It is a familiar pattern. A right-wing Islamophobe brings out a highly inflammatory work about the Prophet Muhammad and all hell breaks loose. This time, however, the situation seems much worse. Distant echoes of Salman Rushdie fatwas and rioting over the Danish cartoons remain lodged in our memories. With protests and violence gone viral across the Muslim world, nobody knows where it will end. This time it is different.
The killing of the consular staff in Benghazi and the clashes in Cairo, Khartoum, and Tunis are a sore reminder that to insult or ridicule the religious figure held so dear by the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims causes an unspeakable offense. However incendiary the material, many of us still find it difficult to understand the sheer intensity of reaction witnessed this week. Would we act the same if a film were made with Jesus Christ subject to the same treatment, we ask? What is all the fuss about?
Muslims, when asked this question, are unequivocal. Muhammad is at the very heart of the tenets of their religion, they say. He was the last and greatest of all the prophets, a unique and extraordinary person who laid down the foundations of a faith that inspired a culture and civilization that shaped the modern world. Muhammad is as central to Muslims as Jesus is to Christians, but to Muslims his status is very different from that of Christ in Christianity. Muhammad was not of God, and, unlike Jesus, he did not perform miracles. He was not divine, but a man. He was the intercessor, one who interceded on behalf of mankind with God himself, the messenger of God, and as such his experiences motivate the emotions and actions of all Muslims who directly follow his example. To denigrate the Prophet of Islam is to denigrate everything they represent and believe in. It is the ultimate insult.
As someone who has spent a great deal of time trying to promote greater understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, I am the first to object to the publication of anything that deliberately sets out to undermine a figure so central to so many, just as I would be against any disrespectful portrayal of Jesus Christ, Abraham, or Buddha. Freedom of speech is a gift that should not be abused by anyone, whatever their faith. But whatever injustice has been committed, it must be fought properly, using rational argument and reasoned discourse. Many non-Muslims argue that Muslims are overly sensitive and that the violent reactions seen now across the Arab world are out of proportion to the original offense. What is needed in the current situation is perspective. In our free society, Muslims can be intolerant of Jews, Jews can criticize Christians, Hindus can insult Buddhists, so Muslims must accept they themselves and their representatives can be subject to equal criticism and intolerance—without resorting to violent reprisals.
The reality is that the film has acted as a trigger. The outrage felt by Muslims across the Middle East toward America and the West extends much wider and runs much deeper. The feelings are undoubtedly deep rooted in history, arising from the expansion of orthodoxy and anti-Western ideas over many decades, fueled by disillusion over critical events on the world stage—from Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, the race riots in Malaysia in 1969, Pakistan’s invasion of its eastern territory resulting in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the revolution in Iran, the subjugation of Lebanon in 1982, and most recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most worryingly, what has happened during the last week has played directly into the hands of extremist factions operating across the Middle East, whose objective is to fan the fire of anti-Western hatred. Specifically, a branch of Salafi Islam known as Salafi jihadism, directly linked to al Qaeda, is thought to be behind the violence in Libya last week. Like Wahhabism, Salafism is well known as a purist orthodox movement of Islam that has always held the belief that the ills of society derive solely from what they see as non-Muslim corrupt, secular practices. But Salafis are unique. They regard themselves as the chosen ones. They believe only they represent the true path of Islam, that they themselves are the only true descendants of the Prophet, the salaf-al-salih, the righteous or pious predecessors), the sabaha, the companions, or the tabi’un, the followers. They say this truth has been manifested in Saudi Arabia’s wealth, aided by a United States that has been keen to exploit the riches of the Arabian lands. Many Salafi Muslims are peace-loving, but some actively support the use of violence to achieve their political aims. The film has given such individuals just the premise they needed to wage what in their terms is a holy jihad in defense of yet another blatant attack against their religion. In their view, any violence in this situation is not only justified. It is supported by God himself.
It goes without saying, also, that those responsible for acts of violence witnessed in the past few days must be brought to account, but much more needs to happen. Moderate Muslims have a duty to denounce the extremist factions of their religion and the violence committed in the name of their religion. They would do well to remember that the Prophet they hold so dear and in such high esteem taught compassion and forgiveness for all acts of blasphemy. Muhammad himself advocated tolerance of hatred from other cultures, and taught the need to “practice that which is common between us” as he established a pluralistic society in Mecca where all faiths were respected. As the Quran itself states, “Goodness and evil cannot be equal. Repay evil with what is better.” It is a sentiment both sides should take heed of.