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Letter from Cyprus

October 2012

  • Alexander Downer

Frankly, I’ve been shocked by the violence of the reaction. To kill the American Ambassador to Libya because some screwball in America made an offensive film is a terrible thing. The mass demonstrations in various predominantly Muslim cities, including protests outside the American embassies, are alarming. Even in Sydney there were violent and ugly protests.

So what can we make of all this? Well, I had a look at the trailer of the film on YouTube and can see why pious Muslims would think it is offensive. It is. 

But what the demonstrators are doing and demanding is astonishing. For a start, the United States is a country of 350 million people. It’s hardly surprising that those 350 million include a few people with extreme points of view and that the extreme points of view get published. But what has the film got to do with the US government? It wasn’t authorised by Barack Obama or funded by the federal government. It was just an ordinary expression of an offensive opinion.

The demonstrators are saying two things: first, such films “shouldn’t be allowed”. Well, that’s all very well in some parts of the world but the West allows freedom of speech and expression. This is a demand that the West changes the whole basis of society. That’s not going to happen.

But secondly, they apparently think it’s acceptable to riot, hurl rocks, beat people with polls and even kill diplomats if someone in that country does or says anything offensive. Imagine if every time some preacher got up in a mosque in Egypt and yelled out the old cry “death to America” and Americans went and burnt down the Egyptian embassy in Washington? Imagine if every time someone said something offensive anywhere in the world those who were offended took to the streets and set buildings on fire. The world would be in flames, permanently.

Some Westerners have tried to justify these actions by complaining the West has been hostile to Islam. That, of course, is nonsense. In Syria, Muslims are fighting Muslims. So too in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Indonesia it was the killing of Muslims by terrorists which turned the public against the Indonesian equivalent of Al Qaeda, Jemmah Islamiah. Those Westerners who always blame the West for every atrocity committed against Westerners sell out their culture and civilisation.

A few years ago a similar controversy erupted when a Danish newspaper published cartoons which were offensive to most Muslims. They mocked the Prophet. There were riots, the Danish Embassy in Islamabad was torched, other Danish embassies in Muslim countries were temporarily closed and so on.  

I was the foreign minister at the time and the media asked me whether I thought Australian newspapers should publish the cartoons. I made a simple point; no one will ban them from publishing but if they do they need to think of the consequences. From recollection, none did, which was a relief. After all, we live next door to the largest Islamic country in the world. 

But the need for responsible behaviour is a two-way street. Leaders in Islamic countries need to be leaders; they need to tell their communities what a film like this really is. It’s a private, back room film put together by a couple of oddballs. It should be studiously ignored.

The truth is, not too many leaders did that. They didn’t want to be seen to be defending America against Islam. The result is, they made matters worse.

So in the midst of all this I sent an email to my best Muslim friend in Cyprus. I asked him what he thought about the reaction to the film. His reply was crisp: “I haven’t seen the film but regardless, I think it is a great shame that learned Islamic clerics and leaders have not condemned the violence and declared such behaviour unfitting of a true Muslim”.

Wise words. Some Muslim leaders have condemned the violence but plenty have qualified their condemnation. That’s dangerous; it’s a half justification for the violence.

My Cypriot friend’s response, though, should help you remember that it is folly to generalise about Muslims. They vary greatly, as do Christians. Islam in South East Asia is different from Islam in the Middle East. In Turkey, Islam is different again; in the main moderate bordering on the secular. In Cyprus, Muslims – who are the Turkish Cypriots – are traditionally quite secular; they bear no relationship to the hardliners who emanate from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East.

But let’s face it, the rioters of recent weeks have done the reputation of Islam real harm with non-Muslims. Their leaders need to ram that message home to their flocks, without qualification.




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