Correction to This Article
The original version of this article said that a Dutch newspaper had published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. The newspaper was Danish. This version of the article has been corrected.

We've Seen This Movie Before

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By Eboo Patel
From the Asia Society
Thursday, April 10, 2008; 12:00 AM

Here we go again: Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders has finally released his controversial film "Fitna" ("Strife"), which shows bloody scenes of terrorist attacks to support claims that the Koran inspires violence.

Supporters insist that, whether right or wrong, the film is an important statement and that in a free and open society, Wilders has every right to make it. Many others disagree. Indonesia and Iran have condemned the film. In Karachi on Sunday, Dutch and American flags went up in flames as some 25,000 protestors vowed revenge. NATO has said it fears the film will affect the safety of troops in Afghanistan.

Similar controversy erupted in 2005, after a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed. At least 100 people died as riots spread across the Muslim diaspora.

Then, as now, both sides were as wrong as they were right. Both sides, equally angry and equally self-righteous, insist the argument here is in fact a clash of civilizations, an epic fight between Islam and the West. But this narrative misses the point and reinforces a misguided and fundamentally counterproductive sense of conflict.

And we have been here before. Forty years ago this month, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated amid the violent schism of the American civil rights movement. Then as now, opponents framed the debate as a zero-sum game.

But King helped elevate the discourse beyond such a restrictive framework. He said there are two groups of people in the world: those who want to perish together as fools, and those who want to live together as brothers. Those two kinds of people are still with us today.

Wilders is trying to reinforce a false divide between the West and Islam -- and his opponents are falling right into his trap. These two groups have more in common with each other than with the majority of the world; they are united by their extremism.

For those of us who are open to King's message, there is an alternative. We have a different understanding of what it means to be human, to be Muslim, to be Western.

At the Interfaith Youth Core, the organization I lead, we call this the "challenge of the faith line." The faith line doesn't divide Christians and Muslims or Hindus and Jews or secular and religious. Instead, we see a deep divide separating pluralism from extremism.

Unfortunately today we see the forces of extremism attracting so many passionate -- and admittedly articulate -- advocates. They advocate not only with words, but with film. Not only in person, but online. And increasingly, they advocate with violence.

So how do we respond? Religious pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance for diversity. It requires that we respect one another's religious identities, develop mutually enriching relationships with each other, and work together to make this world a better place. How do the forces of pluralism fight back? For pluralism to become real, it needs advocates who can articulate its essential message in a powerful way.

Historical examples abound. King joined hands with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Ala.; Mahatma Gandhi worked with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to liberate India; Combatants for Peace united former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants to break the region's vicious cycle of violence. The Interfaith Youth Core tells these stories of religious pluralism, promoting them as a sustainable alternative to extremism, every day.

Dutch or American, Muslim or Christian, religious or secular -- at the beginning of the 21st century we all need to work together against the forces of extremism and fulfill King's message of hope and pluralism.

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core and is a fellow at Ashoka and the Asia Society. He writes the "The Faith Divide" blog for OnFaith on washingtonpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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