RESPECTING THE QUR’AN
Ingrid Mattson, PhD
The Islamic Society of North America
Geert Wilders is a Dutch politician who broke with a mainstream national party
to form his own extreme-right, anti-immigrant platform. Wilders has directed
most of his hatred in recent years at Muslims. Wilders has called for the
Qur’an to be banned and in the last few months has been promoting his
“documentary” attacking the Qur’an. Wilders has intimated that the documentary
will show a copy of the Qur’an being desecrated or destroyed.
Geert Wilders wants the Qur’an to be banned. Many Muslims want Wilders’ film to
be banned. Wilders wants Muslims out of “his country” and to be denied the
rights of other citizens to practice their faith. No doubt, many Dutch Muslims
wish that Wilders would just go away (and Wilders has received threats of violence
from some). Neither Wilders nor these Muslims will (or should) get what they
want. Now what?
Many have looked to this situation only through the lense of the law. News
articles have focused on threats made to Wilders’ life and the calls to ban his
film. Of course, the threats are unacceptable and criminal. Wilders should be
afforded the full protection of the law and those threatening violence against
his person should be prosecuted.
As for the right of freedom of speech, Wilders’ film should be treated like
other statements within Dutch law. The Netherlands, like most other countries,
has certain restrictions on speech that is defamatory, libelous or insults a
group of people based on their race or religion. The Dutch Prime Minister has
publicly stated that if the film, once released, is judged to have violated the
law, then his government has the duty to enforce their legislation. This
treatment of Dutch Muslims as equal citizens under the law shows to the Muslim
world that the Netherlands is not an enemy to Islam.
My plea is that we also need to look at this issue more broadly so we can find
better ways of living together in a world in which there will always be people
whose views and beliefs we find odd or even obnoxious. We should not justify or
excuse extremism of any kind, whether they are racist and hateful attacks on
the Muslim community or vigilante violence by Muslims against those who make
such statements. What we should try to understand is why some otherwise
ordinary people feel caught in the middle, and are sometimes attracted, in
part, to the emotional appeals of the extremists.
In the last few decades most societies in the world have gone through enormous
transitions. Many European countries have had to give up significant symbols of
their national sovereignty to join the European Union and even those who did
not join the EU have seen significant changes in their societies due to
globalization. Even those who have benefited economically and in other ways
from these changes are sometimes are troubled by the loss of traditional forms
of communal solidarity and culture: local farmers’ markets, church pews filled
with families on a Sunday morning, neighborhood bakeries and craftsmen;
landscapes, streetscapes and the rhythm of life have changed. Perhaps each
generation has a limited capacity for change, or perhaps none of us, as
progressive as we claim to be, can help but romanticize the society of our
An increased presence of Muslims in Europe, while part of this change, is not
the cause of all these changes. Muslims did not cause a decline in attendance
at European churches; they were not responsible for the fact that some churches
have been turned into museums or bars. Muslims did not cause the declining
birth-rate in many European societies. But the fact that Muslims are building
mosques and attending religious services in higher numbers than European
Christians, and that many Muslims have larger families than most European
Christian families, makes Muslims easy targets of scapegoating. Europe has seen
this kind of ethnic hatred before in its history. Financially-successful Jews
were for many centuries viewed with jealously and resentment by some European
Muslims should not be scapegoats for the problems not of their making. At the
same time, we have to be fair and acknowledge the fact that large-scale Muslim
immigration to Europe has presented real challenges to these societies. Unlike
in the United States, many of these immigrants arrived with little education
and were often settled in large numbers in government housing that set them
apart from the rest of the population. The natural process of adaptation to the
new environment was stifled by many of these well-meaning policies. On the
other hand, blatant and persistent discrimination experienced by many
immigrants in their daily lives, combined with the availability of some extreme
Islamic ideologies in the communities too often mitigated against a positive
model of integration.
Most of the time, however, the problems have been cultural. This is because
even when communities share the same basic values (as I believe is true of most
European Christians and Muslims), the different cultural ways communities
express these values can lead to misunderstandings and tensions. Our values are
conveyed not only with words, but with our actions, our clothing, and our
Let’s look, for example, at the issue of respect, an important value in any
society. What constitutes a respectful encounter with another? In many
east-Asian societies, business cards need to be offered with two hands like a
gift; to thrust a card out towards a new acquaintance is interpreted as rude.
In American society, one indicates interest, respect and attention when
speaking to others by looking them straight in the eye. In many Muslim
cultures, such a direct gaze might be considered disrespectful, especially if
one is conversing with an elder or a member of the opposite sex. I once had a
student who complained to me about another student in the class: ‘he is so
disrespectful to women,’ she said, ‘he never looks at me.’ The young man, an
international student from a Middle Eastern country expressed dismay at her
perception, ‘I was trying to respect her by not staring at her!”
The point is that you cannot simultaneously look someone straight in the eye
and avert your gaze from them. Only one of these culturally specific means of
signifying respect can be adopted in any one encounter. Most people learn to
adapt, and even become bicultural. But this process takes time, and if the
differences are politicized or idealized, conflict ensues.
As new communities settle in areas that previously were inhabited by a dominant
cultural group, misunderstandings can multiply. I grew up in a mid-size
Canadian town first settled by German, and then English and Irish immigrants. I
heard many nasty comments when Portuguese families started moving to town and
planted their front yards with vegetable gardens. We lived in a Platonic
universe where beanstalks and carrot tops must line up in the backyard, never
in the front.
These adjustments are natural, they happen every day across the world. Muslims
have for centuries adopted their cultures and customs to new environments; that
is why from Indonesia to Jordan to Senegal, Muslims differ in their dress,
architecture, aesthetics, economies and other aspects of community life.
Islamic law, in fact, requires the adoption of “good” customs as long as they
do not violate fundamental religious principles.
European Muslims are slowly figuring out what is necessary and sacred in their
lives and what is cultural and can be adjusted and adapted. Most Europeans
understand that this can be a difficult process, and they are patient and
supportive of their Muslim neighbors. Unfortunately, the voices of
self-proclaimed nationalists – really, racists – like Wilders, often seem
louder and more powerful because they are threatening. This is also true of the
extremists in the Muslim community who preach against good relations with
non-Muslims. Although they are small in number, they can affect great damage to
The most important thing to keep in mind in the midst of all this changes is
that we can never live together peacefully with all our differences unless we
are willing to respect the different choices that others make. We do not have
to agree with each other or love each other, but we have to afford respect to
each other. This means that we do not deliberately try to humiliate each other.
Defacing or destroying symbols of each other’s most cherished beliefs violates
the basic principle of respect.
Wilders’ actions are designed to hurt, offend, and even intimidate. This is why
many Dutch people, including the current government, have rejected Wilders’
actions and insist that such hateful statements are not consistent with Dutch
values of tolerance and communal harmony. Many Dutch Muslims have responded
positively to an assertion of Dutch citizenship based on diversity within the
framework of common values and they are working with their non-Muslim neighbors
to create a positive environment of mutual respect.
Still, there are some people who are just looking for a fight. No matter how
many Dutch interfaith and civic groups join with their Muslim neighbors to
demonstrate their solidarity and mutual respect, al-Qaeda and their ilk will
point to Wilders’ film as more proof of the “Western crusade against Islam.”
And no matter how many Muslims respond to Wilders’ film calmly, or not at all,
Wilders will point to the violent response of some extremists as more proof
that Islam is barbaric.
All I ask is that we do not blame whole communities for the actions of a few.
Muslims should not blame all the Dutch people, much less “the West,” for
Wilders’ hateful actions. Similarly, no one should blame all Muslims, much less
Islam, for the hateful actions of some extremists.
As for me, I have vowed that if and when Wilders releases his film, the first
thing I will do is pick up my Qur’an, kiss it as a symbol of the reverence it
deserves from me, then sit down and read it for an hour. This is the best
defense of the Qur’an.