Aliaksandr Źdźvižkoŭ (whose name is also spelled Alexander Sdvizhkov in English), the former editor of the defunct Belarusian opposition newspaper Zhoda (Agreement), has been sentenced to three years in prison by the Minsk City Court for reprinting the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) which first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
After having the cartoons reprinted, Źdźvižkoŭ was quoted as saying "We did the right thing by speaking out against Islamic hysteria." I have to say, whipping up hysteria by attacking what is sacred to someone else is a funny way of "speaking out against... hysteria." In particular, Źdźvižkoŭ didn't seem to remember that Belarus has its own community of around 30,000 Muslims who were exhibiting no "hysteria" over the cartoons, and that printing the cartoons in Zhoda (especially given the negative depiction of the Prophet contained in most of them) would be needlessly, gratuitously offensive to Belarusian Muslims.
As it happened, Ismail Varanovič, the head of the Spritual Directorate of the Muslims of the Republic of Belarus, sued Źdźvižkoŭ for "inciting hatred" against the Muslim community. However, he now claims that the government and, in particular, the Committee of Religious and Ethnicity Affairs, put him up to it. More that that, they made him understand that it was their express desire that he sue Źdźvižkoŭ.
Varanovič says that he felt sorry for Źdźvižkoŭ at the trial, which was held behind closed doors, and even tried to help him by telling the court that he had come to think that Źdźvižkoŭ's actions represented not an incitement to hatred, but rather a mere illustration to the story of the cartoon controversy. According to Varanovič, Źdźvižkoŭ apologised to him personally, and to the Muslim community in general, for his actions.
So it seems that the Belarusian Muslim community was led into something not of its own choosing, and was used by the government in its own game against Źdźvižkoŭ. This theory is supported by the fact that the prison term that Źdźvižkoŭ was sentenced to -- three years -- is the most severe of all so far received by people found guilty in the cartoon controversy in any country.
So why is it that the Belarusian authorities were after Źdźvižkoŭ? Two reasons have been raised in the independent and opposition press. Some say that the Belarusian government wanted to impress rich(er) Muslim countries with their defence of Islam in order to attract investments from them. However, the theory that sounds more likely to be true is that the authorities wanted to move Źdźvižkoŭ out of the way for a while because his newspaper, Zhoda, had endorsed Aliaksandr Kazulin, a Social-Democratic candidate for the Belarusian presidency. In addition, the action taken against Źdźvižkoŭ can serve as a warning to what is left of the independent Belarusian media to be more careful in what they say -- not about Islam, but about President Lukašenka. This theory rings true not just because of various actions against journalists undertaken by the Belarusian government in the past, but also because Zhoda was shut down following a threat from Lukašenka to do so.
So where does this leave the Belarusian Muslims? Unfortunately, they have faced a certain degree of scapegoating from the Belarusian opposition, which is not normally known for anti-Muslim positions. Thus, the deputy leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, Alieś Michalievič (Mikhalevich), has asked Metropolitan Filaret, the Exarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, to intervene with the authorities in order to get Źdźvižkoŭ's sentence softened. In his appeal, Michalievič claims that Źdźvižkoŭ has been made to suffer for "expressing his Christian convictions", and asks sarcastically whether the "the law of the Shari'a" is in force in Belarus. To which one may reply that one does not need to look as far as the Shari'a to find condemnation of libel and hate speech of the kind that the cartoons represented.
One pro-opposition journalist has even warned that Belarusians should beware of the transformation of our country into "Belarusistan". In his view, Źdźvižkoŭ understood this danger, but went overboard in his response. At best, the journalist's statement regarding the "present threat" posed by Belarusian Muslims reflects a hastily put together reaction that ignores the simple facts that the Muslim community has lived peacefully in what is now Belarus for over 600 years and, that Muslim scholars were writing religious treatises in Belarusian centuries ago, and that further, Muslims constitute less than 1 percent of the population of Belarus. These sorts of responses from respected segments of the opposition intelligentsia are irresponsible and seem to imply an attempt to align pro-Western Belarusian views with those of extreme right-wing Western European politicians. What does not make sense in this equation, however, is that those xenophobic politicians try to court public support by attacking immigrants or their children (which is, in itself, wrong), while Belarus, as I said above, has what can be quite justifiably considered an indigenous Muslim population.
So what is needed here are liberal voices, ones that understand that freedom comes with responsibility, and that we Belarusians are one people who must continue building our country for all of us together, whether we are Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, or what have you. Fortunately, there are some who have been speaking out in just such a vein.
Since becoming a "normal European country" is one of the biggest dreams of the Belarusian opposition, I'd like to suggest that turning on minorities at the slightest hint of imagined provocation is not the way to achieve that dream.