Ever since the 1989 “Satanic Verses” by Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie, the Muslim public, inflamed by some of their religious leaders, has been easily incited if not directly manipulated. The oversensitivity card has been drearily overplayed and is, frankly, vexing. Every now and then this episode is repeated: from the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, and Theo van Gogh’s slanted portrayal of Muslim women, to the ill-advised ban of the veil in French schools and the recent threat by a wacky Floridian pastor to burn Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9/11.
In each instance someone, by and large in the West and antagonistic to Islam and Muslims, goes out of his way to insult Islam’s venerated figures, holy book or sacred beliefs, often with the explicit purpose of offending Muslims or setting them off. Typically, Muslim leaders take the bait and act irrationally, and consequently provide more fodder to their malevolent foes.
When an obscure political cartoonist in Denmark published his highly infuriating drawings depicting the prophet of Islam as a “terrorist,” hoping to offend and insult the followers of Islam, Danish Muslim leaders toured the Islamic world raising the profile of this despicable act while calling on prominent religious figures and institutions to “defend the honor of their Prophet.” Predictably, the reaction from such institutions and leaders was not just swift condemnation, but they also led massive demonstrations, some of which turned violent, in most Islamic countries.
Civilized behavior dictates that peoples and cultures extend their respect to others regardless of their differences. But if some insist on acting boorishly, such behavior should only reflect on the uncivilized. Islam is not so fragile that Muslims must feel agitated and react to every lunatic behavior. Part of the problem seems to be that most Muslim leaders have forgotten or disregarded their own tradition.
Certainly one cannot control foolish utterances and does not have to accept insults. But one cannot also deal with despicable conduct by displaying reactionary behavior. The Qur’an repeatedly describes some of the outrageous name-calling directed at the Prophet Muhammad during his days. It deals with it in a calm, rational manner: refute the falsehoods, state the facts, argue the points if challenged with legitimate criticism, ignore the insults and walk away from the intolerant when facing the irrational and the lunatics.
The Qur’an even lists some of the taunts directed the Prophet. Among some of the names he was called were: crazy, mad poet, sorcerer, magician, and forger. Authentic reports demonstrate that when some men or women insulted him, his response was to pray for their guidance or walk away. The Qur’an also instructs the believers not to insult other (false) gods so as not to instigate others to insult their God. But when such abusive behavior is exhibited, the Qur’an calls on its followers to “show forgiveness, enjoin what’s good, and turn away from the foolish,” not to punish them.
The latest farce came about when one obscure megalomaniac pastor in Florida called for “International Burn a Koran Day.” Many Islamic leaders and groups in several Muslim capitals immediately went into overdrive not to condemn, or better yet ignore the act, but to burn American flags or paint Americans as “intolerant Islamophobes.”
Mohammad Morsy, a Western-educated Engineer, is the media spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most popular Islamic movement in the Middle East. He called on President Barack Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and every other Western politician and government to stop the madness of one individual’s conduct. The degree to which this topic was discussed on the Brotherhood’s popular website was astonishing. Not only was it the number one story on the site for several days, but five of the eight headlines on the front page on the day commemorating the end of Ramadan, one of the most celebrated days in the Islamic calendar, dealt directly with the subject.
One cannot attribute this obsession with an extremist pastor with no more than fifty followers merely to ignorance. Having lived in California for several years while pursuing his PhD, Morsy knows fully well that neither Obama nor any other official can stop this act, regardless of how despicable or outrageous it might be, because it’s constitutionally protected. While the Muslim masses could be excused for thinking that Western governments, much like their own, have unrestricted power to ban or stop such acts, the elites in the Muslim world know better. The only possible explanation is that they use this issue because of its emotional appeal to stir the public against the West and by extension the Western-backed regimes that persecute them, without having to directly confront these corrupt governments.
Freedom of religion and speech is the anchor of any free society. But it goes both ways. While it allows American Muslims to enjoy the freedom to worship and propagate their minority faith within society, it also permits fringe elements in the same social structure to insult them without fear of government sanctions or intervention. If the government had the power to pick and choose which religion or speech to allow or ban, the first casualty, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, would undoubtedly be the Muslim faith and its adherents. Exhibit A: just follow the debate of the so-called Ground Zero mosque.
Western officials, from Gen. David Petraeus, NATO and UN Secretary Generals, to Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Obama, all rushed to condemn the Qur’an burning threat, further raising the profile of the fanatic pastor. While it’s commendable that such high government officials would issue strong denunciations, their involvement sets a dangerous precedent in dealing with a non-substantive issue.
Muslim leaders need to realize that Obama cannot stop the burning of the Qur’an on constitutional grounds, but surely he can reverse many policies that have been in place since 9/11 that trample on the civil rights of American Muslims. Preemptive prosecutions, government-concocted conspiracies, shutting down legitimate charities, the use of agent provocateurs, infiltration of mosques, and the establishment of fusion centers and communication management units are but few examples of the real war on American Muslims.
As for America’s policy abroad in regards to the Middle East, putting aside the fiasco in Iraq, and the failures in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the U.S. has enabled Israel to oppress the Palestinians for decades. It has been providing the rogue state with the most lethal weapons in its arsenal, with billions of dollars of economic aid that subsidize, directly or indirectly, the presence of hundreds of thousands of settlers on Palestinian territories, while shielding the apartheid-like state politically and diplomatically. Such policies are at the heart of the Muslim world’s grievances, not the superficiality of desecrating sacred books or holy figures.
Although U.S. and European mainstream media outlets have been able to find the delicate balance between free and bigoted speech when it comes to the issue of anti-Semitism, these same organizations have so far failed to manage the phenomenon of Islamophobia. As with anti-Semitism in the case of Jews, Islamophobia can be defined as speech or conduct exhibiting prejudice or hostility towards Muslims or towards their culture and religion. The media usually ignores and marginalizes anti-Semites, if they are not first confronted and ridiculed. Society at large has been conditioned and sensitized to this fact, so any Holocaust denier, for instance, would be immediately shunned or disregarded.
The media should treat Islamophobes in a similar fashion. They need to be isolated and denied access to airwaves and opinion pages. Conservative media outlets or personalities such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Bill O’Reilly would not dare to exhibit or utter anti-Semitic slurs. But they have been given a free pass when it comes to Islam or Muslims. They must be put to shame in the same way that Don Imus was when he made racist comments about African-American athletes three years ago.
Rightwing and conservative politicians in America and Europe have been using 9/11 as a club to beat up on most Muslims as if they were the real culprits of the tragic terror attacks. Newt Gingrich equates Islam, not Al-Qaeda, with Nazism, while Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and John Boehner assign collective guilt to Muslims and to their entire faith. Such behavior is no different from the extremists in the Muslim world who want to condemn and target Christianity and Christians, or Judaism and Jews, for the misguided policies of the U.S. or Israel that cause Muslim suffering.
The U.S. was neither attacked by Islam nor by a global Muslim conspiracy on 9/11. It was attacked by Al-Qaeda, a fringe group condemned by the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world shortly after the attacks. At least 64 American Muslims died on that day. Their families and friends felt as much pain as every other victim’s relatives. American Muslims have thus been victimized twice, once by Al-Qaeda, but more so every week by the Islamophobes and their political hacks. These political opportunists must be exposed and rejected.
The threat to burn Qur’ans exposed everyone. Muslim leaders must change their approach and not confront every foolish insult coming their way. These are tactical distractions that waste energy and resources. If they have to demonstrate they should protest against policies that target their communities and violate their civil and political rights.
Similarly, the media need to change the way they cover Islamophobes and their enablers, as well as the nutty politicians that opportunistically follow them.
ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org