Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cartoons, Ships, Danes, Italians, Egyptians & Saudis

I woke up yesterday to morning papers and internet news showing pictures of angry people on the streets of Cairo. A boatful of poor Egyptian laborers returning from Saudi Arabia to the South of Egypt went down in the Red Sea. A fire erupted on the boat some 90 minutes after it left the Saudi Port and for some unknown reason the boat did not return to Saudi and it kept going farther out to sea. Some hours later, the reports are still conflicting but most say 2 hours, the boat took in water and 15 minutes after that went down with some 1400 people in the dark shark infested waters of the Red Sea. Rescue operations commenced some 8 to 13 hours later, again conflicting reports, and less than 400 people were saved and taken to hospitals in Egypt.

Poor Egyptian laborers from the South of Egypt often go to work in the oil rich countries; they often work in the construction industry and many at relatively low paying jobs that do not afford them luxury of annual trips home. Thus the workers stay away from home for several years and finally return with their savings carrying gifts to their families. I expect some would use bank facilities to wire their savings home but the vast majority would have carried all of their earthly possessions back with them on board. So down went some 1000 people and the livelihood and hopes of some 1400 poor families; all lost to the bottom of the Red Sea. The War On The Poor continues to claims its victims from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico Coast to Pakistani Kashmir and trains and now to the Red Sea.

So far I have not heard of people taken to hospitals in Saudi or any Saudi participation in the rescue, perhaps the poor drowning Egyptians lacked the necessary re-entry permits. Naturally I assumed that the angry demonstrations on the streets of Cairo were against the Saudi and the Egyptian authorities. I was mistaken the angry mob was demonstrating against ..the USA for Iraq …no no ..Israel for Palestine ..no no the angry mob on the streets of Cairo were demonstrating against Denmark and the now infamous anti Muslim offensive cartoons. Egypt was not that bad, in Syria where self expression without Government approval is as rare as the balanced coverage on Fox News the Danish and Norwegians Embassies were torched …not a word about the 1000 or so Egyptians that downed!

The Danish cartoons were doubtless offensive. An attempt to defy self censorship and to reassert the freedom of expression is somewhat more acceptable when lampooning one’s own culture or heritage but attacking others especially at a time of rising incidents of racism and Islamophopia is unacceptable behavior. While the Prime Minster of Denmark publicly expressed regret over the publication of the Cartoons I am unaware that neither Italian Prime Minster Berlusconi nor any of his predecessors have ever expressed regret over the much more offensive portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad by Dante.

If the Danes want to continue to portray themselves as forward looking liberal egalitarian society yet support a newspaper (by buying it and advertising in it) that promotes racism I say let them. Islam is not insulted by such bigotry anymore than it was by Dante centuries ago. Islam and Muslims however are insulted far worse when we allow the extremists to steal the banner of Islam and commit heinous crimes under its name and remain silent. Danish cartoons are a bigger danger to Denmark and to what and how the Danes claim to see as their values. Some have argued that it is up to Muslims of Demark to deal with this problem, I would argue that it is up to Non Muslims of Denmark to boycott the offensive paper and those who advertise in it. I would argue that this needs to be done through discussions and dialogue and not even a boycott of Danish products let alone violent demonstration that reinforce the negative stereotypes that we object to in the cartoons.

I wish that the sense of activism and outrage on the streets of Cairo and Damascus and many other Muslim countries is redirected towards more fundamental Islamic issues. “Mercy” and “Compassion” and their linguistic derivatives are by far the most repeated words of the Quran. Where is the mercy and compassion towards the passengers of El Salaam 98? Where is accountability or justice? Isn’t the seeking of justice fundamental to the Islamic belief or does that only apply when the perpetrators of the injustice are non Muslims??

February 5, 2006