This Man's Blues
Of course if you're being purely academic about Islam, it will be really hard to see how this situation came around. In essence Islam is a religion that promotes tolerance and peace. It is a religion whose prophet, while triumphantly entering Mecca, gave amnesty to it's "infidels" (whom I'm pretty sure had done much more than mocking him in a cartoon). It is also a religion that promotes intellectual discussion. Long before Voltaire said his immortal quote ("I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"), El-Imam El-Shafeai established that "my opinion is right, that can turn out to be wrong; and yours is wrong, that can turn out to be right" (approximate translation). I guess you know all of that, and are starting to get tired of the repetition.
So, let's just move to how that Islam, ended in today's "Islam". Again, let me stress that I am talking about the Islam the west is seeing, the louder, violent "Islam", but that's not IT. I for one have lived, and been taught another kind of Islam which is centered around "You have your religion and I have mine"--a Quranic verse, and was first asked to pray as Muslims do, by a nun. I swear, it's a true story. But let's again focus: how was Islam distorted in such a way, not just in the minds of Westerners, but more importantly in the minds of its followers in the first place.
I've talked about how the coalition between Arabic "secular" governments and the forces of radical political Islam is to be blamed for part of the insanity that is going around. But more importantly, I guess, is the effort by these groups to debase any sort of moderate Muslim leadership.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Egypt. For centuries, the Azhar mosque and University had been the de facto leader of the Sunni Muslim world (ironically enough, it was established as a Shiite mosque, but this is another story). Muslims came from al over the world to Cairo to learn about Islam. And it had always been a form of Islam that promoted tolerance and respect for science, and knowledge. One of the most prominent Azhar alumnus, Mohammed Abdo, traveled to Paris in the 19th century, and returned to Egypt to tell his fellow Azharians that he found there "Islam, but no Muslims, and what we have here is Muslims, but no Islam" (i.e. the values of "western" Paris are more in line with Islam, than the values of "eastern" Cairo). To give you another example of how open minded were Azhar scholars, let me tell you this. In the 20s of the last century, an Azhar scholar led a movement to close legalized brothels in Cairo. So what? you might say, that's expected. Well, hear this: his justification was: health hazards!!! Nothing about halal or haram or stoning anybody...he knew that others might not share his faith (Cairo at that time was a truly cosmopolitan city) and he wanted to speak to them in their own language: reason, and science.
Of course, Azhar had been through so many changes since those times, but we won't get into that now. I will zoom forward to the current Grand-Sheikh of Azhar (Sheikh Mohamed Tantawy). He is a very soft spoken man. For most of his career he was a very respected man, until he was appointed (as opposed to elected, which I'll give you that, doesn't make him any more credible) to his position and was asked to give a fatwa about whether bank interest was permissible by Islam or not (can you believe we are still debating this!) He answered with what a lot of moderate scholars said before: it is ok! All kinds of criticism was targeted to him by Islamists: from being called a government "puppy" to questioning whether he was a true Muslim. But the man never budged. For Islamists that was a big deal, because ruling banks as haram would really undermine one of the pillars of modern society, and will make people rush to invest in some money management companies they founded under religious pretenses, and which had shady relations with terrorist groups at the time.
Today, the image they had drawn for him is, sadly, the image most people have. Most people, at least younger ones, consider the man a joke.
When he was asked by a Danish minister about the Prophet's cartoons, he, true to form, answered with an answer that caused a firestorm. "The prophet is a dead man, and I don't think that it is respectable or decent to portray him like this". For everybody that was outrageous. People started saying things like "he is alive in our hearts", and "is that all you can do?". And again there were all the accusations, and name-calling.
What the man simply done was trying to talk to the Danish guy using his sensibility. If he said that portraying the Prophet is haram, the guy wouldn't care less. If he said that you'll be punished, and thrown to hell, I wouldn't imagine the Danish guy getting on his knees and crying. Instead, he talked about decency, respect and responsibility. Values which I think the majority of the west would uphold.
And now we find ourselves in this whole mess, which I believe that nobody except this man (the Grand Sheikh of Azhar, not necessarily Tantawy), the one they're calling a hypocrite and government agent, can only turn around.
update: I have a suggestion to end this raw. Check it out here.