The widespread protests sparked by the anti-Islam movie trailer is not just about blasphemy. The reasons for the anger run deeper
By Ali Khan Mahmudabad
The British royal family is suing a French magazine for invasion of privacy for carrying offensive photos of Kate Middleton. However, it might not be possible to take legal action against Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the maker of the film Innocence of Muslims, under American law in the interest of preserving the right to freedom of speech. This is astonishing for a country that sees no problem in maintaining prisons that defy all norms of international law and justifies suspending people’s fundamental rights in the name of security. Islamic law, like other secular legal systems, takes a strong position on those who deliberately create fitna or strife and most countries have tough laws to prevent public unrest. However, it is noteworthy that these laws are not invoked by conveniently using the label of blasphemy, which has its own set of attendant problems.
Following a spate of offensive material over the past few years, ranging from the Danish cartoons to the antics of a pyromaniac pastor from Florida, certain political groups get much mileage from depicting Muslims as an amorphous, homogenous group, largely driven by their emotions, passion and anger. There is no attempt to see the historical, economic, social, political and most importantly, local context of their discontent. Attempts have been made to offer somewhat less incendiary engagements with Islam. Earlier this year, the UK’s Channel 4 aired Tom Holland’s badly researched pop- documentary, Islam: The Untold Story, which had Holland traipsing around West Asia dressed like a latter-day Indiana Jones questioning the origins of Islam. Following the release of the trailer of Innocence of Muslims, it seems that there is a concerted effort, not just by fraudulent loonies but also by mainstream media, to try and create an image of Muslims in the popular imagination that is more in keeping with what people want to see rather than what is the ground reality.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, famous for her polemical rants about the Muslim world, offers a vivid example of this in her widely discussed piece in Newsweek. The magazine’s cover carried a photograph of two bearded men in turbans with faces contorted in agony and anger. Below this was Ali’s statement, “How I survived it and how we can end it.” The article contained the usual platitudes about how Muslim men — of course, the ones on the cover come to mind — are the biggest menace to the free world and how this threat must be contained at all costs. In an inflammatory sentence, she implicitly links the protests against the movie to the tragic murder of the US ambassador in Libya, even though American officials themselves view it as a pre-planned operation. It is through the platform of people like Ali that Nakoula has gained a degree of legitimacy. Of course, Ali’s comments have been widely condemned in the media, but the fact is that as long as people like her have a prominent platform to air their misguided opinions, a dialogue cannot even begin to take place.
Professor Megan Reif of the University of Colorado Denver has insightfully pointed out that the coverage of the protesters has often focussed on individuals, like those on Newsweek’s cover, engaged in seemingly violent acts, but events like the Tahrir Square protests were often covered in a wide-angle format. This leads to her wider point that protests by a small number of frustrated youth, a fraction of a percentage of the global Muslim population, has been blown out of proportion by the media in order to create a bogey that would otherwise fizzle out.
Following this fiasco, in an interview with The Guardian, Salman Rushdie stated that he would be even more blasphemous if he could rewrite The Satanic Verses. He cites how the writers of the French Enlightenment used blasphemy as a weapon to combat the Church. This is the classic mistake that most people make when trying to analyse the trajectories of change within the wider Islamic world. The history of Europe is not the history of the world. Therefore, the way in which ‘the political’ has developed in Europe cannot be merely replicated in other parts of the world, which have their own specific contexts. Secularism, which is often portrayed as the ‘modern value’ that Muslims do not espouse, is very much a product of more than 700 years of the reformation of the Church, although people use it as if it can be completely decoupled from religion. Similarly, the very use of the word ‘blasphemy’ is problematic because of its distinct roots in the Christian tradition. The etymology of blasphemy can be traced to the Greek ‘blapto’ and ‘femos’, which would literally mean “to injure reputation”, though it developed to have specifically religious connotations.
Arguably, the Koran does not even talk of blasphemy in the vein that it is understood in the West. Instead, in the 108th verse of the chapter of ‘The Cattle’, the Prophet is urged to “revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance”. Of course, some Muslim scholars, in particular those who have the backing of authoritarian States, have read blasphemy into the Islamic tradition, but it is important to emphasise that this reading is essentially reactive and is not organic.
It is no surprise then that in the hands of a repressive State apparatus, blasphemy laws, much like laws relating to treason, also become an excuse for silencing opposition and minorities. Incidentally in Pakistan, which is often in the news for cases relating to blasphemy, the blasphemy laws find their roots in the British Penal Code of 1860, though, of course, they were later amended, most notably during the reign of Zia-ul-Haq, who enjoyed the patronage of the US in arming the mujahideen to fight the Soviet threat. Many autocratic Arab countries, which continue to have the overt support of several western countries, still use this method to stamp out any internal dissent.
Blasphemy as a form of deliberate political dissent, which in essence masks hate-speech, is at best naïve and at worst a conscious effort to create and sustain ruptures in society because it can never lead to any productive conversation. The existence of Nakoula and his breed of myopic, harebrained bigots is not the real problem and nor should much attention be paid to them. What is a more pressing concern is the way in which the mainstream media takes specific incidents, manipulates and uses them in order to perpetuate misplaced and misguided stereotypes.
The agitations against Nakoula’s film are, in large part, also a convenient way to protest about the many ongoing struggles people have within their societies and with their governments. By placing so much emphasis on Muslim reactions to Nakoula’s film, the very real grievances of Muslims in various parts of the world are completely glossed over. For instance, it would be wrong to see the appalling suicide bombing in Kabul by a woman simply as a reaction to the film. A larger context has to be taken into account, which might, for instance, include the fact that US and NATO forces killed nine innocent women who were out finding firewood the day before the suicide bombing. Of course, this does not excuse the reprehensible action of the suicide bomber, but by taking into account the very real social, political and economic, not to mention religious grievances of people like her, it might be possible to try and start solving problems. Unfortunately, the easier option is to simply view her as a delirious psychopath because this, in part, ignores the very real role that certain western countries have had in contributing to the conditions that create anger and resentment. This easier option, coupled with a deceptive use of language, means that the real causes behind the anger are not identified nor addressed.
The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student, University of Cambridge