elbaradei4_Universal History ArchiveUniversal Images Group via Getty Images_history third crusade Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Who Is Attacking Whom?

The last thing that either Islamic or Western civilization needs today is new reasons for division and conflict. What is needed instead is a wide-ranging intercultural dialogue that puts all contentious issues on the table, with the hope of gaining a sympathetic understanding of the other’s perspective and thus narrowing the gap.

VIENNA – The year 2020 demonstrated, once again, that the relationship between the Western and the Arab and Muslim worlds remains muddled, complicated by lingering memories of colonization, wars, and atrocities that date back to the Crusades and, in modern times, to Algeria’s war for independence from France and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a relationship marred by suspicion, distrust, and resentment on the part of many (if not most) Muslims, as well as many in the West. The thin knowledge that both sides of the relationship have of other cultures doesn’t lend itself to mutual understanding – a grim fact that radicals (again, on both sides) cynically exploit.

A plethora of recent initiatives have sought to promote intercultural dialogue and foster deeper understanding between civilizations and cultures, particularly Islam and the West. Regrettably, these efforts, including the establishment in 2005 of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, have remained mostly confined to the well-educated, and their efforts have had no impact on ordinary people. On the contrary, an extremist attack or utterance overwhelms such initiatives and reinforces the perception of two antithetical cultures locked in inevitable and immutable conflict. The recent renewed uproar in France over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the shocking atrocities that followed there, clearly demonstrate the deep cultural divide that continues to roil relations between Islam and the West.

Why have these cartoons deepened this fissure anew? Non-secular Muslims perceived these caricatures in a strictly religious framework, and the resulting anger and indignation spanned the entire Islamic world, from North Africa to Indonesia. Many Muslims regarded the images as another deliberate and vicious Judeo-Christian attack on Islam, a continuation of the Crusades by other means. Why, some ask, are attacks on Islam and its sacred symbols permitted, or even encouraged, while criticizing Israel or Holocaust denial is regarded as anti-Semitic and even punishable by law? Likewise, why are the French flag and national anthem protected against desecration, while the most revered symbol of the Islamic faith is not?

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