Blasphemy: Time for Muslim soul searching

Much of the scandalous consequences are attributable to an active history of hostility between the West and the Islam.

Muslims need soul-searching about their response to blasphemy so do those who think they belong to this chimeric construction called "the West" assure themselves they are civilised, and repress their nasty colonial history [EPA]

Now that the public protest, violent or otherwise, in response to the recent cases of blasphemy against Islam have by and large subsided, and the world is distracted by other atrocities, Muslims need to sit down for a moment and ask themselves some serious questions before yet another lunatic or career opportunist in Europe or a charlatan loser in the US comes out and says “jump” and Muslims around the world fume “how high?”   

The scenes are exceedingly unseemly and unbecoming of a world on the cusp of reimagining itself for its posterity.

The cases of the movie clip The Innocence of Muslims (2012) and before that the late Theo van Gogh’s Submission (2004), based on a script by the notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s plagiarised script, and before that the Danish cartoons ridiculing Prophet Muhammad, and before that the Salman Rushdie affair over the publication of his Satanic Verses (1988) and many other similar incidents all come together to raise the question of “blasphemy” among Muslims today.    

Why so much fury over so little substance? Whence such a thin skin in a world so thick with atrocities? The question is of paramount concern to all Muslims, and no cleric, no imam, no ayatollah, no self-appointed “religious authority”, and certainly no chimerical construction called “religious intellectuals” – some of them now actively confusing the halls of the university with the pulpits of the mosques (giving testimony to Max Weber’s premonition of calling them “academic prophets”) – is in an exclusive position to define what “blasphemy” is or to presume to speak as if Prophet Muhammad would on current subjects!   

The singer not the song  

Much of the heated and at times violent reactions to these depictions of Prophet Muhammad and/or insults to the Holy Quran have had to do with the European and North American origins of these productions. Although Ayaan Hirsi Ali and before her Salman Rushdie were Muslims (though of the kind that think themselves to be “secular” and “ex-Muslim”, and such, as they say), but the country in which they had initiated their deliberately and consciously insulting acts were in the domain of what Muslims are wont of calling “the West”.  

Much of the scandalous consequences of their act were thus attributable to an active history of hostility between this “West” and the “Islam” that has emerged in historic conversation and contestation with it. “The West”, so the story went, was actively hostile to “Islam” and here was an example of it. Such acts of blasphemy were initiated in “the West”, in the languages of the West (Dutch, Danish, or English, French, etc.) – though their perpetrators were at least nominally (ex)-Muslims. 

Though an old and dying cliché, this binary between “Islam and the West” held certain sway when it was applied to the respective controversies. Even today, I respectfully differ with the distinguished New York Times columnist Roger Cohen (whom I hold in the highest esteem) who in a recent column about the Muslim response to what they consider to be blasphemous to their sacrosanct beliefs approvingly cites Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, for having said: “We’re a newspaper that respects French law. Now, if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we’re not going to bother ourselves with respecting it.” 

The question that both Roger Cohen and Gérard Biard need kindly to consider is the fact that not just the French, but European imperialism in general, and not just the Europeans, but American militarism par excellence are in the habit of disregarding not just what laws in Kabul and Riyadh, but Muslims in general think when they launch military conquests against them.

Where exactly was this “French law” when the French (along with other Europeans and Americans) crossed their borders and went to Asia, Africa and Latin America maiming and murdering people and plundering their wealth? Was that “law” for or against those world historic criminal acts? Were the French respecting the French law or disregarding it when they invited themselves to places like “Kabul and Riyadh”?

The fact is that the French (and by extension Europeans and North Americans) have long since forfeited their right to their “national” polity, “national” identity, “national” economy, “national” sovereignty, or in fact just about “national” anything, the instant they got on their ships and airplanes and crossed over into Asia, Africa, or Latin America for imperial domination, economic exploitation, or colonial conquest – of all of which Israel is now the shining example.

So alas, “if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh” has everything to do with the French cartoonists and American filmmakers and their nasty and vicious colonial history and imperial adventurism even today. You cannot cross over your national boundaries to plunder the globe one day and the next day suddenly remember that you have a “national border” and polity and law and culture that you must observe against those savages who were good enough to plunder and now must be abandoned to their own barbarian devices. That short-term memory conducive to a vast political hypocrisy won’t do.

So this business of “our” European identity, or French culture, or Western civilisation and your “barbarian ways” does not really wash against the grain of very recent and nasty history that “the West” might wish to forget but the world does not. The Europeans and Americans (at least to themselves) have a lot to explain – and there is scarce anything more ridiculous than a French cartoonist saying he is French and observes only the French law. An apt and proportionate African, or Asian, or Latin American response to that obscenity will not pass the rules of polite etiquettes observed by my Al Jazeera editor.

But enough of that nasty history

But this is only so far as any false claim that “the West” has this superior moral or legal order of tolerance and free speech is concerned. As much as Muslims need soul-searching about their response to blasphemy so do those who think they belong to this chimeric construction called “the West”, assure themselves they are civilised and repress their nasty colonial history. 

Our task however can no longer be limited to finding fault or exposing the supreme hypocrisy of “the West”. The point is the moral and imaginative health of the world at large, and in this case Muslim in particular, as they set out to revamp the moral map of their future – in the making of which this illusory supposition called “the West” can no longer have any place, for it does not exist.

Our task is to rethink the public space in which we as Arabs or Iranians or Afghans or Muslims ought to live for our collective sanity. Towards that task we may ask ourselves the reaction to an Iranian rapper named Shahin Najafi. According to the Guardian:

An Iranian rapper has become “the Salman Rushdie of music” after clerics in the Islamic republic issued fatwas calling him an apostate, which is considered punishable by death under the country’s sharia law.

Shahin Najafi, a Germany-based Iranian singer, recently released a song with references to Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi, the 10th of the 12 Shia Muslim imams, a religious figure highly respected by millions in Iran.

The Germany-based, Najafi’s song was not in German or any other European language, but was in Persian, specifically for his vast fan-base in and out of Iran. Why a fatwa against him? Or even beyond the limited circle of the Shia clerics, the choral outcry of these “religious intellectuals” because they thought a Shia imam had been insulted?

Let’s now look at a Bahraini blogger. According to Gulfnews:

A Bahraini blogger accused of posting abusive remarks targeting Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), has been remanded in custody for another 45 days.

The defendant, 19, was arrested last week for posting the “highly negative comments” in a forum … The defendant admitted the charges, saying that his attitude was in retaliation to alleged insults by online users to Shiite figures …

“The competent authorities should apply the maximum penalty against him to ensure there is no repeat of attacks on the Prophet or his family or companions,” Khalid Al Malood, a lawmaker in the lower chamber, said. “We need to ensure that our society is genuinely protected from any form of sedition and this can be done by carrying out the maximum penalty,” he said.

Al Asala, the exclusive expression of Salafism in Bahrain, last month introduced a bill that stipulates the death penalty or life in prison for anyone found guilty of insulting God or abusing the Prophet, his wife Aisha, or his companions.    

This case is even more integral to the sectarian clashes entirely domestic to Islam and Muslims – has absolutely nothing to with “the West” or any design it may have to humiliate Muslims.  

The same source, the Gulfnews, also reports:

In neighbouring Kuwait on June 4, Hamad Al Naqi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for posting remarks that were deemed blasphemous. 

The 26-year-old Kuwaiti was found guilty of harming Kuwait’s interests with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, two fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. 

The charges were based on a number of tweets made from his account, but Al Naqi said that it had been hacked. 

Kuwait’s parliament, dominated by tribesmen and Islamists, has passed a bill stipulating the death penalty for insulting God or the Prophet. However, the bill, which needs to be endorsed by the Emir before it can be implemented, has been returned to the lawmakers. 

Death penalty for a tweet about the Prophet – really? Why? Again, this Kuwaiti case has absolutely nothing to do with a Danish cartoonist or a Hollywood film clip? Financial Times had also reported that


 Inside Story – Anti-Islam video: A test for
Arab leaders

Kuwait’s parliament approved a law that calls for the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and relatives, in a sign of the growing sway of Islamists who triumphed in elections this year.

And what does it exactly mean this is the case because the Islamists have won the election? Who exactly are these “Islamists?” Are all Muslim Islamists? Who said so – and by what authority? All these terms – “Islamists”, “Jihadists”, “Muslim moderates” – they camouflage more than they clear our reading of the matter. 

The cases are numerous. According to BBC:

No evidence has been found against a Christian girl accused of blasphemy by burning pages of the Quran, police have told a court in Pakistan. 

A police official told the court in the capital Islamabad that there were indications that a cleric at a nearby mosque had tampered with the evidence.

The girl – known as Rimsha – was detained on blasphemy charges in July and has since been granted bail.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been criticised for being open to misuse.

Critics of the laws say it is often used to target minorities. 

What about the Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, or any other non-Muslims living in our societies? Do they not have civil liberties that include freedom of expression, however some such expressions we might find offensive? Are our future societies to be made entirely of Muslims, of Sunni Muslims, of the Salafi sort – as they call themselves?  

Aren’t Copts Egyptians – and are they not entitled to their civil liberties? According to reports

The trial opened on Wednesday of an Egyptian Copt accused of blasphemy after posting on the Internet an anti-Islam video that sparked violent protests worldwide, an AFP reporter said.

Albert Saber, 27, was arrested at his home in Cairo on September 13 after neighbors alerted authorities that he had posted clips from “Innocence of Muslims” on social networking sites.

Muslims have never been the passive recipients of how varied imperial projects coming their way have manufactured their religion for them – these days ranging from “Jihadist” to “Moderate” – both identically inane and delusional. But Muslims have been at the receiving end of the self-constitution of “the West” as the principal interlocutor of everything else that happens in the world. But no more.

Muslims, as Muslims, are now liberated from that chimeric construction called “the West” and all its hegemonic transmutations and can re-imagine their faith collectively and on their liberated public spaces. The key question in meeting that challenge is the constitution of a public space in which all Muslims and not just the so called Islamists or the clerical class have a say in the making of a far more democratic spirit and a far more tolerant disposition and above all a far thicker skin to face up to the changes of a vastly evolving universe. 

“Tolerance” here does not mean a passive recipient of any insult that is hurtled your way, or a “turning of the other cheek” that the bloody history of the crusades from? Godfrey of Bouillon and after to George Bush and beyond categorically belies, but a more principled and purposeful transmutation of legitimate anger into public reason to reassert Muslim agency in history. In the formation of that vast and expansive public space we articulate our civil liberties against domestic and foreign abuse alike. 

Not all Muslims are what European and North American media calls “Islamists” – whatever it is they mean by that chimeric construction – nor these “Islamists”, whoever they are, have a total or exclusive claim on the ancestral faith of 1.3 billion human beings.

We as Muslims, all of us – and no clerical order or “religious intellectual” (as they call themselves) has the right to represent us – must collectively escort our sanctities into our public domains, breathe in them the fragility and the fallibility of our worldly existence, let them learn of the banalities we live, and let them learn the language of the indignities we experience, and thus let them learn how to teach us the intuition of the sacred we need to face up to this world.

They will not be diminished by this worldly existence – they will have a new rendezvous with our history on that twilight zone of sanctity and profanity, assuredness and uncertainty.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His forthcoming book Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body is scheduled for publication in October.