By Abdul Basit
The recent outrage in the Muslim world against the anti-Islamic video presents a challenge and opportunity for leaders of the Muslim world simultaneously. The challenge is to review and revise treatment of non-Muslim communities within the Muslim world. The opportunity is to actively engage with the West to enhance understanding of Islam’s peaceful message. Criminalizing blasphemy or putting curbs on freedom of speech will not block such insolent acts but a better understanding and tolerance of each others’ religious beliefs will.
The eruption of violent protests throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia over an amateurish 14-minute long video The Innocence of Muslims posted on You Tube, poking fun at the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him), started on 11 September this year. Though, the video was posted on internet in July but it became viral on internet when a television network in Egypt translated and broadcast it in the Arabic language. Ever since the protests across the Muslim world have left more than 30 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others US citizens, dead and over 200 injured.
This is not for the first time that Islam or its Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) has been mocked or criticized and the Muslim world has responded with outrage. In the retrospect list of such criticism includes The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie (1989), the Bangladeshi author Tasleem Nasreen’s Broken Temple (1994), publication of Prophet’s (PBUH) caricatures in a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (2005) and burning of the Holy Quran by a Floridian pastor Terry Jones (2010).
What is different about the current wave of protests?
In the past responses to such insolent acts have been in the forms of demands from the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and other Muslim states to criminalize blasphemy and put curbs on freedom of expression to prevent their occurrence. However, compared to previous episodes of violent protests the current wave of protests is different due to the presence of terrorist elements like al-Qaeda and its allied groups among the Muslim ranks.
This situation simultaneously presents the Muslim world with a challenge and opportunity. The challenge lies in isolating the terrorist networks from gaining sympathies of the Muslim masses on such sensitive religious issues and hijacking their opinion as well as to revisit their own treatment of other religious minorities. The opportunity lies in working with the West to enhance a better understanding of each other’s belief systems.
Time for Some Introspection for the Muslim world
To begin with, the misdirected anger and sweeping generalizations towards the U.S, in particular, and the West, in general, for this insolent acts is unfortunate. The way Muslim world expects and demands the U.S. and West not to judge all the Muslims for what a bunch of Al-Qaeda militants of the Taliban do; the Muslims should also understand the acts of few hate mongers, religious bigots and Islamophobes in the West do not represent the whole of the U.S. or the West.
At the same time, the Muslim countries need to revisit their own treatments of other religious minorities and minority Islamic sects. They should understand for the Buddhists the bombing of Budha’s statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan in 2001 was as distressing and disrespectful as are the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) published by a French Magazine Charlie Hebdo or Nikoula Bacceli Nikoul’s condemnable movie. The way Christian and Hindu communities are treated in Pakistan or the Coptic Christian in Egypt should also undergo a revisit.
In Pakistan for the fear of forceful conversion and coercion of Hindu girls to marry Muslim men, Pakistan’s Hindu community from Sindh and Balochistan provinces has been constantly migrating to India. Of 4.2 million Hindus living in Pakistan more than 10,000 (1,600 families) have left the country in last two years. The Pakistani Christians also live under a constant fear of persecution with the sword of blasphemy laws always hanging over their heads .By law the Ahmadi community in Pakistan is not allowed to build their worship places in the cities or publically preach their beliefs. The apathy and indifference of the Pakistani state towards ruthless massacre of the ethnic Hazara and Ismaili Shiite communities in Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan is also appalling.
In Saudi Arabia the state of religious freedom does not inspire much hope. Saudi Arabia forbids the practice of any other religion than Islam on its soil. Followers of other religions are allowed to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes.
Secondly, the emotionally charged violent reactions from the Muslim masses ready to burn and ransack their own properties and kill their coreligionists for what one individual or a group of individual has done also needs to be looked at. There are no two opinions that the protest demonstrations against the blasphemous film and its creators are justified and rightful.
Why is it that every time something of such sort happen the Muslim world turns violent? Why the protesters turn into mobsters? The frequent recourse to violence exposes the absence, lack or weakness of leadership in the Muslim world. A case in point is, the reckless and highly condemnable statement of Pakistan’s Railway Minister Bashir Ahmed Balour announcing a bounty of $ 10,000 for any one killing the producer of the anti-Islamic film and appealing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to help in this matter.
Thirdly, it is also alarming to witness the dubious presence of Al-Qaeda elements in these protests. The attack on the American embassy in Libya was not the work of ordinary masses. It was a signature terrorist attack carried out by an Al-Qaeda affiliated group Ansar Al-Sharia. The narrative generated in the West about the Muslim world is derived from acts of Al-Qaeda or the Talban. The blame of such a distorted version of Islam in Europe and the U.S rests less with them and more with the Islamic scholars, leaders and intelligentsia. The Muslim scholars have not only failed in presenting the peaceful case of Islam to the West in a convincing manner but they also have not built enough counter-narratives which may discredit what Al-Qaeda or the Taliban do in the name of Islam.
If one looks at the recent literature produced on contemporary Islam, the works of various non-Muslim scholars like John Esposito, Karen Arm Strong, John Fuller et al. have presented the case of Islam to the West in much better and convincing manner than the Muslim scholars who are more pre-occupied with trivial issues.
From Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to Nikoula’s The Innocence of Muslims patterns of Muslim world’s emotional behavior towards the blasphemy of their region nothing has changed. Instead of reacting violently to such insolent acts the endevaours enhance a better understanding Islam’s peaceful message and true in the West will be more appropriate. In this regard, Qatar’s announcement of investing US $450 million in a three-part epic highlighting the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is encouraging.