If killing were a solution, human beings would today be living in a dull planet – univocal, monocultural, monochromatic and devoid of diversity.
In such a world brimming with the brightness of endless diversity, difference is not a failing. Failing is to lack toleration towards fellow human beings, theistic and non-theistic alike.
Killing, disparaging or censoring differences once again challenges Western-Muslim relations and tolerant behaviour in our world.
What is wrong with September?
Once again, ugliness rears its head in September. Anti-Islam films, cartoons, killings, protests and violence stamped the month of September with tension, intolerance and hubris, staining it with blood. Libyan friends who knew the murdered US Ambassador Chris Stevens killed by the mob that stormed the US mission in Benghazi were saddened by his death and credit him with a great input in helping Libya’s democratic reconstruction.
The mob that killed him may be incensed by the video, made by an amateur filmmaker of Egyptian origin, Muslims deem to be blasphemous to Prophet Muhammad. Killing Stevens, which may not have anything to do with the video given the timing of the killing more or less coinciding with 9/11, or the burning of a school near the US embassy in Tunis or the attempt to mob Cairo’s American embassy solve nothing of the issues at hand.
|Clues behind the filmmaker of the anti-Islam video|
The problem lies not with September! Just as the solution lies not in spilling the blood of innocents, and poisoning inter-religion relations or Muslim and Arab relations with the US and the Western world.
The problems go deeper.
On the Muslim side
Muslims – and I am one – are theoretically equipped to embrace, celebrate and practise toleration: Compulsion (ikrah) is a religious aversion. And in the Noble Book, the Quran, human beings are commanded to surrender to faith and, to that end, seek knowledge accordingly to solidify belief. However, the Quran grants the choice of belief and disbelief to all.
Moreover, killing is not the way of Islam unless faith, progeny, property, territory and dignity are physically threatened, requiring self-defence. In Islam, killing is juridical, not different from the conduct of rule of law in Western courts such as in the US: “By way of justice” declares the Noble Book.
Islam is not alone in its claim for universalism through which it valourises equality before the law of all humans – even if the practical record of this in modern times does not marshal supportive evidence to be proud of under all kinds of jingoistic and chauvinistic brands of rule. Establishment of justice is one constant in the sayings and deeds of the Prophet of Islam, who was villified in that video, threatening a return of Muslim-Western relational hubris.
Moreover, Islam forbids the excesses of vengeance and retaliation; it even leaves open the opportunity for forgiveness for those who have the lightness and wisdom of granting it.
More importantly, for critical reflection on the insanity to kill all things American or Western these days, Islam does not anywhere in the Quran ordain either unjust killing (outside juridical frameworks or outside the battlefield, which is also governed by discriminatory rules of killing excluding civilians, fauna and flora), or killing Christians or Jews.
The verse “The infidels are your morbid/sworn enemies” (4:101) must be read contextually. The infidels are the non-believers who engaged the emerging new religion preached by the Prophet through violence, exclusion and persecution. Nowhere has it said “The Christians and Jews are your sworn enemies”. They are accorded a special place as “peoples of the book” (ahlu al-kitab). Differences of opinion, clash of interests and disagreements 1,400 years ago created tensions and animosities – in Mecca and Medina as it did in the known world at the time. In Medina but also in Mecca, the Prophet shines out as a model for inter-religious dialogue and rapprochement.
Finally, the Quran reminds and commands Muslims to heed one important fact: God is the only judge.
Killing Americans or Westerners, the producer of the amateurish video that insults the Prophet or the French cartoonist from Charlie Hebdo, would not be ordained by the Prophet himself. It is not the way of Islam.
Poets and sensibilities
Imagine the state of the medieval library in Arabic if many of its luminaries were killed. They excelled in satire, humour and wrote beautiful verse about everything, including the forbidden. Many of us may disagree with the content of Abu Nuwas’ poetry, who writes about all kinds of matters, many of which go against Islamic sensibilities, including drinking alcohol. The drunkard Abu Nuwas (756-814), one of the greats of classical Arabic poetry, realised like ordinary believers that repentance opens up doors for reconciling with God: “O my God, if the graveness of my sins increase, then I know that your magnanimity is far greater.”
|Anti-Islam video sparks debate on censorship|
All Arabs and Muslims look back to the glory of Andalusia and its lush cities and advancement with pride. The Moorish Ibn Zaydun (1003-1071) and the Umayyad princess, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1001-1091), were inseparable by-products of such greatness and the urban culture that emerged in cities such as Cordoba. The verse of the era, including Ibn Zaydun’s, mirrored that creativity even if elements in it were injurious to Islamic morality. Can that brand of culture be disowned simply because it went against religious sensibilities?
Poetry never threatened or diminished the Quran or Islam, and it emerged eventually as a medium for glorifying the great Prophet of Islam just as Hellenic philosophy was adopted to defend faith by the great minds of Islam from Al-Farabi to Averroes.
What about Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, the Syrian great poet (973-1058) whose epistle of repentance (Risalat al-Ghufran) may easily be deemed blasphemous. His divine comedy took him to paradise to meet friends and companions from his past, including like-minded sceptical poets; yet his faith in God’s forgiveness provides twists in his epistle for him to reconcile with God.
Maybe there is a problem with the way the Arab and Muslims’ worlds have lost philosophy, sophisticated knowledge-making, self-criticism and satire today; it neither knows how to defend Islam, which is not in need of defence as it possesses within its Godly paradigm the means of self-regeneration, nor respond to irreverent provocations calmly and through sophisticated art, prose, journalism and philosophical disputations.
No defence needed
Islam remains the fastest growing religion, and every time the Prophet is denigrated more curious human beings acquire copies of the Quran to read and some even convert to Islam. Neither the anti-Islam cartoons nor the recent video fail to injure the Prophet. Maybe they injure Muslim pride downsized by its inability to invent the sophistication needed to defend its values and beliefs. As for the injurious productions intermittently coming from various parts of the Western world, its offence and ugliness do not describe the target at the receiving end, including the persona of Prophet Muhammad; they describe ugliness inside the heads of individuals who are their progenitors.
Keen-jerk reactions as happened more than 20 years ago with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and today with the work of inconspicuous individuals – whilst fully understandable – do not behove self-appointed representatives of Islam to misrepresent a faith that does not ordain killing, destruction or retaliation. Plus, there are mightier ways of defending Islam, and the “sword” should not be one of them. The Prophet’s stature does not diminish with disparaging cartoons or films. In fact, they tend to do the opposite: Reinforce Muslim attachment to God’s messenger.
Low and cheap cultural products should be neither barometer for measuring the greatness of the Prophet of Islam nor should they affect the moods of a billion strong global community of which small pockets seem to know only how to cry wolf, and even smaller groups seem to find in killing, burning or wreaking havoc the only response to undignified desecration of Islamic symbols, recurrent sacrilege, and irreverent expression of speech, taken to be sacred in the West even when offensive.
Silencing is not the way of Islam: Muslims live in a world of theistic and non-theistic outlooks, fashion design, nudity, obscenity, perversity, material cultures, hubris, ethnocentrism and Islamophobia. Evolution, Michael Angelo, Mozart, Newton, the Mona Lisa, Venus, agnostic culture, non-theism, alcoholism, cartoons, satire, gay marriages cannot be erased. They form part and parcel of the cultural package that goes with the territory of Westernism. Muslims benefit from some of the brilliance produced by the Western world ranging from medicine to airplanes.
Maybe the failing of Muslims lies not in what others do or do not. Rather, it may lie in what Muslims should do and still cannot do: Free speech, world-class cinema, uncensored expression, and sophisticated centres of learning. There has been a debate in Saudi Arabia about the recent blasphemy to the Prophet, and one suggested solution was to make a film on the Prophet: Many realised that there was no film industry in the first place. Those in charge of defining religious dogmas banned filmmaking!
Thus Muslims might take to new heights the Prophetic ethos of engaging the non-Muslim “other” through dialogue and good will, and seeking learning. It has been nearly six centuries since Muslims ceased to contribute to science and human knowledge. Their forebears knew how to innovate, expand, defend, compete and be taken seriously. Through cross-fertilisation and exchange with other civilisations, they produced brilliance in algebra, algorithms and alkalis without which modern science would today be limited. There is no eloquence greater than that of brilliance as a medium of self-defence and defence of Islam.
|US buys ads in Pakistan to counter anti-Islam video|
The Prophet is above the mediocrity of a cartoon or a film. He is eternally grand and wholesome. The films and the cartoons speak to the weak part of some Muslims and Muslim groups who do not possess much in the way of stopping or handling intelligently cases of irreverent vilification or defending themselves.
Western double standards
Maybe not everywhere in the Western world, but nonetheless juggling of moral double standards reveals incoherence.
This is what I meant by reference to Muslim ineptitude to defend their faith and their revered Prophet, Holy Book and traditions. Note how racism, sexism and anti-Semitism are too sacralised to be tolerated as items or matters of free expression, itself a sacrosanct article of faith in Western societies. They are rightly offences which carry legal consequences for those guilty of them.
What if, hypothetically, the ban on injurious treatment, expression and attitude against Semitic people, often narrowly understood as against Jews, is extended to include irreverence against Islam!? What would it take for this to be routinised as universal political incorrectness!?
By and large, there is no ban in the West on free expression that may blaspheme Jesus Christ. Mel Gibson, Madonna and Lady Gaga are amongst the icons who have in the past been accused, through their respective art, to have produced anti-Christ-irreverence. In the West, too, people get offended and they protest when Jesus Christ is ridiculed and treated with irreverence.
However, what is it that has enabled Jews to invent a device as powerful as anti-Semitism to ban injury against their dignity and identity that we Muslims have yet to grasp? There are hundreds of journalists and editors who would exercise self-censorship and refrain from publishing injurious material against Jewishness and Jews.
There is a puzzle and a challenge for Muslims to ponder so that, given their collective numerical size and wealth, they may work to put in place a similar device to stop injury to the Prophet. Laws that protect humanity against injurious attitude and ridicule are adopted everywhere such as minimisation of the Holocaust.
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).