Coexistence or No Existence

Now that the conflict over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad is dying down, or so I hope, it is clear that the only winners are the extremists -- in the Islamic World and in Europe.

I regret the fact that the controversy started in my own country when a newspaper chose to publish the cartoons in a naïve effort to demonstrate freedom of expression. It happened last autumn, and at that time I argued publicly against what I regarded as an insensitive act, because it hurt other peoples’ religious feelings. It was also an unnecessary provocation, and constituted in itself a caricature of our cherished freedom of expression, that is guaranteed in our constitution. As my father (an old journalist himself) used to say: Freedom of expression provides a right to say what you think, but it is not an obligation to do so!

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When the controversy blew up a few weeks ago, a lot of fuel was added to the fire. Many incorrect stories were circulated. False rumours that the Holy Koran had been burned in demonstrations, false information on the status of Islam in Denmark, incorrect translations of what our Queen had said, etc. This added to the anger, and it led to burning embassies and threats of violence.

The conflict has been called “A Clash of Civilizations.” It could well deteriorate into that; the potential is there. But I would still prefer to call it “A Clash of the Misinformed.” There were so many mistakes on both sides: On one side there was a lack of understanding of the deep religious feelings that were hurt by a show of disrespect. On the other side people were given exaggerated and even falsified stories of what had actually happened.

The potential for a “clash of civilizations” lies in the deep differences between European and Islamic cultures and traditions. We should all be aware of those who seek to deepen these differences and turn them into insurmountable gulfs instead of inspirations to a richer life. It is only too easy for them to point to the case of the cartoons and say: Now you see how western-style democracy and freedom of expression mean that you will face ridicule and mockery of your religious faith! It is easy because freedom of expression was used, when publishing the cartoons, merely to demonstrate itself and therefore became a caricature of itself.

Our globalized world brings us not only economic opportunities but also cultural and spiritual challenges. Internet and SMS have developed over less than a decade and we still have not made the mental adjustments to the implications of such instantaneous communication. The Danish cartoonists and newspaper editors that published the cartoons obviously failed to understand that they were not just addressing themselves to a local audience but to other inhabitants of the global village. If they had realized that, they would not have published the cartoons – as they stated clearly when they made their apology.

The lessons of this unfortunate incident seem to me to be clear: We should all acknowledge that in the modern world it is increasingly necessary for all sensible people to work for mutual respect, tolerance and better understanding. We must avoid situations where different values are confronted with each other in ways that trigger violence. Instead we must try to build bridges between religions, ethics and norms.

Call it self-censorship if you wish. But self-censorship is practised all the time by sensible people. If you wish to stay in the same room as other people you try not to offend them through unnecessary provocations. The room we are talking about is no longer the local pond but the global village. Co-existence is the key.

Some people are unwilling to accept this. They are not open to values other than their own. They want confrontations. You find such people in Europe as well as in the Islamic world. Unfortunately they are the beneficiaries of the conflict that was triggered by the cartoons in a Danish newspaper.

But if we do not stand up to them we all run a grave risk of repeating some of history’s great mistakes. The risk was explained in a very small poem by the late Danish poet and philosopher Piet Hein in one of his famous “Grooks” called “That is the question”:

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or no existence