“You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.”
It’s been two weeks since the wave of protests against the film called The Innocence of Muslims has started. The second week did not pass without incident. The French magazine Charlie Hebdo insisted on publishing cartoons that slander the prophet, knowing what kind of reaction this would trigger if only judging by similar actions that took place in Denmark and Norway. Furthermore, the magazine, which calls itself “satirical”, published those cartoons only a few days after demonstrations were staged against the American film.
Many have written about the popular reaction to the American film in the Muslim world. Some said, and rightly so, that it is no longer permissible to keep provoking Muslims then apologizing and giving lame excuses, but it is necessary to admit that there is a deliberate attempt at provocation and which aims at deepening the rift and inciting violence.
Another group noted, rightly also, that there is a long history of hatred and prejudice between Islam and Christianity, and even among the different sects within each. This tension reached its peak in certain eras when accusations of apostasy, sorcery, or madness were prevalent.
A third group argued, rightly again, that there are parties that benefit from this tension from both camps since extremism is only encouraged and nurtured by counter-extremism. That is why if that “divine enemy” did not exist then it must be created or resurrect from the dead, if necessary, in order to manipulate and brain-wash people, and in the process gaining undeserved popularity.
This reminds me of a line of verse by the celebrated Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi attacking Lord Cromer, Egypt’s British Consul-General, which is: “If you insult the religion of Mohammed, know that for God Mohammed is a well-established prophet.” The meaning here is simple and clear: Prophets have that special place for God that cannot by shaken by average people who attempt at insulting them. That is why we shouldn’t treat the matter as if prophet Mohammed is “weak” and we have the necessary power to defend him.
It is also important to take into consideration that Western societies are not obsessed with religion, or controlled by the clergy, like what average Muslim citizens in Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt or Morocco would think. This is absolutely not true.
True religious “lobbies”, whether Christian or Jewish, are very active in the West, but they mainly use religion to serve political ends, and thus, have nothing to do with faith. While some Christian groups use religion to attack the “other”, like Pastor Terry Jones who wanted to burn the Quran, many others respect and venerate all religions, including Islam. The same applies to Jewish sects and groups where one finds ultra-zealot Zionists, who may not be all religious, but also finds deeply religious groups like the Satmar and Neturei Karta, the two peaceful Jewish movements that reject Zionism. It is also not possible to compare the tolerance with which Mahatma Gandhi was known with extremist nationalist Hindus like Nathuram Godse who assassinated him.
There is, indeed, a huge difference between “religious piety” and “extremism”, and I believe that the reaction to the American film and the French cartoon is a manifestation of the second rather than the first. For this very reason, I think it is much easier to deal with this phenomenon whether politically or judicially.
We first need to realize that both the action and the reaction can be interpreted through focusing on two main points. First, some extreme-right groups have a clear political agenda that revolves around inciting ethnic and sectarian hatred under the pretext of freedom of expression. Second, some groups in the Muslim world, both Sunni and Shiite, have found in the provocation an excellent opportunity to ride the wave of popular anger and frustration that have for long been brewing under repressive and bullying powers on both the domestic and the international levels.
In Western democracies, freedom of expression is a right guaranteed and enshrined the laws and protected by constitutions, but inciting hatred and instigating violence in a way that jeopardizes security and threatens public welfare is another story. Laws that deal with slander and disruption of public order can be used to deal with such actions, especially, that they are pure acts of aggression that have nothing to do with freedom of expression. Islamic institutions can resort to such laws to file lawsuits against the perpetrators of this chaos. Political lobbying can also be very helpful too in making Western governments expand the definition of racism to include deriding other people’s faiths.
As for our Muslim world, the problem lies in our perception of human rights. True religion has a special place for us, and the popularity Islamists enjoy in the political scene is the ultimate proof; but we also need to demonstrate that we truly abide by God’s laws through respecting the rights of human beings God has created. We need to realize that killing people and wreaking havoc is a flagrant violation of religious principles.
We cannot rise to defend the Prophet, like several political factions across the Arab world are doing at the moment, while finding excuses for, and sometimes even supporting, those who kill tens of thousands of innocent Muslims.
Malignant racist agendas and brazen political manipulations are involved here, and there is no way of taking a deterrent action against both except through awareness and rational accountability.
The writer is a columnist at Asharq al-Awsat where this article was first published on Sept. 24, 2012