By Arab News
By Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed
IN 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini provoked religious confrontation when he issued a fatwa (religious edict) to kill a British novelist of Indian origin whom nobody had previously heard of. Up until then, Salman Rushdie’s novel entitled “The Satanic Verses” was virtually unknown. Immediately after the fatwa was issued, the novel became a bestseller, bringing millions of dollars to the author who became a star overnight. Rushdie had written three books prior to the publication of Satanic Verses but none saw the fame that the latter enjoyed. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi joined the wave of condemnation when he saw that the fatwa to kill Rushdie and to avenge the slander of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) might win him more popularity in his own country and abroad.
A series of events and confrontations ensued over the years. Amongst others, these included the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet five years ago. Then there was the row over an anti-Islam film produced in Holland. Another incident that provoked Muslim sentiment was the burning of the copies of the Holy Qur’an in Florida.
Yet the anti-Islam film recently produced in the United States, “Innocence of Muslims,” has more a perilous potential.
First, the producer is an Egyptian of Coptic Christian faith. The film has been produced at a time where the possibility of sectarian war between the Muslims and the Copts of Egypt is no longer a distant cry. The film also coincided with the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” era that the Americans, under attack now, believed would strengthen communication between the new regimes and their government unlike the totalitarian regimes before them.
Whoever believes that religious or cultural confrontation will stop in the coming decades is mistaken. On the contrary, these confrontations may snowball not because of the rise in the number of people who despise religion but due to the rapid increase of modes of communication and the rise in the number of religious activists on both sides.
For instance, a few weeks back, a film about the history of Islam — which was worse than the shabby YouTube production that created all this havoc — was aired. The film alleges that Islam and the Qur’an were only known after 100 years of the Arab occupation of the Middle East. The film did not generate much of a following because it was not aired on YouTube. There had also been an equally bad American film which, much unlike “Innocence of Muslims,” was produced using sophisticated technology but which also generated little hype because it was aired away from the public radar and political focus.
Yet anti-religious campaigns are not limited to Muslims alone. Jews, Christians and Hindus also experience their fair share of battles against hostile literary works. The only difference is that Muslims are plagued by the presence of fanatic and armed organizations such as Al-Qaeda that claim that they are responsible for the defense of Islam. The Catholics created much ado over the Da Vinci Code, which denied that Christ was God, and went to great lengths to stop the airing of the film. Prior to that, a film entitled “The Passion of the Christ” produced and directed by actor Mel Gibson created a backlash from within the Jewish community who alleged that the insinuation that Jews crucified Christ was anti-Semitic. Such works have only deepened rifts and hatred at a time characterized by intellectual, political and technical upheaval.
In contrast, no one pays much attention to those who produce films and books depicting the positive aspects of religion with the aim of battling the stereotypes propagated by such hateful works. For instance, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti, produced 99 episodes of cartoon and documentary films in the English language for children about the history of Islam and its triumphs. Such works are a rarity and yet nowhere do we see people take to the streets in appreciation of what has been produced or try to watch them on YouTube.
Indeed, the problem seems more serious than what it appears to be today. The program spans beyond the current state of anger over the production of anti-Islamic material. The rift of conflict and hostility is widening amongst the numerous sects and ideologies. Just two weeks ago, a TV program became famous when one guest speaker assaulted his opponent during a Sunni-Shiite debate, much to the joy of the many viewers. The viewership of such trivial programs is a reflection of the deep-seated hostility between the two sects.
Libya experienced a period of crisis following the destruction of tombs and shrines belonging to Sufi Muslims. As a result, a war almost broke out between the Sufis and their more conservative Salafist counterparts. In Morocco, some came out claiming that the entire country is of Maliki practice (those who follow the Imam Malik school of thought) and that there is no place for those following the “Hanbali” school of thought. Such assertions are a testament to how quickly relations can deteriorate if not tended to and are a reliable indication of future threats.
Indeed, we can see how religious strife has finally managed to split Sudan into two countries and how it is threatening to divide Iraq. In northern Lebanon, war can break out at any moment. God only knows what awaits Syria.
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