religion and about the some one billion people embracing it.

This is the right moment for Muslims to seize. But it shouldn't be through expressing outrage in the streets, burning flags, and worst of all, sending threats to cartoonists or newspapers. But it should be done through launching initiatives targeting the communities that are the most alienated against Islam.

The reaction should be understanding, positive and compassionate. It should convey a message that Muslims realize the circumstances that led to the negative attacks against Islam and its prophet and are working to reverse them through public relations, campaigns, forums, workshops, media coverage and personal interactions.

The Internet today is a massive tool that if harnessed properly, could result in serving the Islamic faith tremendously because there is nothing in Islam that could not be explained rationally to those who are willing to listen.

Muslims should react to negativity with positivity and with specifics about what makes the religion one that calls for peace and harmony and not violence and division. It is an opportunity that was sadly missed the first time the cartoons were published not because there weren't any efforts promoting the understanding of Islam, as there were many, but because of the violent reactions, threats, and fear mongering that a minority of Muslims carried out.

Here in rebro, a small town in the west of Stockholm, there are ongoing efforts to use the occasion to promote Islam's values, which ironically, are closest to the values of the Nordic region in terms of human rights, equality, justice, and compassion.

The official inauguration of one of the largest mosques in Sweden in the coming month will be an opportunity to introduce the true values of the religion to those curious to know about it. Muslims and non-Muslims will be invited to attend a session introducing Islam and help build bridges between the different faiths.

There will be hundreds of copies of an English-language book on prophet Mohamed written in a language that is simple to understand and speaks plainly and directly to not only the hearts, but most importantly the minds of Europeans skeptical about Islam.

The imam of the mosque in rebro has been urging those attending Friday prayers to reflect the true values of Islam in the way they talk, walk and act in the Swedish society. While there may be many Muslims in town acting in a way that gave a negative impression about Islam, there is yet an interesting pattern emerging in recent years in Sweden.

There are increasingly good examples of properly mannered Muslims in the city that abide by the law and prove to be trust-worthy, tolerant, and friendly to people of all faiths.

Despite often wearing their Muslim costumes and having a thick beard, those young Muslims are already seen favorably by the surrounding communities. The way they communicate with their Swedish counterparts has been utmost respectful and helped shed the image that other non-religious Muslims portrayed. They are found to be dedicated to their religion by praying five times a day, yet never neglect their day-to-day duties and are of high morals and are law abiding.

While demonstrating their decent acts and gracious deeds in their community level, at their working place and in the classroom, they started to attract young Swedes perhaps for the first time. People around them start to look into their way of life and notice they are humble, gracious, yet hard working and dedicated. They find them calm, understanding, and tolerant of other views yet proud of their religion and don't shy away from taking permission to leave for prayers and other religious duties. They don't mind enjoying a good laugh at work with their Swedish colleagues but don't get along with the late partying and drinking. They don't ridicule the community's habits in staying late partying and drinking all night on weekends, while openly explaining that their religion prohibits them from such acts.

The way of life of those young Muslims had attracted some Swedes to study Islam, read translations of the Quran and sit with their Muslim colleagues to be informed the right way, the direct way, and not from the main stream media.

The number of such Swedes isn't high, but every other Friday you would hear the imam after the sermon announcing that one or more Swedish man or woman decided to embraced Islam and join the growing Muslim community. After the announcement, it is always a delight hearing 'Allah Akbar' chants and looking at the smiling and satisfied faces of those in the mosque.

It was neither violent protests, nor economic boycotts that made this happen. But it was one-on-one communications, open-minded dialogues and most important of all, setting the examples that inspired those Swedes and made them choose the new path.

It is ironic that it was after those cartoons got published that the number of converts increases as people started looking into this religion to try to understand it. There were fewer means to get proper knowledge about the facts of Islam in the past. But nowadays, with the Internet and with active groups such as those in rebro, questions are being answered and misconceptions are being corrected.

One should never underestimate the power of words in spreading a message of a religion that for many decades went without proper representation and unfortunately, with reactions that helped promote Islamophobia in many ways.

Perhaps without knowing it, those Danish newspapers are helping setting the stage for Muslims to play a bigger role. We, as Muslims, need to realize that we have been given many opportunities in the past and have largely blew them away and on some occasions, created nightmares out of them.

Those young Muslims in rebro that have contributed in having changed the lives of some Swedes, who will one day look back in time and remember that their journey to the true faith started with cartoons appearing in a Danish newspaper. How grateful to the newspaper would he be then?

Walid Al-Saqaf is a Yemeni journalist currently pursuing his master degree in Global Journalism in Sweden. He was the editor-in-chief of Yemen Times during 1999-2005 and is currently pursuing a career in online journalism.