The ridiculous excuse of a video, Innocence of Muslims, has angered the faithful across the globe. The quality of the film is so pathetic that it should have been allowed to die a natural death. However, trust some Muslims to be swayed by such brazen provocations and now all you have is a faux narrative of Islam versus the West. Mainstream media never had it better with Time and Newsweek printing cover stories with little or no editorial integrity.
Perhaps, what the West does not realise is that reverence for the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is an article of faith for the Muslims. For centuries, the extremists on the other side — sometimes religious and mostly political — have continued to play up this emotion. If only there was better understanding and consolidation of the bridges that scholars such as Anne Marie Schimmel (And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety, 1985) and Karen Armstrong (Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, 1991) built with much passion. By placing Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the proper historical, cultural and spiritual context, their works have attempted to undo centuries of vilification.
Salman Rushdie’s book — Satanic Verses — sparked global outrage in the late 1908s and since then, we have increasing polarisation between those who view freedom of expression as an absolute value, and extremists within Muslims who think violence is the only way to ‘save’ Islam from such attacks. Millions of Muslims are trapped between the two ends of this hate-spectrum. Despite the offence caused by such provocation, they will not resort to violence or support wanton destruction of life and property. But are these voices represented and articulated through credible leadership? The answer is no because the hold of clerics and merchants of political Islam is gaining more and more traction across the globe.
Take the case of Arab lands where a year ago, an Arab Spring was being celebrated. The developments in the region and the US’ follies of supporting extremist elements are backfiring. The quest of largely unemployed youth for opportunity, voice and freedoms is giving way to the resurgence of various shades of political Islam. This is partly why the blasphemous video, once dubbed in Arabic, caused mayhem and resulted in the tragic deaths of US diplomats. The fire of protests has spread across the Arab world and elsewhere, resulting in more destruction where Muslim zealots are ending up harming themselves.
This irony explains the dilemmas that the Muslims and the heterogeneous Islamic world (romantically referred to as the Ummah) face. They are unable to articulate an intellectual and cultural response to the changing world.
In the past decade, the US hegemony and global adventures have come into conflict with disparate religious groups and the most potent articulation of this conflict happens to the al Qaeda: a loose ideo-militant network that is difficult to hunt, for it represents a certain mindset and not an organised force on the ground, which drones and missiles can ‘neutralise’ to use a US euphemism for senseless murders.
Al Qaeda and its local affiliates have had a field day due to the video and have seized the initiative. Moderate and pragmatic Muslim leaders across the world are dumbfounded at the recent developments and have little choice but to cave in. For instance, Pakistan’s prime minister has banned YouTube, while other governments were more successful in leveraging with Google to block the video.
The battle is primarily political. The perceived injustices perpetrated by the US, for instance supporting Israel against the dispossession and brutal treatment of Palestinians, are etched into collective memory. These issues of power inequities are long-term and will take generations to be fixed.
The ‘victimhood’ of Muslims is also quasi-mythical. The anti-imperial rants against the US and the West often ignore that there is little resistance to the imperialists within Islam. The imperialists within (monarchs, clerics and plunderers who exploit, suppress dissent and kill without a conscience) are within the reach of Muslims. The battle ‘within’ Islam — for reformation, ijtehad and liberation from patriarchal, violence-preaching clerics — is a far more serious one.
The Prophet (pbuh), who entered into an agreement with the Jews in Medina, assured the Coptic Christians of protection and engaged with non-Muslims, has followers who have failed him. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not allow non-Muslims to worship freely. By law, you cannot have churches and temples there. The Iranian state’s persecution of the Bahai faith is a tragedy of our times. What are we in Pakistan doing to our small non-Muslim population? Forget the non-Muslims; look at the manner in which minority sects within Islam are treated. There is much that the Muslims need to introspect about before they take bombs and bullets to express their anger on cases of persecution and blasphemy.
It might just help if they were to focus on knowledge, organised political and economic resistance, reforming their societies and reigning in the clerics who have no place in Islam to begin with. More importantly, before crying hoarse about the way the world is treating them, how about allowing Muslim women their due rights, enabling non-Muslim fellow citizens to receive the entitlements they deserve; and turning towards inquiry and reason?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2012.