Interview with Maha Azzam

"No Religion Welcomes Ill-Informed Criticism of Its Tenets"

The protests of Muslims against the Pope's statement have widely been criticised as disproportionate. According to Maha Azzam, however, Islam and Muslims are being misrepresented. Lewis Gropp interviewed the London-based Islam expert

Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Germany (photo: AP)
Islam is a religion that values reason and progres, says Maha Azzam

​​Several Muslim representatives complained that Pope Benedict did not apologise to Muslims appropriately but simply explained that they hadn't understood what he was trying to say. Would you agree? Should the Pope apologise more explicitly?

Azzam: The Pope's apology was essentially about his regret that his speech had caused anger and offence among Muslims. However he clearly did not withdraw or apologise for the offending comments themselves.

It is difficult to comprehend how the Vatican would have thought that such a quote from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus on what the Pope describes as the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying:

'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached', would not be extremely offensive to Muslims. However, supposedly having made such a mistake the only way to have tried to appease Muslim anger would have been an unequivocal apology instead of a qualified apology.

To what extend are the protests against the Pope's speech genuine and in how far is the agitation manipulated, directed and politically exploited by Islamists?

Azzam: There is every reason to believe that these protests are a genuine response to what is seen as an inaccurate portrayal of Islam. The fact that Islamist groups and parties in these situations organise and mobilise support for protests does not mean that they are not a genuine reflection of public opinion which when possible, expresses itself spontaneously.

Maha Azzam (photo: Chatham House)
Maha Azzam - Expert on Political Islam

​​Let us remember that in much of the Muslim world demonstrations are largely curtailed and limited out of fear that they may spill over into anti- government protests. If there were fewer limitations we would probably have seen even more protests against the Pope's speech.

Moderate leaders like Mohamed VI of Morocco and Western allies like Musharraf have joined in the choir of protest. Can this be taken as a change of paradigm? Have leaders in Muslims countries who have thus far acted as "mediators" to the West lost touch to the West or is their protest not much more than a strategic concession to public pressure?

Azzam: These leaders, along with other leaders in the Muslim world know that they cannot remain silent when it comes to such issues largely because of Muslim public opinion. However, they too might well feel that this is an unfair assault on Islam and that ultimately such statements weaken their own positions as western allies.

What is at play here is a sense of injustice, insofar as Islam and Muslims are being misrepresented. Time and time again whether through the media or through those in positions of authority, their religion is being maligned and they feel that the least they can do is protest (for the vast majority non- violently), as others do over all sorts of causes and are not held to account for it in the same way.

The reactions to the Pope's statements seem to suggest that it is impossible to criticise Islam from without. Would you say however, that it is possible to discuss the tenets of the faith from within? Is there room for dissent and for critical self-examination within Islam?

Azzam: It is perhaps important to mention that no religion welcomes ill-informed criticism of its tenets and traditions. In the specific case of the Danish cartoons or the Pope's speech the issues were in the first instance ridicule and in the second harmful misrepresentation.

Islam is a religion that values reason and progress, however to assume that these can be furthered by criticism of the tenets of the faith and the basic principles that guide and inspire its followers is to fall into the trap of secularism, which primarily desires to relegate religion, at best to secondary importance in peoples lives.

To what extent do you think is the Middle East a factor in this Pope controversy, i.e. Lebanon, Iraq, Iran…?

Azzam: Regional concerns are of course high on the list of Muslim grievances. However, I believe that the Pope's comments would have still generated anger and dismay even if these regional concerns were not prevalent.

What needs to be done in order to heal this rift (between Muslims and the "West")?

Azzam: There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of both peoples and governments in the West and in the Muslim world for mutual respect and knowledge of each others beliefs and norms.

Furthermore, this needs to be backed up by genuine attempts on the part of the West to review its policies towards the Muslim world on a more equitable basis and to more readily respond to Muslim grievances. The Muslims for their part must be willing and able to stand for their principles while openly condemning violence against civilians as contrary to the core principles of their belief.

Interview conducted by Lewis Gropp

© 2006

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