On June 23, the controversial American satirical film, Innocence of Muslims premiered to a private audience at the Vine Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Two clips were posted on YouTube on July 1.
By September, the amateur low-budget film had been dubbed into Arabic and brought to the attention of Muslims by Egyptian blogger Morris Sadek. Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi called on the US government to sue the film producers whom he referred to as "madmen". Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said the filmmakers had committed "a devilish act." The film's trailer resulted in protests throughout the Arab world, namely at the US embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.
For those who have not seen the film, it is indeed highly offensive to the Prophet Mohammad and his companions, who are held in high esteem by around 1.6 billion Muslims, accounting for over 20% of the earth's population.
One scene, for example, shows him authorizing the looting of cities, the raping of women, the taking of slaves, and the sexual assault of children. Another shows his wife, Hafsa Bint Omar (daughter of the second Muslim Caliph), beating him with a shoe because she found him in bed with another woman. He runs around the room in circles, and says that if she stops hitting him, "I will make your father Caliph."
The film, in short, has nothing to do with freedom of expression. It is in poor taste, of poor quality, and a deliberate insult to Islam and Muslims. No doubt about that. It is utterly unacceptable, however, that so much violence should erupt because of an obscure movie which would have remained obscure had Muslims not created such a fuss about it.
The Pope Controversy
This is not the first time that such a storm has been raised in the Muslim World. In 2005, we had the famous Danish cartoons, which resulted in the torching of Danish embassies around the world. One year later, in September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany in which he quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II telling a Persian intellectual in 1391: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he has preached."
The pope did not say that he agreed with these words. Nevertheless the damage was done and, regardless of intentions, violence and anti-Christian feeling immediately soared throughout the Muslim world. One phrase from Benedict's lecture that was completely ignored by the Arab and Muslim mass media was: "The emperor must have known that Sura 2:256 [of the Koran] reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.'"
But regardless of intentions and in light of the Pope's subsequent apology, let us stop for a moment to think objectively of all that is happening and being said in the Muslim world. The pope was quoting a Byzantine emperor speaking to an unnamed Persian intellectual, taken from an obscure document, 615 years ago.
It is unbelievable that we still have the energy to dig up these ancient arguments, use them to arouse emotions, riot like madmen, and foster hatred. Equally guilty are the Muslim leaders who responded to the Pope's remarks, the Danish cartoons, or the current film, with embassy attacks, church attacks, and violent rallies around the world. God created the human mind to debate, study, analyze and explain. Isn't it the duty of Muslims, after all, to educate non-Muslims on the true nature of the religion of Mohammed?
If the pope, the cartoonist, or the filmmakers were misinformed, either deliberately or not, then Muslims are responsible for not explaining the true nature of their faith to the world, or marketing its true values. They are to blame for letting terrorists like Osama bin Laden hijack Islam and ruin its name. The response to the film only proved the image of Islam depicted in the film itself, which is a very far cry from what Mohammad was all about, being compassion, justice, good citizenship, sound family values, and strong faith. When terrorists using the name of Islam strike the heart of New York, or detonate bombs in the London Underground, this makes it more difficult to defend the Muslims against what was said in the movie.
A lesson from Syria
Seventy-four years ago, in April 1928, a 20-year-old girl named Nazira Zayn al-Din wrote a controversial book titled, Unveiling and Veiling. The Muslim veil, she boldly stated, was un-Islamic. If a woman was forced to wear the veil by her father, husband or brother, Zayn al-Din argued, then she should take him to court. She added that men and woman should mix socially because this develops moral progress, and that both sexes should be educated in the same classrooms. Zayn al-Din compared the "veiled" Muslim world to the "unveiled" European one, saying the unveiled one was better because reason reigned, rather than religion.
Her book caused a thunderstorm in Syria and Lebanon. It was an outrageous assault on traditional Islam, coming from Zayn al-Din, who was a Druze. Rather than get banned by government censors, the book went into a second edition within two months, and was translated into several languages. Great men from Islam, including the muftis of Beirut and Damascus, criticized her, but nobody accused her of treason or blasphemy. They accused her of bad vision resulting from bad education.
Despite the uproar, which lasted for two years, Muslim establishments did not let the issue snowball, as is happening today. The young author was still free to roam the streets of Syria and Lebanon, without being harassed or killed. The leaders of Islam in 1927-30 were by far too busy to occupy themselves, and the Muslim community at large, with the ideas of a 20-year-old girl. They had to attend to their mosques, manage their charity, cater to Muslim education, and fight the French out of Syria and Lebanon.
Why, then, have the leaders of today's world abandoned every problem in the Muslim world to concentrate on the 2012 film? Muslims ought to show solidarity on more pressing issues, such as Israel's digging beneath the al-Aqsa Mosque, for example, or building the Separation Wall. More recently they should have united on the destruction of Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2012. The life of 28,000 Syrians ought to be more of a "red-line" for Muslims, than the screen depiction of Mohammad. These Syrian Muslims were killed before the very eyes of the entire Muslim world and nobody has lifted a finger to protect them.
The Prophet is one of the greatest names and most influential figures in human history. What a nobody says about him will definitely never affect him or his reputation. To quote Lawrence of Arabia, it is time for us to stop acting like a "small people, a silly people," and start living up to our duties before history and mankind. After all, we have not contributed anything to human progress in the past 500 years.
We should properly write and analyze our history, with all its pros and cons, and then concentrate on science, art, literature, and freedom of the mind. A good movie about Mohammad, similar to the 1976 classic production Messenger of God (made by the Syrian-based Hollywood director Mustapha al-Akkad) would have done the Prophet more justice than the riots we witnessed in Cairo, Benghazi, and Amman.
To make things easier for everybody - especially the over-sensitive millions in all faiths - it is safe to say that critical issues such as the Prophet, Jesus, or the Holocaust, for example, become red lines that should not be crossed. A good word of advice to the Muslim community is to think big and avoid the trappings of critical articles, cartoons, or sick movies. Islam and the Prophet Mohammad are much greater than these small, really small, tiny, issues.
Sami Moubayed is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and the author of Syria and the USA: Washington's Relations with Damascus from Wilson to Eisenhower" (IB Tauris, 2012). This article appeared in Asia Times Online on September 17, 2012.