Welcome to yet another clash between Muslim notions of sacredness and Western attempts to defy them: A vulgar anti-Islamic film called “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was apparently produced by a group of anti-Islamic Americans, has sparked a wave of violent anti-American protests in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Benghazi, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his team members were tragically killed. Fears are that the protests might lead to violence against other American targets in the Muslim Middle East and perhaps beyond.
As a Muslim myself, here is my take on all of this. First, I saw the film in question, and found it simply disgusting. It is a silly yet nasty attempt to demonize Islam in all possible ways. As the New York Times summed it well, the 11-minute drama “depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” It is only normal for any Muslim to condemn this shameless insult, as any Jew would do in the face of similarly shameless anti-Semitic propaganda.
However, there are civilized and uncivilized means of condemnation. And unfortunately those that have made headlines in the past few days are mostly of the latter sort. The most obvious case was the murder of the Americans in Libya, which I condemn wholeheartedly. This crime was, first of all, cruel and barbaric, for no insult of anything can justify the killing of innocent people. Secondly, it was also appallingly mindless, for neither the U.S. government nor any of its diplomats have anything to do with a marginal film produced by a bunch of marginal U.S. citizens.
The main problem here, which we also saw in the protests of the insults against the Prophet Muhammad in Danish cartoons, is that the peoples of the Middle East are not used to make a distinction between a government and a society, because in their own countries, governments typically control everything. So, when cartoons in Denmark or films in America vilify Islam, they intuitively presume that the Danish or the American governments have “allowed this to happen,” if they didn’t do it themselves behind the scenes.
Wiser Muslims should not only have a better grasp of the world, but also a more sensible method of countering anti-Islamic propaganda. (Those Muslims who become violent in the face of anti-Islamic propaganda are actually helping it: They demonstrate that Muslims are wild-eyed fanatics, proving the exact depiction Islamophobes make.) It is crucial here that Muslim leaders step forward and calm their co-religionists. Two authoritative names from Turkey, top official cleric Mehmet Görmez and top civil cleric Fethullah Gülen, have commendably done that by condemning the terrorist attack in Benghazi and calling for restraint.
Beyond these urgent calls, however, I think that opinion leaders throughout the Muslim world need to establish principles as to how to counter the insulting of Islam in civilized ways. They can, for example, focus on the Quranic verse that says that when they face people who mock Islam, Muslims should only “not sit with them.” (4:140) As I explained in my book, in light of that verse, modern-day Muslims can counter Islamophobia not by violence or censorship, but with arguments and boycotts.
After all, no matter what we do, we Muslims cannot control what other people will say about Islam. We can only control the way we react to them.