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What the Islamic Riots Reveal (Part 1 of 2)

Interview With Father Mitch Pacwa

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, MAY 3, 2006 (Zenit) - The recent riots related to the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in Western newspapers were widely viewed as a popular religious reaction to offensive depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

But according to one expert on Islam, the riots were incited by governments to manipulate both the West and the Muslim world for political purposes.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a theologian, Middle East scholar and co-contributor to the "Islam and Christianity" DVD series.

He spoke with us about how the cartoon riots are part of radical Islam's attempt to seize control of the Muslim world -- and what it all means for the West.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

Q: What were your thoughts as Muslim riots over a cartoon of Mohammed erupted across Europe, the Middle East and Asia?

Father Pacwa: There are two thoughts that I would have.

First, a cartoon of Mohammed in itself is a grave insult to Islam. And so it is easy for Muslims to be stirred into action.

But that is my second thought: They were stirred into action apparently by the governments of Syria and Iran who want the attitude on the street to be one of incitement against the West.

Now the problem of course is that the people who did the cartoons were not representatives of Christianity. They were secular people who have a strong commitment, and perhaps even an absolute commitment, to freedom of speech in the way that the West is accustomed to it.

Unfortunately, the people on the street blamed Christians because they do not make the distinction between secularized Europeans and religious Christians.

So, one of the horrendous things that happened because of the instigation of the violence is that quite a number of Christians were killed, including at least two priests, one in Nigeria and one in Turkey.

This is a kind of lack of responsibility by secular press people over the results of their work. Should they have to be concerned about this type of freedom of speech? Should they worry about Muslim reactions?

In one sense they can say they are not responsible, but their lack of responsibility led to hundreds of deaths. I think they do need to be more responsible toward Muslim sensibilities.

On the other hand, in their reporting about this, they also need to pay attention to the Muslims themselves. They have to report the way Syria, Iran, perhaps al-Qaida, are instigating these riots for their purposes.

The results of these riots of course lead to nothing. They don't really produce any positive results, except maybe to bully the West into going along with Muslim sensitivities. But it is not going to really accomplish much.

Q: What does this outburst reveal about the state of the Muslim world and its relationship with the West?

Father Pacwa: I think one first reaction to the state of the Muslim world and its relationship with the West is that the Muslim world has been affected still to this day by the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. And they have been making social experiments trying to cope with that collapse.

One attempt has been the forms of Arab nationalism -- the Baath party in Syria inspired by Michel Aflaq in the late 1920s; its branch, the Baath party in Iraq which is also a nationalist party, not a religious party, and which had also made overtures to national socialism in Germany, the Nazi party, and saw themselves as some sort of ally; the PLO, which is another nationalist group; and the followers of Egypt's former President Nasser. The nationalist party in Egypt once had great influence, but not as much anymore.

Those various nationalistic movements had tremendous impact on the Arab world as a way to try to achieve national identity where it had not existed before.

Prior to nationalism, Muslims saw themselves as primarily Muslims and members of the Ummah, the Muslim people. And the result is that nationalism took on as an idea to modernize the world and to give national identities to these new countries -- Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan, though Jordan was not as affected by such nationalism.

So these were one style of reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. But they became far more oppressive than the Sultan had been.

So what you see now is a religious reaction against the nationalistic ideas, which are perceived as having been Western ideas imported to the Middle East. This outburst shows the use of religious sentiment as the motivating force attempting to go back to a religious identity, even though nation-states still exist.

One of the ways it is being developed is that a number ...

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