The politics of small steps

By March 8, 2006Article, Atlantic Eye

LONDON, March 8 (UPI) — “It is the worst political crisis in Danish foreign policy history,” said a ranking diplomat to an invited audience of 100 last week in Prague. The cartoon crisis had not just raised the question of compatibility between cultures, but also of competing cultures within Denmark itself. The Danish government was not quick enough to respond, and key Islamic leaders in Denmark used the situation to their own selfish benefit.

An ambassador noted that “one should not get provoked even if someone provokes you,” noting that in fact, the Danes and their Lutheran background made them a very tolerant people. He added that he did not accept the paradigm of the “clash of cultures.” Instead, he saw the need to de-escalate the tension and look for a moving-forward strategy.

Another ambassador said “of course the cartoons offended, but there was much more behind it. The cartoons were the drop that caused the water to run-over. The current situation in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Iran and the War on Terror have provoked a huge out-flux of emotions amongst Muslims.” The ambassador, who has been stationed in Islamic countries, continued that the conflict was not about one culture, and one religion. “We need to look beyond traditional politics. We need a dialogue between community leaders in various countries, to go below the waterline, to reach regional interests that are not being represented in the international political arena.”

In a splendid room of the Morzin Palace, the Prague Society and Global Panel had invited a small well-placed group of European diplomats, ambassadors, a few professors, a constitutional court judge and students representing five academic institutions to discuss whether “Diplomacy is capable of handling the crisis between secular and religious societies.” One might have expected the discussions to boil over. But order was kept, and the host, Ambassador Gheorghe Tinca, the first Romanian civilian defense minister after the fall of Ceausescu, kept people in a calm yet intense stride.

“There is nothing wrong with Islam,” a highly respected diplomat and expert on Islamic States stated. “All religions have extreme wings. In fact,” he continued, “there is no single explanation for the current tensions. The cartoons served only as a funnel. We must look at each of the countries separately, and approach them separately. The group approach can only fail. The violent reactions have not been analyzed completely, though we know they were partially manipulated by powerful selfish interests. Only time will give us the real reason.”

One thing is clear, the “cartoon business” is likely not unique, and certainly a foreshadowing of things to come.

A leading professor, having been asked several questions by some of the students, answered “the West knows very little about Islam. Islam knows little about the West. They do not understand — nor appreciate — our value of free speech. Their concept of freedom is different than ours. We do not speak their languages, never-mind their dialects. How far should freedom of expression go? It is absurd to think they will adopt our values completely while they believe we disrespect theirs. Yes, their response was exaggerated, but it was provoked.”

In quick-fire repartee emotions did flare, though respectfully. Students argued that education is a possible solution. They also argued that one must invest in cultural ties, religion and family — especially in conflict regions. Said one student, “we invest short-term in dictatorships. They are corrupt and being aided by the West. They do not look out for their own people. And, then later, we wonder why they have turned against us. Brilliant foreign policy!!”

A prominent Czech Diplomat, who has held several high portfolios, argued that one must be careful about lumping Islam together. “There are numerous differences between Arabic and Asian Islam. Asia does have Islamic countries that practice the rule of law. They might not be our version of democracy, but they are peaceful and stable.” Added another speaker, “a severe problem is that the West poaches moderate Muslims from their own countries. And, when we need them, they are not there to help us because they are living among us. This is fine for our societies, but harmful to their own. As in the West, there is a battle of ideas taking place in the Islamic world. Muslims are quite tired of Western paternalism.”

“I think that we need to look at Islam in two separate ways. We need to get help from secular Islam and learn to battle fundamentalist Islam, while still being conciliatory,” added an Iraqi student, noting, “a root of this problem is economic disparity.”

This provoked anger. “Let me be clear,” retorted a speaker, “I lost family in the World Trade Center. None of the terrorists were poor, or fundamentalist for that matter. They were all educated in the West, and products of middle class families. Of course economic disparity is a problem which needs to be eradicated. But the poor are not the ones blowing-up our buildings. And, when they do, they are being manipulated by Western-educated non-pious Muslims using Islam as an excuse for their sick deeds.”

There is a battle of ideas taking place in the West, especially in the United States. This battle is also taking place in the Islamic world. There are many reasons why we have arrived at this junction. Having grand strategies that fail in their implementation will not solve the problem.

One thing is clear — this is a wake-up call.

Marc S. Ellenbogen is President of the Prague Society