By Muhammad Bari
It has been just one week since the 11th anniversary of the September 11th tragedy. Already at least seven people have been killed and scores more injured or arrested during protests against an anti-Muslim film which has gone viral on the internet.
‘The Innocence of Muslims’ was released, it seems, by a Coptic individual in the USA with links to a number of so-called ‘counter-jihadist’ (anti-Islamic) figures, making use of facilities provided by a right-wing Christian organisation.
That any loss of life should occur over what is a disgraceful piece of hate speech is sad enough. That others, including extremists in both the US and some faith communities, should be seeking to fan the flames of those hate is even worse.
During the past week protests against the ‘Prophet video’ have spread across the Middle East. The protest in the Libyan city of Benghazi against Innocence of Muslims turned into a death trap for the US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues on September 11th. This tragic loss of life is a dark spot on the world of diplomatic sanctity. The US embassies in the Egyptian capital Cairo, and elsewhere in places like Tunis, Sana’a and even consulates in Western cities, have come under sustained protests from angry mobs, some of whom have burned US flags and attempted to storm properties.
Emotion is running high. Anti-American anger may jeopardise the sensitive and volatile relationship between America and the newly-emerging democracies in the Arab world, birthed with such difficulty during the Arab Spring.
Thwarting this progress may be one of the objectives of those behind the ‘Innocence of Muslims’. Produced and promoted by a strange collection of right-wing Christian evangelicals, counter-jihadists and (apparently) an Egyptian Copt with convictions for fraud, the film seemed to be created with the intention of both destabilising post-Mubarak Egypt and roiling the US presidential election. One consultant for the film said: "We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen."
Egypt’s post-revolution President Mursi is well aware of the dangers. During a joint press conference with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, Mursi said he would do all he can to prevent any further attacks on diplomatic missions in Egypt. But he also said: “We condemn very strongly all those who launch such provocations and who stand behind that hatred.”
Protecting diplomats is a history-old international norm; it cannot be violated under any circumstances, otherwise we open the floodgates to reprisal attacks anywhere in the world, on any nation’s embassies. While the world is nervously waiting to see how the obscenity from these propagandists affects the Middle East and the wider Muslim ummah, the bigots who supported the film in counter-jihadist networks and the agent provocateurs in the Arab capitals may have different game plans. It is vital leaders of these countries try to understand the gravity of the situation and bring sanity to any political discourse.
One thing is for sure: the film has nothing to do with free speech. It is an issue of hate speech. The Innocence of Muslims was promoted in time for the 9/11 anniversary and, however poorly made, has a political and ideological motive: it was designed to provoke a reaction. As religion editor Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog suggested: “It's a really nasty piece of lying propaganda: something which deserves to be called hate speech, since hatred is its wellspring and the propagation of hatred is its goal. It is – obviously – blasphemous to Muslims.”
Even the fact that it was claimed, at first, that the film-maker was Israeli-American and “had the backing of over 100 Jewish donors” was clearly intended to needle the Muslim population (many of whom may not even have watched the film). The film makers probably want to see perpetual division and enmity exist between Muslims and the West. There are others who have dubbed the film into Arabic who must examine their conscience about expanding this ‘clash of nations’ narrative.
There are also geo-political reasons for the recent violence – long-enmity to the West, economic and social unrest, and agent provocateurs in the Muslim world who are trying to destablise the new Arab leadership. Muddying the water may be these provocateurs’ main game, using the film is just a catalyst for their violence.
Ordinary citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are caught between these extremes and left shocked by the sudden outpouring of violence, dousing for many what had been the hope of the Arab Spring.
Many Muslims are genuinely incensed by the ‘Innocence of Muslims’: they see it as blatant attack on their beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and as part of a series of ‘attacks’ and hatred for their religious sanctity they see as coming from the US. The sickening memory of Floridian pastor, Terry Jones, burning the Qur’an and US soldiers mass-urinating on Islam’s holy book is still fresh. Many Muslims are angry, frustrated, and some would be influenced by these agent provocateurs on both sides. Others lose hope for any kind of peaceful reconciliation or understanding between themselves and those in America.
Those of us living within non-Muslim societies also know that many of our fellow citizens are genuinely perplexed why Muslims seem so sensitive to the denigration of their Prophet. ‘Why the anger?’ I am sure the bigots behind this film knew about Islam and Muslims’ deep love for the Prophet before its production. They must have come across verses from the Qur’an and traditions from the Prophet (hadith) that clearly tell of the need for deepest love for the Prophet as a pre-condition for being Muslim. “The Prophet is nearer to the faithful than they themselves, and his wives are their mothers”, says Al-Qur’an, verse 6, chapter 33. Muslims do not worship their Prophet, but love of the Prophet is a primary requirement in Islam, not secondary. Muslims can tolerate criticism of Islam or even demonisation of God, but not the vilification of their Prophet and his household. Imagine desecrating the Stars and Stripes, which is held in high-esteem by many Americans. Vilifying the Prophet is worse than that to Muslims – it hits a raw nerve.
That does not mean that Muslims should react violently to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film. The Prophet himself demonstrated how to be dignified in response to any provocation, however sadistic it might have been. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Muslims do keep away from violence, even if their hearts are torn by deliberate denigration of their Prophet. Britain’s largest Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, has called on all parties to halt violence. Unfortunately, it is the hotheads and useful idiots, those who act only from heart and not from head, who fall prey to the agent provocateurs.
This will be a testing time for Muslim leaders, as well as for the Obama administration in the United States. Muslim leaders have a colossal task in drawing a line between peaceful protests and violent anarchy; they must defend the sanctity of diplomatic missions in their own capitals. Nothing is more important now than protecting members of the international diplomatic corps. On the other hand, political leadership in the US must find some way to rein in their growing number of anti-Muslim bigots in their own country – free speech notwithstanding – from further stirring the pot, and trying to create global mayhem.
The stage is set for turbulent times; all leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, must encourage discourse and strive for the conditions to bring about peace.
Voice for Justice World Forum member Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the former secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (Telco) and currently chairman of the East London Mosque Trust.
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