The Islamic world is raging with anger at an offensive movie targeting Prophet Muhammad. It is understandable when people feel angry at any deliberate negative depiction of major spiritual and religious leaders and symbols. People have every right to express their feelings in demonstrations, in the media, and in any peaceful means. But this anger has developed in some cases into serious violence, which has been fatal at times. Furthermore, the targets of this violence are innocent victims who are not involved in any way in the offensive movie.
This distinction between anger and violence is clear to most people, but there are some who do not want to make this distinction. This blindness includes, of course, those who perpetrate the violence. But unfortunately, there are others who should know better but seem to also experience this blindness. The prominent Arabic and English TV station Al-Jazeera has on its Arabic website a page whose title reads as follows: “Khartoum is angry for the Prophet Muhammad may Allah send prayer and peace on him.” The page has several images of “protesters” attacking or trying to attack the American and German embassies. Yes, not only the American embassy, but the German one also has been targeted.
I highly respect Al-Jazeera’s achievements, in particular in balancing the uninformed or outright distorted reporting in the Western media of issues in the Arab and Muslim world, not the least the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the nature of the involvement of Western powers in the affairs of Arab and Muslim countries. But describing the violence against embassies as “anger for the Prophet” seems to describe this violence in a positive tone. How can the love for Prophet be the motivation for attacking Western embassies for an offensive movie that was made by some independent individuals? To start with, there is no link between those governments and the individuals behind the movie. Second, how can love engender this kind of detestable violence? Some of those who commit this violence have the level of ignorance that make them miss both of these points, but this should not be the case with a media institution such as Al-Jazeera.
This indiscriminate targeting is no different form how Muslims are stereotyped in the West because of the terrorist acts of certain individuals and groups that confess the same religion. After the attacks of the 11th/September/2001, mosques, Muslims organizations, and Muslims in the West were attacked in revenge, even though they had nothing to do with those atrocities. I cannot see the difference between this and what those supposedly pious Muslims are doing across the Muslim world, inflicting revenge on buildings, symbols, and individuals that have nothing to do with the movie.
Those violently angry groups have one word that describes them: mobs. They are disorderly crowds that intend to cause riots and destruction. It is important to understand how and why any mob forms, but this must not be confused with any attempt to justify its behaviour. Any justification would be misguided and misleading. Mobs may claim religious, cultural, nationalist, economic, or any other motives behind their actions. Different the claimed motives may be, the ugly nature of mob behaviour is the same.
Let’s look closer at the stupidity of the mobs that are supposedly angry for release of the offensive movie. First, there are many movies, audios, books, and websites that are offensive to the Prophet, Islam, and Muslims. What is so special about this movie? Nothing. It was brought to the attention of the Muslims in the world by one or two influential Salafi Islamists, including Khalid ‘Abdullah on his program on the satellite channel Al-Nas. Ironically, it was on YouTube since July and no one had noticed it. The rioting that followed ensured that this otherwise unknown movie achieved notoriety that those who are behind it would not have even dreamed of.
Second, the Qur’an, the Book that God revealed to the Prophet whom the rioting Muslims claim to be defending, makes it clear that no person should be made to bear the consequences of the act of somebody else: “No soul shall carry the sins of another soul” (35.18). Yet revenge is being inflicted on people who have no direct or even indirect involvement in the making or distribution of the movie.
There is no question that there is so much anger about the USA and its allies in the Arab and Muslim world. Those who know the tragic stories of Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan can understand that anger at the Western powers involved. But this is no justification for attacking embassies and embassy staff or pretending that this is all about the movie.
The rioting mobs have brought the movie to the attention of everybody, they have hurt and in some cases killed innocent people who had nothing to do with the movie, and they have given those who like to stereotype Muslims another pretext to do so. This is no different from what terrorists who commit their atrocities under the name of Islam ultimately achieve. The negative effects of their acts, not only on non-Muslims but Muslims also, are testimony to how misguided they are. What the mobs are doing must be completely condemned and must not be given any justification.
But there is a relevant legitimate question to be asked here. Why is a movie that is deliberately designed to denigrate Islam is not seen as an act of inciting hatred? I have not seen the movie, so I do not know whether it attacks Muslims also or Islam only. But attacking Islam the religion without referring to those who embrace it does not necessarily mean that it is not inciting hatred against Muslims. The religion can be described in terms that would mean that its followers are also intended and included. There is no question that double standards are applied when Islam and its symbols are the subject of degradation. Those who drive such hate campaigns get away with a lot. The brilliant British journalist Robert Fisk recently recounted the following:
A New Zealand editor once proudly told me how his own newspaper had re-published the cartoon of the Prophet with a bomb-filled turban. But when I asked him if he planned to publish a cartoon of a Rabbi with a bomb on his head next time Israel invaded Lebanon, he hastily agreed with me that this would be anti-Semitic.
In the same way that the mob behaviour we are currently seeing must never be condoned, such double standards and tolerance of what is effectively incitement to hatred against Muslims must be condemned.