How to Defend the Prophet?

The Muslim reaction to the anti-Islam film produced in the United States ruined their opportunity to use Western traditions of freedom of expression to punish the creators for inciting hatred. Instead, their violent reactions helped reinforce the stereotype that Muslims are violent, argues Alaa al-Aswany.

al-monitor Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wave Hezbollah flags and shout slogans at a protest against a film made in the US that mocks the Prophet Mohammad, in southern Lebanon, Sept. 19, 2012. The Arabic on the headscarves read, "In your name prophet of God." Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

islamophobia, freedom of expression

Sep 19, 2012

Whether you are Muslim, Christian or follow any other religion, you have the right to practice your faith, and others must respect your religious convictions without anybody mocking or degrading your beliefs. Thus, every Muslim has the right to feel angry upon watching a pathetic and badly made movie that depicts their prophet in a shameful, deceitful and insulting manner. Muslims were also within their rights when they felt angered by the cartoons that mocked the Prophet that were published in Denmark a few years ago. Furthermore, they were right to be angered by the movie Fitna (strife) — a film produced by right-wing Dutchman Geert Wilders in 2006 — which derided the Muslim faith and considered it the source of all the world’s terrorism. In all of these instances, Muslims were justifiably angered, and they had the legitimate right to embark on a campaign aimed at convincing the world that they were entitled, as human beings, to see their religious beliefs respected without prejudice. But, unfortunately, and as a result of these campaigns, Muslims lost that aforementioned right, and themselves contributed in distorting the image of Islam and Muslims because they let their anger get the best of them by overlooking the following facts:

First: The nature of freedom of expression in the West.

Decades ago, people in Western societies abandoned the notion of the sanctity of religion. They therefore believe that criticizing religion is permitted and protected by one’s freedom of expression. For each movie produced and aired that derides Islam in the West, there are a dozen movies that ridicule Christianity. Orthodox Christians get angry and call for them to be boycotted, even going to court to have them withdrawn from the market, unsuccessfully in most cases. There are atheists in the West who appear in the media, describing Jesus Christ as an illusion and deriding the very notion that God would send prophets in his name. They fiercely attack the church, claiming it is a corrupt capitalist institution. All these things happen in the West without people getting mobilized or feeling angered, because it is every person’s right to believe what he or she wishes within the confines of the law. Western law does not criminalize the act of criticizing religion, yet does criminalize the act of inciting hatred. These laws do not penalize those who commit blasphemy or deny the advent of prophets, but penalize those who incite others into hating the followers of a particular religion, which is an accusation that must be ultimately proven in court. Had Muslims understood the true nature of Western society, they would have taken advantage of that society’s freedom of expression to produce good movies that showcase Islam’s true image for Western audiences yearning for knowledge. Had Muslims understood the West, they would have waged a legal battle and hired the best attorneys to prosecute the makers of movies offensive to Islam, because they serve to incite people into hating and despising Muslims, painting them as brute savages who kill for the slightest reason. But Muslims failed to do that and surrendered to their anger without thinking, which prompted them to behave poorly, and sometimes to commit crimes that unfortunately confirmed the negative image that offensive movies portrayed of Islam. How can we convince the world that a movie is full of lies and slander about the Prophet, when Muslims in Libya kill four American diplomats — including the ambassador — whose body was seen on media outlets being dragged and tampered with by Libyan youth? Does Islam teach that we should kill these innocent men who represented their country in Libya, and had nothing to do with the movie that caused our anger?

Second: The nature of power in the West.

We Arabs live in oppressive societies, where those in power can do as they please. If, in Egypt, you had a quarrel with your doorman, you would call an acquaintance of yours who is an officer in the security forces to come and put him back in his place. Furthermore, if you had a falling out with the officer, you would look for someone who knew his superior to have him admonished. But the president, king or leader of an emirate have absolute and uncompromising power. They can close down television channels or newspapers, throw citizens in prison and charge them with trumped up accusations. Under such a totalitarian rule, everything that is aired in the media or produced for the cinema falls under the complete responsibility of the ruler, because he would have barred it from the market had it not been to his liking. When an Arab media outlet attacks the officials of an Arab country other than its own, those attacked usually complain to the ruler of the country from which the attack originated. That ruler can then put an end to the campaign against them with a wave of his hand, or — if he really wanted to honor them — order the offending channel or newspaper shut down. Unfortunately, many Muslims think that Western society is similar to our own, and they therefore hold Western governments responsible for the movies being produced or the articles being written in the west. This naive belief concerning the Western political system drives many into misbehaving. Western society is a democratic society, where government officials possess limited powers beyond which they cannot go, otherwise they can be removed from office and prosecuted. The president of Western countries cannot interfere in the content of what is published in news media, he also cannot shut down a newspaper or television channel. Quite the opposite is true, it is the media that can isolate a president if it convinces voters that he is no longer fit for office. Western governments cannot bar a movie from being shown, for fear of being involved in a political scandal that would cause their demise. Many Muslims are not aware of these facts, and they therefore storm and burn Western embassies, kill innocent diplomats, thinking that by doing so they pressure governments into preventing an anti-Muslim movie from being aired. The result being a confirmation of the image that Muslims are barbarians and terrorists.

Third: The double standards of Arab countries.

We cannot ask that principles be respected when we are the first to refute them. When a movie offensive to Islam is shown in the West, or Muslims there fall victim to discrimination, we get upset and demand that the Muslims’ right to practice their religion be respected. But unfortunately, we in the Arab countries do not respect the rights of our compatriots to practice other religions. Does the Saudi government have the right to object to the Burqa ban in France and demand that the rights of minorities there be respected when it oppresses the Shiites in its own territory, and has sent troops to kill Shiite citizens in Bahrain just because they demonstrated and demanded their rights? Do the Salafists of Egypt have the right to demand the respect of Muslim rights in the West when they consider Egyptian Copts to be second class citizens who may not hold the post of President of the Republic, or that of Army Commander? Can they make demands while they consider members of the Baha’i sect apostate infidels who must repent or be killed? A citizen of Egypt was recently tried and imprisoned for merely being a Shiite. The Egyptian state refuses to acknowledge Baha’i citizens’ rights to practice their own religion. How many times have Muslim extremists attacked Copts for merely wanting to build a church? How many times did extremist clerics demean the Coptic faith, considering Copts to be infidels whose deaths should not be mourned, and barring Muslims from congratulating them during their religious festivities? The charge of demeaning religion in Egypt only applies to those who offend Islam, while those who question the faith of Copts, Shiites and Baha’is are never prosecuted. A few days ago a young Egyptian Copt by the name of Albert Mansour posted the movie that offends the Prophet on his Facebook page; as a result, the whole neighborhood stormed his house and attacked him. When his mother called the police for help, they came not to protect him, but to accuse him of demeaning religion and threw him in prison where the officer in charge encouraged other prisoners to beat him until he suffered a life threatening cut to his throat. What crime did Albert Mansour commit? That he watched an offending movie and posted it on his personal webpage? Millions of Egyptians watched the movie and shared links to it on Facebook without getting arrested. In fact it was Sheikh Khaled Abdullah who first aired the movie on the [Islamist] Al-Nas channel for millions to see. But Albert is a Copt who can be abused for any reason, while Sheikh Khaled Abdullah is an Islamist who can do as he pleases without accountability. Is this the justice that Islam commands us to abide by?

Demonstrations spread throughout Egypt to denounce the movie that offended the Prophet, with the participation of Muslims and Copts alike. The Egyptian Church and Coptic associations also issued statements condemning the movie in a wonderful show of Egyptian unity in the defense of the Prophet, but what did the extremists do? They raised banners deriding Copts as cross worshipers, with Sheikh Wagdy Ghoneim saying that the priesthood was an aberration, and describing all Coptic women living abroad as prostitutes. Is this the proper Muslim behavior that we want the world to see? One Muslim cleric, known as Abu Islam, publicly burned and shredded the pages of the bible in front of cameras, saying that he would urinate on it next time. Do we have the right to demand respect for our religious symbols, while we treat the symbols of other religions in such a manner?

Ultimately, our battle to put an end to offenses against Islam is legitimate and we can win it if we do the following:

  1. Muslims must present a civilized model (which Islam demands of us anyway) for the respect of other people’s creeds and rights. We must afford citizens of our countries the right to worship or not; with every citizen choosing his own path, and the state guaranteeing and nurturing the rights of all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation. Only when we respect other people’s religious symbols do we gain the right to defend our own, and our unified moral stance will convince the world’s public opinion to join us in preventing any further offense to Islam.
  2. We must inform Western public opinion about the true nature of Islam. My wish is that a fraction of the ever-increasing Arab oil monies be used to produce world class movies that show the truth about the Prophet, so that the world may become acquainted with Islam’s humanitarian essence.
  3. We must disclose exactly who stands behind the production of films offensive to Islam, and use the Muslim community in the West to boycott the product of any company or institutions that funds offensive movies.
  4. We must resort to specialized Western legal firms to file lawsuits against the makers of movies that are offensive to Islam because they are committing the crime of inciting hatred towards Muslims which is punishable by the laws of all Western countries.

No matter how angry we become, we must always defend the Prophet in a civilized and rational manner that reflects the culture of Islam which has taught the whole world the meaning of tolerance, justice and freedom.

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