A crowd of students and community members gathered at the Yale Law School Monday for a videoconference dialogue between leaders and students around the world, focusing on the role of youth in the future of relations between Muslims and Western countries.
Major topics of discussion included freedom of expression and the responsibilities that come with such freedom in the global, multicultural community. The videoconference connected students at six universities in the United States, Africa and the Middle East with leaders who were stationed at the Brookings Institution’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. The purpose of the conference, which attracted about 20 audience members, was to promote dialogue between current and future world leaders, said Seth Green LAW ’07, the moderator of the Yale group and the founder and chair of Americans for Informed Democracy.
“[The organizers] were interested in opening up a summit to leaders of the future,” he said. “It’s important to break down stereotypes, particularly in this time.”
The panelists, who each represented different organizations dealing with the relationship between Islam and democracy, began the videoconference with a discussion on the recent controversy over cartoons initially published in a Danish newspaper, which some Muslims have said are offensive to Mohammed. They expressed concerns about the cartoons’ content and the international media’s portrayal of the response in the Muslim world.
“The prophet and all other prophets before him have faced insult,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “This is an issue of injustice and dehumanization,” he said, adding that the “blasphemous” cartoon was an irresponsible use of freedom of expression.
The panelists expressed concerns about the release of the cartoons in Denmark, a country in which it is illegal to deny the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide and where Muslims are not able to own their mosques but must rent spaces.
Freedom of thought is one of the main tenets of Islam, but individuals should also have a right to freedom from insult, said Islamic thinker Gamal Al-Banna of the Fawziyya and Gamal El-Banna Foundation for Islamic Culture and Information.
Each school had the opportunity to ask two questions, and most of the queries focused on the response of the Muslim world to the cartoons and the media’s coverage of the controversy.
When a student at Georgetown University asked about how the Muslim response became violent, the panelists were quick to respond that the Western media’s representation of the protests has focused too much on the relatively few violent outbreaks, rather than on the peaceful discussions about the cartoons.
“Good news is not sexy,” said Amina Rasul-Bernardo, lead convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and a former member of the Philippine Cabinet.
The rest of the discussion focused on the need for understanding and communication between peoples of different religious and cultural backgrounds.
Participants said they thought the conference succeeded in presenting them with perspectives they would not have otherwise considered.
“The most significant thing was that before the conference I thought that the Danish newspapers had the right to publish the cartoons with freedom of the press,” Hitesh Sharma GRD ’09 said. “After, I could see why Muslims took so much offense and why there were so many protests.”
Although Sharma enjoyed the discussion, he said he would have preferred for more students to have had the opportunity to personally enter the dialogue. Others said they were impressed with how the leaders included students in the discussion.
“I don’t remember my opinion being sought that much in the ’70s, when I was in school,” said Pua Ford, secretary of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut.
Ford also said she would have liked to listen to the views of the offending cartoonist, who might have been able to explain why he drew the cartoon, though others said that they did not think that was essential for this particular conference.
The videoconference was organized by the groups Americans for Informed Democracy, Layalina Productions and America Media Abroad. Other participating schools included Georgetown University, the University of Jordan, Hunter College, the Cote d’Ivoire Distance Learning Center and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar.