Sunday, 17 February 2008

In solidarity

To His Excellency Niels Erik Andersen and the staff at the Danish Embassy
I am not a Danish national but I want to assure you of my wholehearted solidarity with the Danish press, Parliament and people as the row over the cartoons seems about to re-ignite. I particularly feel the desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with you at the Royal Danish Embassy in Jakarta in the hope that you will not face any intimidation or difficulty.
It was always clear to me that the cartoons were never intended as an insult to the founder of Islam or events of 14 centuries ago but rather a reflection of the appearance of the Muslim world today – an all too accurate mirror of bigotry, cruelty and stupidity. As I wrote in a letter to The Guardian two years ago, the image of the bomb in the turban is particularly apt – the first thing it blows away is reason.
I commend the press in Denmark for reminding us of what it was the plotters were trying violently to suppress. I commend the Danish MPs for refusing to go to Iran and make an apology for something they have nothing to be ashamed of.
The stupidity of would be assassins and books burners is that they only serve to promote the art and literature they would wish to suppress. I am sure that Denmark has a rich tradition of literature, but Danish is not a world language. Before the ‘cartoon row’ the only literary works I associated with Denmark were those of Hans Christian Andersen. Now, thanks to the work of a couple of Egyptian clerics, the whole world knows of your country and the cartoons. And those who have the capacity of reason will also know of the courage and determination of your people.
If there is anything at all I can do, from a ‘Muslim perspective’ or otherwise, please let me know.
Rafiq Mahmood

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Ambassador responded that he intended to visit some pasentrens (Islamic schools).
Your Excellency
I am most curious about your visits to the pasentrens. I hope they were fruitful? I would be most interested in what direction education is taking in Indonesia and how European countries can help to foster a more enlightened and thoughtful perspective.
These are very delicate times and there are no easy solutions. The economic shocks which have so disturbed the western world come hand in hand with incidents of continuing extremist violence.
In many ways Indonesia is a key country. There is a struggle between the present finely balanced green tinged secularism and the prospects of a sharia state. Recent legislation and court decisions have been very worrying for freedom of expression. Politicians, it seems, are ever keener to placate and ride the Islamic green tiger.
But the battle has not yet been lost and there are many voices of reason that can be tapped. There is still a debate, although I fear that it is a debate between the well-fed intelligentsia and the rest who are going to be even less well fed as the economy bites harder.
You cannot easily open minds which have been shaped throughout their lives by precepts which have been instilled as the only correct, divinely ordained ones. The key must be to try to reach minds while they are still being formed – during primary and secondary education. Of course it would be self-defeating to attempt to challenge sacred beliefs directly. What can be done is to encourage the habit of thinking critically and questioning everything – of developing over time a healthy disrespect for authority and the courage to themselves challenge the precepts they are taught.
I do think that European countries can have a significant role to play if there is a well considered and targeted approach. I think what is needed is to go beyond the traditional one of attracting students to European universities but by being more directly involved in the local education process here. 
I know that these are very difficult times but it is in precisely these difficult times that action is most needed. I am also aware of the temptation towards greater polarisation, of more racism, or at least of defensiveness and isolationism in Europe. That would be a great mistake. Europe should not become a fortress but should engage courageously and wisely. It is in her own vital interest. If Hizbut Tahrir and their ilk get their way and create a caliphate it will be a caliphate on the march. Tighter security and ever more surveillance will not be enough – and will not be affordable or sustainable. It must be a battle of minds. And it is vitally urgent.
I would be most interested to hear your observations and views. Do you have any suggestions for further action by the EU diplomatic and wider European community in Indonesia? Perhaps a conference or seminar?
Thank you for your time.
Rafiq Mahmood