Preachers urge reconciliation after cartoons

Muslim and Christian scholars and clerics agreed at a conference today that the West and Islam must use dialogue to repair ties frayed by the crisis over the Prophet Mohammed cartoons.

However, the Muslim panellists accused the Danish government of mishandling the crisis and said it must apologise to the Muslim world if wants an Arab boycott on Danish goods to be lifted.

“We request an official apology from your government to the Muslim nation and to the Muslims in Denmark,” said Tariq al-Suweidan, an Islamic scholar from Kuwait. He also demanded that the European Union enact a law “that forbids the insult to religious figures.”

Despite massive Muslims protests and in some cases violent attacks on Danish embassies, the centre-right government in Copenhagen has refused to apologise, saying it cannot be held responsible for the actions of an independent newspaper.

The cartoons were published in Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September, and have since been reprinted by other Western media.

Amr Khaled, a popular Egyptian preacher, suggested Danish people and their government should reach out to Muslim countries – for example, by initiatives to promote small businesses or health care. He told the crowd, including 50 youths from Denmark and Muslim countries, it was time for moderate forces on both sides to come together to solve the conflict.

“The reasonable among us must be heard and our voices must come out clearer than the voices of the extremists,” said Khaled, who is known for his youthful style and his sermons applying Islam to day-to-day modern life.

But amid the calls for reconciliation, a rift over free speech was revealed between some Danes in the audience and the Muslim panellists.

“Although I may find something insulting, I must tolerate it, because I don’t believe in an absolute truth,” said Stephan Schou, 27, a member of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s Liberal Party.

Schou said the two sides should accept they would never see eye to eye on some issues: “The only consensus we can reach is to agree to disagree.”

Habib al-Jaffry, an Islamic scholar from Yemen, said the issue was not about freedom of speech but about different standards applied to Muslims than other groups.

Freedom of speech has been used as an excuse,” he said. “Freedom of speech shouldn’t be absolute.”

Al-Suweidan suggested European countries apply double standards by banning anti-Semitic speech but allowing the Mohammed cartoons – one of which showed the prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed for fear they could lead to idolatry.

“In the West they underestimate how deep Mohammed is in the heart of every Muslim,” al-Suweidan said. “We demand respect, like you have given the Jews respect. ... Be fair, that is all we’re asking.”

Bishop Karsten Nissen, of the Western Denmark city of Viborg, noted Denmark has no law singling out hate speech against Jews. Danish law prohibits blasphemous and racist speech against all religious and ethnic groups, he said.

Nissen said he understood that Muslims were insulted by the drawings, but added Muslim countries do not always respect other religions.

“In my heart I am in agony and distress when I look at the freedom of religion in the Muslim world,” he said.

Jyllands-Posten has apologised for offending Muslims, but stands by its decision to print the drawings, citing the freedom of speech.

Some Islamic leaders have criticised the Muslim panellists for coming to Denmark, saying there could be no dialogue without an official apology from the Nordic country.

But Khaled, a 38-year-old preacher who is popular among young Muslims and women, said it was time for moderate forces on both sides to come together and improve their mutual understanding.

“We have come to say that Islam is a giving religion, and Denmark can benefit from this religion,” he said.

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