The Innocence of Muslims

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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”
“Boorish idiots”

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.

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  1. My two cents are that empathy with social condition has its limits. Destruction of property and spilling on blood is wrong…we should not reserve our judgment. We must speak out against these actions unequivocally without any conditions.
    “Somewhere along the way, we Muslims have also been co-opted to view our brethren as the ignorant, savage other.” –
    I don’t understand the need to look any deeper than the actions committed by jahil people. Why should we look for excuses for jahil behavior? There are plenty of people in the same social condition that are not rioting on the street, destroying property, spilling blood and creating fitna –
    “ 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?”
    – this is no different than people in the hood in America. The choice to commit crime is a choice – the choice to vandalize and destroy is an active choice. Conditions in the hood are bad, people are on welfare, they may be hungry, they are uneducated – but May Allah protect all of us from this – if I am walking down the street and get mugged – I am not going to sit back and analyze the social conditions that caused someone to mug me and reserve judgment. .
    Similarly, people that act in a jahil manner and do a considerable amount of damage to how non-Muslims (even the ones that are not Islamophobes) perceive this faith, are still “boorish idiots.” (Yes…that was my facebook comment – and May Allah forgive me if there was any pride or arrogance in my heart – it was certainly not my intention – rather it was a deep pain and sadness that I felt)
    I fail to see how our understanding of day to day reality of most Muslims should allow us to empathize with the evil actions of some Muslims. While I agree that the movie was nothing more than an excuse to vent – and that serious work needs to be done to transform societies. We still have an obligation to come out against jahil actions in the strongest terms.
    I think the comments that you saw and the khutbah by Sheikh Hamza was part of taking a strong stand against this cancer that is eating away at Muslim societies all over the world. (You may recall my post about the riots that took place in Sydney)
    On a separate note, wealthy Muslims collectively have been donating and continue to donate millions upon millions to help alleviate poverty and increase education…I think for the most part; people are doing what can reasonably be expected of them. What else should they be doing?

  2. @Brother Abdul-Razzaq:
    1) I absolutely agree with you that spilling blood and destroying property over something like this is 100% wrong. I think that’s quite clear in the article.
    2) We DO need to look for excuses for “jahil” behavior because (a) each of us is capable of it given the right circumstances and (b) more importantly, because the Prophet (sas) commanded us to seek 70 excuses for each other.
    3) About inner-city America-yes, you’re right, the choice to commit crime is ultimately personal and the individual is responsible. Islam is all about personal accountability. But when you have a situation where 40% of inner-city black men in the United States are incarcerated at some point in their lives, you have to wonder whether that is just a sum of individual choices or whether some deeper social/structural phenomenon is at work.
    4) I agree with you that we must combat ignorance in our community. But I don’t think name-calling and ridiculing other Muslims does anything but undermine our already fledgling unity. I also think it makes us feel distant from the problems of the Muslims in third world countries, whereas, in reality, we’re all in this together.
    5) Your last point is the most interesting. What can we do? THIS is the constructive conversation we all need to have.
    And Allah (swt) Knows best.

  3. subhanallah. reading this made me realize how arrogant i was for thinking this way. thank you dear sis 4 the reminder. shaitan comes at us in so many diff ways. may Allah protect us, amen.

  4. Thank you for your kind words brother Ahmed and sister Zuleika. May Allah (swt) Grant all the Muslims strong faith and unity of purpose in these trying times. Ameen.

  5. A good article saadia. As a sociologist i understand the need to look at the background factors. I can’t say anything about the motivations of the actual violent reactors, but there is something to be said about our understanding regarding the love of our beloved prophet pbuh. I’m making the comments below regarding pakistanis in general and my circle in particular. I’m not sure if you followed the recent incident (abt 2 yrs ago) about the murder of Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer. That incidence and the comments after the film by those around me made me realize that in pakistan, we take the hadith Narated By Anas : The Prophet said “None of you will have faith till he loves me more than his father, his children and all mankind.” Reference
    ►Bukhari Volume 001, Book 002, Hadith Number 014.
    Pakistani Islam’s understanding has somehow taken this hadith to mean that all islamic jurisprudence, common sense and logic can and should be kept aside and the only way to protect the honor is to murder the perpetrator. I’m not sure if you can read urdu, but an interesting read regarding this issue:

    I am the first one to talk about the background factors behind our maulvi’s understanding and actually point to the so called elites who’ve left the deep study of religion, which has been taken up by the failures of our society. Then we can also bring in colonialism etc. But the buck has to stop somewhere. Openly calling for the murder of the movie maker and hoping to be the one to do it by educated religious people is problematic and disturbing. This attitude implies encouragement and acceptance of the act itself. Salman Taseer’s case is a very interesting case to discuss, but will elongate the post.
    I feel that the reason for this messed up understanding is our (pakistani’s) OVER reliance on following blind tradition and lack of logic/reason. Another long topic by itself.

  6. Dear sister Sarah, I agree with you. I suppose there are no easy fixes. Just the slow, unglamorous process of education. But 1st world Muslims have to be a big part of that process instead of just sitting on the sidelines and judging everyone else. I just came across a relevant article by Tariq Ramadan which you may find interesting:

  7. Whether you like it or not, the world is full of
    fanatics in every sphere, whether in religious
    affairs, politics, the home, etc. They may have
    knowledge or vice versa. They act as they wish
    be it as to their own liking or following the crowd.
    Because they are fanatics they have to learn
    the hard way to realise the folly of their ways, or
    they may not learn at all. Wassalaam.

  8. Dear brother Ishak. I obviously don’t like or approve of the action of Muslim “fanatics.” I think the article says as much.

    But the Islamic way of conducting affairs is to view everyone as our brothers and sisters, especially fellow Muslims. We should deal with one another with compassion and mercy. If we witness wrong behavior, we should remind one another in a way that is dignified and does not belittle the other person. We should try to understand and support one another. We should condemn actions, not people. Or we risk compromising our OWN deen in the attempt to correct another’s.

    If first world Muslims start viewing third Muslims as the “ignorant, savage other” we help no one except our enemies.

    To be merciful to people is the sunnah of our beloved Prophet (sas).

    Please read some of the other comments on this thread for further clarification. I am NOT in ANY way justifying the violence that this film caused, only seeking to understand it.



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