2012 was a turbulent year for Westerners and Muslims worldwide. The attack on the United States’ Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and the tense debate over freedom of speech and blasphemy laws are just two examples of how the “Western” and “Muslim” worlds continue to be inextricably linked. Despite the cultural and political disputes that have arisen, Westerners and Muslims around the world should set aside their differences in 2013 to fight against their common problems.
The recent “Occupy” protests, which called for transparency and accountability in the financial sectors of the U.S. and Western Europe, and the “Arab Spring,” which called for basic rights such as freedom of speech and freer and fairer elections, are evidence of the desire of Westerners and Muslims worldwide to improve their democracies. To strengthen their pro-democracy undertakings, human rights activists and civil society groups in the “Western” and “Muslim” worlds should forge alliances that foster democratic reform. The coalescence of human rights activists and civil society groups across borders could help dispel the myths that Westerners support democratic movements only when their interests are at stake and that Islam is incompatible with democracy.
In the struggle for better democratic governments, the “Western” and “Muslim” worlds also need more responsible media outlets. This year, broadcasters around the world should work together to tackle the polarization of cultures by refraining from airing overdramatized news and by not engaging with contentious commentators. Media outlets in the “Muslim” world would be wise to follow the example set by the Libyan media outlet Al Hurra, which, in the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11th, 2012, published pictures of a Libyan citizen holding a sign which read, “Benghazi is against terrorism,” and “Sorry Americans this is not the behavior of our Islam and Profit [sic].” Al Hurra’s coverage is important because it broke the status-quo of media outlets portraying the “Muslim” world as a monolith, one which was wholly interested in despising Americans. On the other side, Western media would be wise to retire loaded terms such as “Islamist,” “the West,” and “jihadists,” because such terms present a homogenized picture of certain people and groups which are, in fact, diverse and multi-layered in composition.
Building stronger democracies in 2013 can begin by resolving tension that has arisen around freedom of speech. Westerners have been carelessly using this right, which is evident in the continued visual and contextual degradation of Islamic symbols like the Holy Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. Across the “Muslim” world, Muslims have emotionally reacted to these irresponsible depictions by demonstrating violently, sometimes fatally, which only reinforces the Western stereotype that Muslims are extreme and violent. Instead of spreading inflammatory rhetoric under the masquerade of freedom of speech, Westerners should respect the religious symbols of Islam and, indeed, all faiths. Simultaneously, if anti-Islamic commentary or actions occurs, Muslims worldwide should refrain from acting violently and practice civil disobedience instead. These adjustments, as President Barack Obama recommended at a recent United Nations speech, could be useful, because “the stronger weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy.”
Westerners and Muslims must also do more to protect their respective minority communities living around the world. In recent months, Muslims in the United States have been victims of hate crimes, acts of vandalism on Muslim gravestones, and even arson attacks that destroyed several mosques. While Muslims are under pressure in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, non-Muslims in countries such as Pakistan and Iraq are also facing persecution. The World Council of Churches recently stated that minority religious communities in Pakistan live in “fear and terror” and are increasingly subject to “discrimination.” In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, an anonymous Christian official recently stated that many Christian families have fled Iraq because “[t]he government is incapable of doing anything to protect them…What future do non Muslims have in countries where violence reins!” To help secure the rights of their minority communities, Western and Muslim human rights groups should work with government officials to ensure tolerance and religious freedom. This endeavor can progress with a firmer commitment to solidarity and interfaith education for the common good.
By uniting over these common problems, Westerners and Muslims worldwide can prove that mutually beneficial coalitions are possible across the cultural and religious divide, if only we have the courage to move beyond our differences and work together.