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What Underlies Reactions When Islam Is Insulted?

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"The one who identifies the problem is not the problem," is a wise proverb used in conflict resolution. It seems obvious, doesn't it? If there is an accident on the side of the road, the passerby who calls the Highway Patrol for help is not cited for causing it.

Here's another proverb, "Don't shoot the messenger."

Do you wonder at the extreme reactions we have seen by some Muslims, to anything unflattering or distasteful to them? Rather than explaining the underlying reasons for these reactions, the representatives of moderate Islam tend to disavow such deeds, leaving the public confused as to where these behaviors came from.

Would you like to have a deeper understanding of the situation? Let me share with you some insights from a comparative culture point of view.

In the West, we generally believe that when someone moves a disagreement from the issue to a personal attack, it is because their case is weak. But can we make that assumption with other cultures?

The way we say something is as important as what we say. Some criticisms are spoken so unkindly, that even if valid, you'd rather die than listen. Isn't it better to speak in a helpful way, like we would to a friend who had a spider in her hair or a guy whose fly is unzipped? They don't mind when we say, "Oops, you've got a problem there; you'd better take care of it."

Yet, nicely done or not, when myself and others bring attention to anything uncomplimentary in Islam, we usually receive angry recrimination and threats, rather than attention to the issue.

Overseas the results can be extreme. In Pakistan, law 295-C grants the death penalty for disrespecting Mohammed. Disrespecting the Koran carries life imprisonment. Ironically, speaking ill of Allah, although frowned upon, does not carry such a sentence.

The cartoonist's pen must be mightier than the sword - or at least one would think so from the backlash engendered when Mohammed's likeness is scribbled. Cartoons are a medium of expression, like the spoken word. They may be in poor taste or disrespectful, but they don't kill. (See my Huffington Post blog on "Comedy Central's Prophet Experiments")

To speak ill of the Koran or Islam is usually a crime in Islamic states, so you really need count the cost before you open your mouth. Take the case of Egyptian Coptic Priest Father Zakaria, now infamous throughout the Arab World. What has he done? Spoken on the internet and television, for the first time ever in Arabic, exposing the imperfect preservation of the Koran and the implications of "difficult" hadiths. His message is not welcome to Islam. As a result, although he merely speaks, he has a price of 60 million dollars on his head.

Is there any explanation why criticisms of Islam tend to garner outstanding reprisals? Should we use our Western way of thinking and assume it is because their defense is weak?

Frankly, although this may often be the case, it is not the entire explanation. Let's consult a few foundational Islamic documents to throw light on the subject.

"O you who believe! Do not ask questions about things which if made plain to you may cause you trouble... Some people before you did ask such questions, and on that account lost their faith."


Koran, sura
5:101,102


One major difference between the West and Islam is that the Koran says it is a sin to question anything that might lead you away from Islam. This is not only written, but it is routinely practiced. Even a Muslim university professor in the USA told me this before dropping out of a discussion for that reason. Several of my associates struggled with this before leaving Islam. Some were beaten by Muslim clerics for merely asking, "Why must we pray in Arabic? If I understand three languages, why can't God?" or "If God is everywhere, why must we face Mecca when we pray?"

"Showing others the weak points of Muslims"

is a serious sin, an "enormity" according to the Sunni classic manual of Islamic Sacred Law, entitled Reliance of the Traveler. Sadly, this one law not only discourages inquiry, but to some, legitimizes cover-up.

These two powerful references build a wall around Islam, which insulates it from challenge within or without.

In contrast to the West, righteousness in Islam is largely dependent on the environment, not just the individual. This is one reason Sharia Laws are so extensive. For example, an Imam from a large mosque in America told me that if a man had a lustful thought looking at a woman, the sin was hers, not his. So she should cover.

Similarly, if doubting is a sin, that which causes the doubt is evil, even if it is correct. And so, in contrast to the Western way of thinking, the messenger IS at fault and must be attacked. If a cartoon makes Mohammed unattractive, it is in keeping with this mindset to "kill the messenger".

Is it clearer now? Can you see why some Muslims take their reactions to the extreme?

Nevertheless, those of us who believe Socrates was onto something keep asking questions. Let's be patient with those who disagree, but we must be persistent and persuasive. If Islam as a whole wants to join the modern world, more and more of its population needs to see that it is OK to question. Thinking out of the box is what helps make new discoveries and brings progress for everyone.

My forthcoming book, The Topkapi Secret, although a novel, exposes the imperfect preservation of the Koran, and existing Koranic variants. What is revealed is not only true, but is confirmed with references. It will give readers an opportunity to confront the issue - the largely overlooked fact that the Koran has been changed - rather than deny it and simply blame the messenger. http://www.amazon.com/Topkapi-Secret-Terry-Kelhawk/dp/1616142138