EUBulletin has recently spoken to Professor Azyumardi Azra – the Director of the Graduate School, State Islamic University and University of Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, Indonesia. Being a Columbia University graduate, prominent Indonesian public intellectual and Muslim thinker, Professor Azyumardi Azra talks about the sources of the rise of religious intolerance in Europe, assesses how European governments handled the fallout of the “crisis” following the publication of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and explains why he feels “disheartened” about the lack of inter and intra-religious dialogue on the ‘Old Continent’.
EUBulletin: You have been in Europe many times and you have also been following various problems regarding Muslim minorities in Europe, such as in France, the UK or Germany. Is Europe, in your view, experiencing a rise of religious intolerance?
AZYUMARDI AZRA: I think it is related, of course, to the ongoing economic crisis, economic downturn, in a number of European countries and particularly in the south, such as in Italy or Spain. This creates some kind of anti-migrant attitude among the population and since lots of these migrants are Muslims, it also fuels anti-Muslim sentiments. So, that’s one of the main sources, the other one being the rise of right-wing parties in some European countries, particularly in Nordic countries or in the Netherlands.
EUBulletin: When we talk about religious intolerance, do you find people in Europe, when compared with the countries with sizable or even majority Muslim population like Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia, to be let’s say more insensitive in terms of religion. A case in point could be for example the issue of the cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad published in some European media?
AZYUMARDI AZRA: I think the problem here is that European people view Islam from the European standards and perspective that are not always acceptable for Muslims. Like, for example, according to Islamic teachings, it is forbidden to depict Prophet Muhammad. And when you, let’s say, draw a cartoon that is considered vulgar and as being against these principles as stipulated in the Koran, this has angered many Muslims, particularly those Muslims who have very limited perspective.
For me, it does not really matter, it does not affect my belief in Islam and its teachings but for common people, especially for common people in the Middle East, in South Asia, in India and Pakistan, many of them were very angry with that. Some Muslims in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia in general were also very angry but in the Middle East and South Asia the extent of the anger was much higher. Of course, the whole picture is very complex – the case of the cartoon was used to express the anger of the Muslims not only at the cartoon per se but also at the whole situation, particularly with respect to the Muslims’ attitudes and views of the West and their countries’ relationships with the West.
EUBulletin: Different European governments back then responded differently to this “crisis”. Some governments for example sought to justify the media’s right to publish the cartoon of Prophet Muhammad, quoting freedom of speech or freedom of expression.
AZYUMARDI AZRA: This was the failure on behalf of the European governments to dissociate themselves from the cartoon. In the wake of the cartoon crisis, I was invited by the Danish Foreign Ministry in the wake of the cartoon crisis to advise them on how to handle the precarious situation. I told them that they have to disassociate themselves from this cartoon, not to talk about the cartoon issue anymore. They told me that my advice was good but of course the final decision was made by them. I only gave them my suggestion explaining that Muslims have the following opinion: while it right that you are free to express yourself but you are not free to insult other people and their religious feelings. So that’s the argument mostly held my Muslims.
EUBulletin: I understand that for most Muslims, the cartoon of Prophet Muhammad was like as if you depicted their relative or their parent in a vulgar manner.
AZYUMARDI AZRA: I think more than that. If you, let’s say, insult someone’s mother or father, you probably would not be as offended as if you insult the prophet. According to the Islamic creed, you have to believe in Prophet Muhammad, so if you do not defend Prophet Muhammad, you are considered as heretic.
EUBulletin: If you look in general at European governments’ policies to foster religious tolerance, harmony and pluralism, not only in the case of Europe’s Muslim minorities but in general, what particular policies would you urge them to implement?
AZYUMARDI AZRA: I think there should be more emphasis put on dialogue – both inter and intra-religious dialogue. With intra-religious dialogue I refer to a dialogue within one particular religion, such as between the Orthodox and Catholic communities. I was recently in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and I found that they lead very little dialogue among themselves in a situation in which the societies are divided along religious lines. In fact, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, each religion has certain allocation for positions in the government. For me, this is quite strange, because in Indonesia, we do not have such an allocation, for Muslims, for Catholics, for Hindus or whatever. Basically, any governmental position is open for any faith; the only criteria are that you must have the ability and capacity to fulfil the duties of the job. So, for me, what I saw in Bosnia and Herzegovina was very disheartening.