It all started with a conversation I had with one of my best friends in Canada, Murat.
“Harper is anti-Islamic, to his soul,” said Murat, who is ethnically Turkish, referring to the current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “He let [a newspaper] put an article like, ‘You can’t fool us, Allah.’ When people said this is wrong, he said it is the freedom of expression.”
My immediate reaction was: “Well, it is the freedom of expression. Insults might be hurtful, but should never be removed from the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
But Murat, who seemed to be well-disposed, said, “There is a limit to every freedom.”
Murat is right in that there must be a limit to every freedom. But the limit is often ill-defined. When people do not have a consensus on where the limit should be set, it sometimes results in horrible disasters, such as the death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and worldwide Muslim riots. The riots are against the American-made movie that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a killer, a pedophile and a rapist. In the United States, however, the filmmaker still receives protection from the U.S. Constitution.
The juxtaposing reactions to the film between Muslims and the West best illustrate their cultural hiatus. In the West, we define the principle of justice based on secular laws. The U.S. Constitution, the Canadian Charter and all other Western laws never recognize the supremacy of a particular religion but rather the supremacy of the rule of law. Indeed, after witnessing the horrors of the Inquisition and the Holy Crusade, the West would never want another totalitarian group to enslave its people by exploiting religions. Though many Westerners still practice religions, the majority agrees on keeping the government independent from religious influences. John F. Kennedy, for example, explicitly underscored the separation of church and state even though he was Catholic.
In contrast, the Islamic religion remains an integral part of most Muslim countries. Sharia law, for example, defines Islam as the religion of the state, thus recognizing its supremacy. As a result, all laws come from Allah, and Allah is superior to everything on Earth. Even though some Muslim countries do not practice Shariah law, Islam still influences their everyday words and actions, as they have been practicing it for many centuries. As Khalid Amayreh, a Muslim journalist, said, “The Prophet is a million times more sacred than the American Constitution.”
So is the world doomed to spiral into an endless fight between two opposing ideologies? Can we prevent the recent tragedies and disasters from reenacting in the future? I cannot alter the minds or beliefs of others, but I hope that those who read this, regardless of which value system they uphold, can realize that the opposing side is just as correct as their side. An ideology has nothing inherently wrong. Whether one chooses religion over law or law over religion, it’s simply a choice he or she makes. At the end of the day, Westerners or Muslims, we all strive for the peacefulness and happiness of the entire humanity.
The cultural beliefs between the West and the Muslim world have their origins tied to complex chains of events in recent centuries. Their gap is impossible to fill up in the foreseeable future. But if one world can simply recognize and respect the existence of the other one, friendly conversations, like one between Murat and myself, are still possible.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 2 print edition. Richard Zhang is foreign correspondent editor. Email him at email@example.com.
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