News and Views from New York
Seminar on Prophet Muhammad Cartoons in Hofstra University
By Syed S Hussain

A seminar was held recently under the auspices of The Department of Religion, Hofstra University, New York on a topic that has occupied center stage globally in recent weeks. The complete title of the seminar was “ The Muhammad Cartoons, Myths about Islam and the Politics of Religion.” The lecture was basically for students of the University but was also open to the public. Along with many others from outside I attended the lecture.
One of the first things I noticed was the number of attendees. The lecture hall was packed to capacity and the attendees, mostly students, seemed very involved in the subject. This interest and understanding was later demonstrated during the question/answer session, which generated interesting viewpoints.
Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies Mr. Markus Dressler, conducted the lecture. His thesis was rather simple. The religion of Islam and the Muslims need to be treated on equal footing with other religions and not to be stereotyped. The yardstick of judgment for any actions or reactions of the Muslims should be the same as for other people, societies and cultures. While forming any opinion the underlying causes of any problem need to be looked into.
He defended the freedom of speech but at the same time he counseled sensitivity to other’s beliefs especially when it comes to matters of faith. He also counseled restraint and toleration, especially by the Muslim religious opinion makers.
The present volatile situation, in his opinion, is the result of omissions and commissions of the parties involved in the controversy. Publication of the cartoons was not a simple expression of the right of free speech, as is being professed, but also an effort to stir up anti-immigrants/ anti-Muslim public opinion.
The Muslim leaders of Denmark too failed to appreciate the incendiary nature of the matter when appealing to the leaders of other Muslim countries. It did not take long thereafter for this controversy to be taken to the streets and explains for the mayhem that followed. He agreed that majority in the Islamic world are against these violent protests but he regretted that these voices of moderation do not find enough coverage in the media
Does the debate around this controversy reflect fundamental value conflicts and “Clash of Civilizations”? Not in the opinion of Prof. Dressler. He felt that these words and expression are over simplifications of rather complex situations and they only mystify the problems without addressing them. The recent incidents rather should be understood as efforts to advance particular political agendas.
After the lecture there was a vigorous question/answer session that reflected unanimity of views at least on one subject: that the matter of religion is quite serious and should not be trivialized. Some defended the freedom of speech and others emphasized media responsibility and awareness of cultural sensitivity.
Mr. Habib Ahmed, President of Islamic Center of Long Island who was one of the attendees, advanced an important comment. According to him, the freedom of speech comes with responsibility of good judgment. The Muslims honor all Prophets and would be equally offended if other Prophets were ridiculed or trivialized. The present controversy has shown that Islmophobia is on the increase and should be of concern to all people of conscience regardless of their faith.
The seminar was a timely and thought provoking event. As to the vexing question that what could be done to improve the existing distrust and stereotyping there appeared to be a consensus that it is a long and difficult road. A serious effort by the West to engage and understand the Muslims and by the Muslims to be more tolerant to other cultures and points of views could be the beginning of such a journey.
VISIT OF PRESIDENT BUSH TO PAKISTAN: US President George W. Bush is scheduled to visit Pakistan in early March. For expatriate Pakistanis living in the US his visit is an important one. Any move, which further improves ties between the US and Pakistan, is a matter of great significance to them.
Many in the Pakistani-American community feel that despite Pakistan’s support to the US in the war on terror the image of Pakistan and the Pakistani community continues to be smeared, especially in the media. For a long-term relationship it is important that this situation improves. Also that Pakistan–US relations should be more encompassing and not only terror- related. Increased trade, exchange of students and transfer of technology should be part of a long-term deal. Hopefully, the leaders of both countries would address these issues.




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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