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What the Islamic Riots Reveal (Part 1)

Interview With Father Mitch Pacwa

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, MAY 2, 2006 ( The recent riots related to the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in Western newspapers were widely viewed as a popular religious reaction to offensive depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

But according to one expert on Islam, the riots were incited by governments to manipulate both the West and the Muslim world for political purposes.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a theologian, Middle East scholar and co-contributor to the “Islam and Christianity” DVD series.

He spoke with ZENIT about how the cartoon riots are part of radical Islam’s attempt to seize control of the Muslim world — and what it all means for the West.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.

Q: What were your thoughts as Muslim riots over a cartoon of Mohammed erupted across Europe, the Middle East and Asia?

Father Pacwa: There are two thoughts that I would have.

First, a cartoon of Mohammed in itself is a grave insult to Islam. And so it is easy for Muslims to be stirred into action.

But that is my second thought: They were stirred into action apparently by the governments of Syria and Iran who want the attitude on the street to be one of incitement against the West.

Now the problem of course is that the people who did the cartoons were not representatives of Christianity. They were secular people who have a strong commitment, and perhaps even an absolute commitment, to freedom of speech in the way that the West is accustomed to it.

Unfortunately, the people on the street blamed Christians because they do not make the distinction between secularized Europeans and religious Christians.

So, one of the horrendous things that happened because of the instigation of the violence is that quite a number of Christians were killed, including at least two priests, one in Nigeria and one in Turkey.

This is a kind of lack of responsibility by secular press people over the results of their work. Should they have to be concerned about this type of freedom of speech? Should they worry about Muslim reactions?

In one sense they can say they are not responsible, but their lack of responsibility led to hundreds of deaths. I think they do need to be more responsible toward Muslim sensibilities.

On the other hand, in their reporting about this, they also need to pay attention to the Muslims themselves. They have to report the way Syria, Iran, perhaps al-Qaida, are instigating these riots for their purposes.

The results of these riots of course lead to nothing. They don’t really produce any positive results, except maybe to bully the West into going along with Muslim sensitivities. But it is not going to really accomplish much.

Q: What does this outburst reveal about the state of the Muslim world and its relationship with the West?

Father Pacwa: I think one first reaction to the state of the Muslim world and its relationship with the West is that the Muslim world has been affected still to this day by the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. And they have been making social experiments trying to cope with that collapse.

One attempt has been the forms of Arab nationalism — the Baath party in Syria inspired by Michel Aflaq in the late 1920s; its branch, the Baath party in Iraq which is also a nationalist party, not a religious party, and which had also made overtures to national socialism in Germany, the Nazi party, and saw themselves as some sort of ally; the PLO, which is another nationalist group; and the followers of Egypt’s former President Nasser. The nationalist party in Egypt once had great influence, but not as much anymore.

Those various nationalistic movements had tremendous impact on the Arab world as a way to try to achieve national identity where it had not existed before.

Prior to nationalism, Muslims saw themselves as primarily Muslims and members of the Ummah, the Muslim people. And the result is that nationalism took on as an idea to modernize the world and to give national identities to these new countries — Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan, though Jordan was not as affected by such nationalism.

So these were one style of reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. But they became far more oppressive than the Sultan had been.

So what you see now is a religious reaction against the nationalistic ideas, which are perceived as having been Western ideas imported to the Middle East. This outburst shows the use of religious sentiment as the motivating force attempting to go back to a religious identity, even though nation-states still exist.

One of the ways it is being developed is that a number of people in the Middle East are trying to regain an Islamic past ideal through a new Islamic state rather than a nationalist state.

And as a result, they are instigating followers and there are all kinds of sects, the leaders of which want to become the next Sultan. That is a part of the issue. It will be a serious question — which sect or what individual will be able to lead the people and be the next caliph or the next Sultan.

That is partly underlying some of this tension. And different groups — whether it be the Salafi party from Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, al-Qaida, the Wahhabi sect in Arabia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, or the various movements going on in Iraq and Iran — are all vying for that kind of control.

You also have Abu Sayyaf, which means father of the sword, in the Philippines; they are all making the same kind of move, and that is part of the present state of Islam.

The radical groups may represent only about 15% of Muslims but it is an extremely active part, while the great majority are generally unwilling or afraid to stand up to the radicals, because the radicals will kill them as being infidels. That is how bad it is gotten in many parts of the Muslim world. So it is a very risky situation.

Q: Given the secularized, and sometimes anti-religious, stance of Western Europe today, what difficulties does that pose for the vast majority of Muslims who try to live in peace with the society around them?

Father Pacwa: The vast majority of Muslims do keep themselves away from the religious parties. But, the majority of that majority, while unwilling to fight in jihad, will protect those who do, and that is something that is very important to understand.

While it is only 15% of the population that is radicalized in Islam, you have the majority of the rest who are very willing to hide them, protect them, feed them, and even if they wouldn’t actively join them, they would take care of them. This seems to be the study of Tony Blankley in his book the “The West’s Last Chance.” This is something that is very difficult.

The moderate Muslims who try to live in peace in the society around them still have a couple of difficulties.

For one, Islam is not prone to democracy or secularism. There is no such idea of a secular society within Islam. Everyone has to be in some way related to the religious reality and that is part of the understanding of God. So, the majority of Muslims will still not be able to fit into a secular society around them in Europe.

Also, they will have pressure put on them either to convert to radical Islam or to support them, which will be another tension. And that is why a number of the mullahs and the imams in the West and Europe say that Muslims may not vote — the elections are not Islamic, so no Muslim should vote. They are getting some pressure not to participate.

Also they are encouraged not to marry non-Muslims, except for girls, who are encouraged to become Muslim along with the children. But they typically will send their children to their country of origin to marry Muslim girls.

So this is something that indicates how little moderate Muslims fit in to the non-Muslim world, and this is going to be a situation that is going to continue. And I think it is typical of Muslims that their commitment to Islam is stronger than their commitment to their local government.

The only group that would be different is the Druze. The Druze believe they are required to follow whatever leadership there is in the local government and give their allegiance to them.

But apart from the Druze — by the way the Druze are a sect, and not considered very Muslim by the other Muslims — the other Muslims will simply not feel themselves to be part of that world and that is going to be difficult.

[Wednesday: Home of Islam, home of war]

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