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Opinion: Dialogue Between Cultures More Important Than Ever

The conflict raging over the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed shows no sign of abating. Since both the western and Islamic worlds have tended to demonize the other, a real dialog between them is absolutely necessary.

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The protests show the importance of communication between the West and the Islamic world

The outrage about the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in many parts of the Muslim world is real and should be taken seriously. Still, one thing should not be overlooked: When western institutions are stormed or set on fire, or people are threatened only because of their European heritage and not because they have had anything to do with the issue, that has less to do with Islam and more to do with the interests of radical ideologues, who have grasped how to use this argument for their own purposes.

Mindless violence is unacceptable and cannot be justified by claiming God or the Prophet Mohammed has been insulted. In addition, it is not at all reflecting the interests of a majority of the world's Muslims.

Nonetheless, the current developments are alarming. It is dismaying to see how many people, particularly in Arabic countries, appear to be ready to engage in violent demonstrations. It is frightening how few courageous voices from the Islamic world spoke out initially against the threats and escalating violence. There are several notable exceptions, particularly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Syria's grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Badreddine Hassun, who talked about "miserable actions." And not to be forgotten, of course, are the numerous Muslim representatives in European countries.

However, one hoped for many more moderate voices from the Middle East. Instead, it was the fire-setters who set the tone on the streets and on television, along with tens of thousands of politically frustrated and uninformed people who backed them up.

Wester n stereotypes

In the West, another picture surfaced, equally disconcerting. It was one in which little differentiation is made between radical and moderate Muslims, and which leads to Islam being equated with terrorism and violence. Every attack, every political assassination and every kidnapping strengthens this picture in the minds of many westerners.

Karikaturenstreit - Proteste in Kaschmir

Protestors burn a symbolic Danish flag in Srinagar, India

Still, it is a false impression, and adhering to it only supports those who wish to sow as much distrust and enmity between the western and Islamic worlds as possible.

It took this intense reaction in the Middle East to wake up European leaders to the fact that the cartoon debate is about more than press freedom. It is really about respect that must be shown for the values and traditions of a religion, which for years more than any other has been used to advance for extremist political causes.

That several European newspapers -- German ones included -- demonstratively reprinted the caricatures was perhaps not meant to hurt sensibilities, but its effect was something akin to childish defiance hiding behind the pathos of press freedom. In reality, press freedom is not, and never was, threatened. But religious feelings were wounded, and radical ideologists were handed a cheap pretence for violence. The gulf between the two cultures was almost willfully widened. One should also remember, caricatures of this kind, at least in Germany with its Nazi past, would have provoked an uproar if not Muslims but Jews had been caricatured in a similar way.

Moderation and reason is called for on both sides. These past few days in Gaza, Tehran and Jakarta have shown that a dialogue between the two cultures must be taken more seriously than ever. It can't be limited to a few well-meaning pastors and imams, but should be engaged in at all levels, from the street to the corridors of power. Germany's Federal President Horst Köhler rightly stressed that Europe must contribute to this. Due to the fact that many European countries are home to fast-growing and often poorly integrated Muslim minorities, discord like that which is bubbling over now could threaten the long-term peace in their societies.

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