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Cross Cultural Analysis of the Danish Prophet Muhammad Cartoons

Lessons to Learn from the Cultural Clash between Denmark and Muslim

By: Sahar El-Nadi, Culture Consultant, Cairo, Egypt

In September 2005, when a local Danish newspaper published some cartoons depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, they probably never expected the powerful adverse reaction it would evoke from millions of Muslims worldwide. At this time, there are probably many people around the world who are wondering what this is all about and want to know more about Muhammad, the man over whom this confrontation has erupted. Some would argue that this is a clash of civilizations, but to me, it looks more like a severe case of cross-cultural misunderstanding. This is an attempt at analyzing the situation and extracting its valuable lessons.

The Quran declares to every human: "O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other" 49:13

It is probably the not "knowing each other" that is at the core of the problem between Denmark and the Muslim nations.

How could difference in culture result in international confrontation?

Culture can be defined as a code of values, beliefs and traditions practiced by a group of people, affecting their ideas and feelings. Culture is like a window through which people perceive the world outside. Since the values of western culture are well known to most people; it is the unfamiliar Muslim culture which needs a closer look in this situation.

What lies at the core of Muslim Culture?

There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, roughly one in every 5 people on earth today. Regardless of their ethnic background, Muslims worldwide share a common cultural identity based on some core values and holy symbols that are held in highest esteem, those are: God (Allah in Arabic), the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and all prophets from Adam to Muhammad. Muslims will be equally offended if it were Jesus, Moses or Abraham who were mocked, and definitely more so if it were God. When any of the Muslim holy symbols is offended in any way, Muslims worldwide will be insulted and would be expected to react in some way.

Regarding the Danish cartoons, what seems to be the problem?

From the Muslim point of view, actually there are two problems rolled into one:

1. Drawing God or His Prophets is a taboo in Muslim culture, regardless of the nature of the drawing.

2. Mocking or tarnishing a Muslim holy symbol is absolutely unacceptable for Muslims: the cartoons portrayed Muhammad as an icon of violence, and Islam as a violent religion when in fact it is not.

What caused this cross-cultural clash?

Islam is conservative culture with defined limits. Muslims live their religion day-to-day, whereas modern western culture has loosened its grip on religious values as a way of life and substituted them for secularism instead, seeing prophets as odd historical figures, unfit for modern life. Therefore, it expects Muslims to be good secularists when it comes to free speech, while even secular Muslims object to insulting images of the Prophet; they in turn expect westerners to join them in their reverence for religious values.

Many basics of cross-cultural communication were missing in this situation:

Good cross-cultural communication requires many skills: speaking, listening, patience, flexibility, and basic knowledge of the unique identity and taboos of each side. It seems that both sides had exercised these skills very poorly in this situation:

Very few on either side speak the other?s language; consequently true cultural communication was lost, as it was always through indirect channels.

In a cross-cultural setting with language barriers, it is important to avoid humor as it could undermine communication. In Denmark, cartoons are a common form of unrestricted expression, while in the Muslim world; certain things cannot be the subject of jokes.

Different cultures may have different definitions for the same value: for example, while freedom of expression in Denmark may refer to unrestricted self-expression, the same value for Muslims does not allow transgressing anyone?s holy symbols. Clash occurred when each side tenaciously held on to its own interpretation of the universal value of "freedom of expression". Cross-cultural disputes result from neglecting other's point of view, and trying to impose our ideas and beliefs on them.

Allowing heated emotions to block rational communication: the Muslims were offended that their respected prophet was mocked. In response, some chose to boycott Danish products, while others burned the Danish flag - which is a scared symbol of national pride to the Danes. Suddenly, emotions -rather than rational thinking- steered the communication process into a dead-end for cross-cultural understanding. It's destructive to communication to invalidate another human's personal feelings and thoughts, when that takes on a national perspective, we can only expect a heated confrontation.

Varying social values on each side: for example, emotional attachment to extended family is not at the center of a Dane?s life, while a Muslim revolves around a family institution, so extended that it includes all 1.3 billion Muslims! The concept of Community for Muslims is unique: they think of each other as ?brothers and sisters? so some may get so heatedly angry in defense of "brothers" they have never met, let alone that deeply loved and revered father-figure at the head of the family, namely Prophet Muhammad. How would any of us feel if his father was unjustly insulted in public? What will the reaction be if it continued for months?

Who is the Prophet Muhammad?

For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is the man who received divine words directly from God, who was sent as a "Mercy to mankind" as described in the Quran; a human embodiment of the teachings of the Quran. He is therefore a role model to every Muslim in every aspect of his life not only in worship, so a good Muslim would strive to be as compassionate, peaceful, understanding and loving as Muhammad was in all his dealings with family, neighbors and even enemies.

Sir George Bernard Shaw said about Prophet Muhammad in 'The Genuine Islam?: "I believe that if a man like him were to assume the leadership of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness." " I have studied him - the wonderful man and in my opinion, he must be called the Saviour of Humanity."

Very few world leaders could offer such a timeless example for excellence of character. For that reason, Prophet Muhammad was chosen by Michael Hart as the top of his list of 100 most influential persons in history. Mahatma Gandhi says in Young India: "When I closed the 2nd volume (of the Prophet's biography), I was sorry there was not more for me to read of the great life."

Lamartine says in Histoire de la Turquie: "If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astounding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad?". Perhaps the following story from Islamic tradition helps us understand what went wrong in this Danish-Muslim situation:

Example of intelligent cross-cultural communication from Islamic tradition:

At the start of Prophet Muhammad's mission, he had only few supporters who were severely persecuted by their people, so he asked them to seek refuge elsewhere. He chose Abyssinia, which was ruled by Negus, a Christian king, trusting him with protecting the new Muslims. Upon receiving the Prophet?s letter with the Muslim delegation, the king asked them to tell him of their prophet, and explain their religion to him; an elected spokesperson from the group, Jafar ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and close friend of the Prophet, gave an eloquent eye-witness description of Muhammad and the core values of his universal message:

"O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshipping idols and eating dead animals, committing all sorts of shameful deeds, breaking the ties of kinship, treating guests badly and the strong among us exploited the weak. We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people whose lineage, trustworthiness and integrity were well-known to us. He called us to worship Allah (God) alone and to renounce the idols which we and our ancestors used to worship. He commanded us to speak the truth, to honor our promises, to be kind to our relations, to be helpful to our neighbors, to cease all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness, not to appropriate an orphan's property nor slander chaste women. He ordered us to worship Allah alone and not to associate anything with him, to uphold prayer, to give charity to the poor and to fast in the month of Ramadan. We believed in him and what he brought to us from Allah and we follow him in what he has asked us to do and we keep away from what he forbade us from doing. Yet, our people oppressed us, made life intolerable for us and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in justice and in peace in your midst."

The King, impressed, asked him to recite some of the Quran, so Jafar chose -out of the 114 chapters of the holy book containing 6236 verses - a verse illustrating Muslim extreme respect for the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ; a very intelligent choice in the presence of a Christian king. The result of this successful encounter was an everlasting friendship and cooperation between the two nations.

There are many lessons to learn in this story for the two sides of the Danish- Muslim cultural clash at hand:

How the king offered a chance of free expression to the Muslims who chose to live in his country, and how he withheld his judgment until he heard the full story from its original sources;

How the Muslim immigrants capitalized on this opportunity of free speech to reach out and introduce their culture positively focusing on the universally respected human values, stressing the similarities -not the differences- between the two cultures;

And how when constructive dialogue is establishes, based on these wise principles of cross-cultural communication, it succeeds in cementing ties of understanding and friendship between two seemingly opposing cultures.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what did not happen in the Danish-Muslim encounter.