A recent YouTube clip produced by a man in California insulting the Prophet Muhammad created waves of protest across the Muslim World directed at US missions. In Benghazi, Libya, the US ambassador and three of his colleagues were killed during an attack on the US consulate, while in a number of other countries protesters attacked and demonstrated outside US embassies and consulates.
For some background on why some Muslims have protested we spoke to Dr Moataz al-Khateeb, a producer for “Sharia and Life”, an Al Jazeera Arabic programme. The Syria-born Islamic scholar is also a professor and author of numerous Arabic-language publications on Islamic thought.
Why are some Muslims so angry over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad?
All the prophets – Muhammad, Jesus Moses and others [of the Abrahamic religions] – are highly respected figures in the Islamic faith. One cannot differentiate between them in terms of the reverence that should be given to each. Therefore Muslims believe that the prophets have a higher status than other people. To ridicule them or their lives is an insult to the origin of their faith, and therefore any abuse to them is abuse of Muslims in general.
Why does the Quran, which Muslims regard as the continuation of the Jewish and Christian holy books that came before it, consider depictions of the prophets to be blasphemous while the other religions do not?
Depictions of the prophets is not blasphemous in Islam, And the problem is not depicting the Prophet, but rather the abuse of him. The Quran does not ban depiction of the prophets; it makes no mention of this point. But Islamic scholars have forbidden the depiction of the prophets out of respect to them. There is no person who is able to render the values and full form of the prophets. Muslims believe in higher unseen principles that cannot be personified as ordinary humans.
Are the only Muslims angry over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad only Salafist groups or other conservatives?
Such abuse of the Prophet Muhammad and all prophets enrages Muslims everywhere around the world because it is an attack on their beliefs, and an abuse of a highly respected figure of their religion.
Are the cartoons and videos depicting the Prophet Muhammad not just examples of individuals or publications practising freedom of speech in their respective countries?
Muslims cannot perceive these acts as merely “freedom of expression,” because there is a difference between freedom of expression and these actions. The former is holding an opinion or idea, while the latter is seen as abuse and ridicule.
Is there a political element to these protests?
We have to differentiate between the anger and abuse that Muslims feel towards insults against their beliefs and the reaction that we’re seeing today in the form of protest, some of which could be considered politically motivated.
Some parties are exploiting the anger for political or non-political purposes. For example, Hassan Nasrallah called for protests in Lebanon to improve his image that was suffering over his support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
And in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, there are those who are seeking to destabilise the current governments by attacking the embassies of foreign governments. There are some opponents of the government seeking to make it fail and strain its relations with the United States.
Why are some religious leaders in the Muslim community encouraging protest?
All scholars condemn the violent protest but they express their ideas of how to show their objection differently. Some of them encourage peaceful protest, while others think that issuing statements is enough, and others prefer to guide people to follow the Prophet’s way of life and others prefer to clarify and explain the Prophet’s teaching to western society.