An Unfortunate Side-Effect of the Innocence of Muslims Controversy
As I write this, it is mid-September 2012 and the Muslim world is ablaze with angry reactions to a film called “The Innocence of Muslims.” From Libya to Egypt, Pakistan to Indonesia the Muslim street is burning, rioting, pillaging, even killing in defence of the beloved Prophet (sas) and his reputation. Pundits everywhere are once again debating the limits of free speech versus, as Newsweek put it, catering to the sensitivities of “Muslim Rage.”
I must admit, I’m surprised by all the attention the film is continuing to receive. Hours after I first heard about it, I was able to watch parts of it on YouTube since it hadn’t yet been taken down in Singapore. Though of course I was dismayed by the content, a part of me was also amused. The film was absolute garbage, a dreadfully edited C-class production with horrendous acting and parts that had been very obviously (and atrociously) dubbed over. I’ve seen high school presentations demonstrate more technical expertise. What was my reaction? I closed my laptop, said “Audhu Billah” (I seek refuge in God) and went on with my life. That was over a week ago. When I checked again this morning, the film was no longer available for viewing. But it hardly matters. This thing is no longer about the film. Perhaps it never was.
That so many Muslims reacted violently to this film is nothing new or unexpected. It seems to once again confirm the theory, held by an unfortunately growing number of people, that the Muslim world is savage, barbaric and completely intolerant. I felt dismayed when people responded the way they did, not because I didn’t understand but because of course, violent protests are no way to honour the legacy of the Prophet (sas). We are doing no service to Muslims or Islam by responding in this manner and of course, we are not pleasing Allah (swt), which last time I checked, was the real purpose of our existence. If we really read and understood the Qur’an we would follow Allah (swt)’s direct advice:
“And when [the believers] hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: ‘To us our deeds, and to you yours; peace be to you: we seek not the ignorant.'” (Qur’an, 28:55).
If the proper Islamic response is so clear, why are so many Muslims unclear about how to respond? Well most of them did respond in precisely this manner, which is to say, with no reaction at all. Some took it a step further and arranged peaceful protests, others organized letter-writing campaigns, though you would not know it by following the mainstream media. For the fraction of Muslims who did react violently, it is clear that their response is not wholly reflective of the film. The film was just a trigger. What they are really protesting is the daily grind of poverty, the disenfranchisement they feel, the hypocrisy of the global order. What they are really demonstrating is not a display of brazen power but an urgent sense of helplessness and desperation.
This is not an apology for the angry Muslim mobs. It is an invitation to look beyond the film and ask ourselves, what makes a population so volatile that a corny film made by some loser Islamaphobe can provoke such a deep response?
Because you see, the violent reaction of a few is not the only unsettling thing here. What has disturbed me tremendously more is the immediate denunciation of that violence by Muslims in the media, Facebook, twitter and notable Islamic blogs. The reaction of the, let’s call it “internet Muslim community,” most of them globally elite, educated, wealthy and well-connected, has been to condemn the reaction of their fellow Muslims, not necessarily in a kind or even intelligent way, but in a way that actually ridicules them. Consider the following status updates and comments from Muslims I’m connected to on Facebook:
“When will these people grow up and realize that the Prophet would have never behaved this way?”
“God, so ashamed these people share my religion”
Even a noted Muslim scholar went on record as saying
“I am sick of defending ignorant, reactionary, backward fools.”
What ever happened to reserving judgement; condemning actions instead of people themselves?
Somewhere along the way, we Muslims have also been co-opted to view our brethren as the ignorant, savage other. Rather than coolly analysing the situation, we almost seem to be in a mad rush to distance ourselves from it and in the process, do it in a most condescending fashion. I wonder though, why do we automatically assume we would behave so differently if we were in their shoes? Does our easy access to modern conveniences or more stable governments make us somehow more moral? Are we simply arrogant? Or are we the ignorant ones, completely out of touch with the day to day reality of most Muslims?
I kept hoping someone with some level of influence on some media outlet or blog would say: “Yes, a fraction of Muslims have responded poorly and no, we do not condone it. But let’s talk about why, because surely, this isn’t really just about the film.” And just like that, the narrative switches from us condemning and distancing ourselves from those ‘uncivilized Muslims’ who have reacted violently, to us constructively discussing the very real problems of the Muslim world, which are only partly self-generated and which can only be solved through everyone’s active participation.
What we seem more concerned with unfortunately is how to get Islamaphobes to like us and finally respect Islam as a religion. All week I noticed Muslims comforting each other with words along the lines of: “Don’t worry, black people went through it, Jewish people went through it, more recently the LGBT community went through it, Muslims are the current target but this too will pass.” Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. Does it matter? Why are we so desperate to gain the acceptance of those who so obviously abhor us? We conveniently forget that there has always been a portion of humanity that hates Muslims and denigrates Islam. And there always will be. When did we allow such people to get such a psychological hold over us?
Our comfort and our purpose should be pleasing God, not people. Allah (swt) reminds us:
“…And you shall certainly hear much that will grieve you…But if you persevere patiently and guard against evil—that will the determining factor in all affairs.” (3:186).
This world will never be perfect; there is no absolutely perfect solution to any of this. We somehow keep losing sight of the temporal nature of this life. All that matters is our conduct and the Quran already instructs us that the perfect response in this situation is patience.
Allah’s Messenger does not need your protection. As brother Nouman Ali Khan put it, the Prophet (sas)’ honour comes from heaven. There’s nothing you or I need to do to try to prove it. When we respond to attacks against our Prophet that originate in a place of ignorance, we are giving the message that what they say matters and they are worth it. It doesn’t and they are not.
This is not to discount the very important work of dawah but we must make sure the audience is receptive. It almost reminds me of incident mentioned in Surah Abasa when the Prophet was so busy preaching to the rich men of Quraysh that he frowned and turned away from a sincere, blind man who represented the poorer segment of Meccan society. The Prophet was reprimanded by Allah (swt), not only because of the missed dawah opportunity but because of his desire for Islam to be powerful and that was never the point. Making Islam ascendant in this world is not the point. Allah (swt) Promises to change our condition if we change ourselves. Being good Muslims is the point. If Allah (swt) gives us power in the land, Alhamdulillah. If He doesn’t, Alhamdulillah. It doesn’t change our faith or dishearten us in the least.
In the meanwhile, let us not abandon one another.
As the Prophet (sas) said: “Do not have malice against a Muslim; do not be envious of other Muslims; do not go against a Muslim and forsake him. O the slave of Allah! Be like brothers with each other. It is not allowed for a Muslim to desert his brother for over three days.” [Muslim & Tirmidhi]
At the end of the day we will all answer for our own conduct. We all had so much to say about the film, such disgust for the man who produced it, the people who participated, those who propagated it and defended it, and on the other end of the spectrum, those angry Muslims who used it as a justification for mob violence. Let’s stop looking everywhere else and look to ourselves. What are we doing as the wealthiest, most educated tier of the Muslim Ummah (besides spending a lot of time on Facebook and twitter)? Are we truly following the Prophet’s example and striving to alleviate the poverty and suffering around us? Or are we content in our luxury and educated self-righteousness?
Instead of wasting our time and energy on trying to formulate the best possible response to win over Islamaphobes and somehow stall the filth they are deliberately spreading about our religion, let’s ask ourselves how much we’re doing for the other problems of the world. Instead of denouncing fellow Muslims, let’s ask ourselves, what are we doing to reach out to them and perhaps alleviate some of their suffering? Are we really following the Prophetic example? Before pointing fingers at others, let us look to ourselves.
And Allah Knows best.