09/24/2012 06:18 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Not in Muhammad's Name

I heard of Salman Rushdie for the first time in 1988 as a five-year old boy. I learned about him from my mother. It was the year Rushdie had published the controversial Satanic Verses. The book had ignited riots across the Muslim world. Since we lived in a small Pakistan-Iran border town, we idiotically believed that we got the news from Iran faster than rest of Pakistan. So, we strangely thought we were the first ones to know that the Ayatollah in the neighboring country had issued a death fatwa against what he considered to be Rushdie's "anti-Islamic" book.

Was my mother a Rushdie admirer? No.

Was she a critic? No.

Well, she had actually never read him. Because she, like most moms in rural Pakistan, never attended any school. Yet she was deeply outraged. Just like an Ayatollah. Ever since hearing the word of mouth that Rushdie had disrespected the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, my mother, a strictly practicing Sunni Muslim, inquires, at least once a year: "Is Rushdie still alive?" What if she encounters him at some book festival? She will probably never notice him. She has even never seen his picture!

Many of us are reminded of the Rushdie days again with the fresh controversy generated by an obscure anti-Islam video. Riots across the Muslim world have resulted in the killing of more than thirty people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, who was killed by an angry mob. This week's release of Joseph Anton, Rushdie's memoirs, is a strange coincidence.

When I see tens of thousands of Muslims protesting violently against an anti-Islam book, cartoons published in a Danish newspaper or a movie made in California, I believe most of the protesters are victims of ignorance. Just like my mother, they have probably never read an anti-Islamic book but still rally behind Muslim clerics with political motivations.

One may (rightly) argue that some of the protesters are well-educated Muslims. That is true, as far as the minority of these protesters is concerned. But is "insult" to the Prophet the only reason for the Muslim rage? Would the Muslim reaction be different if the California movie had depicted Muhammad as a smart, well-dressed, smiling man? Could global protests be averted had the Muslim Prophet been featured in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo as an invisible commander and a highly intelligent figure? None of the above depictions would change Muslim reaction even if the "insult factor" was not remotely attached to the whole movie. Well, what, then, is the issue?

Let's be clear: Insult is not the real issue. A respectful and positive image of Muhammad would probably receive the same amount of violent reaction. Because Muslim clerics believe any still or moving image that depicts Prophet Muhammad is un-Islamic. There is broad consensus among most Muslims that no one should draw a picture of the Prophet -- either negative or positive. Noncompliance to this rule is largely viewed by Muslims as blasphemy.

"Moderate Muslims" say they are equally offended by the anti-Islam movie, but they are still opposed to the violent protests that have caused attacks on U.S. embassies in a number of Muslim countries. Those who advocate "peaceful protest" in the name of Prophet Muhammad are seemingly driven by political motivations. As a matter of fact, Muhammad's biographers have failed to cite a single instance when he even peacefully protested against those who insulted him.

According to the Muslim history, Muhammad was mocked, bullied, beaten up and even forced by his opponents to leave his ancestral town of Mecca to Medina. During the hard times, his companions offered time and again to avenge the brutalities inflicted upon him. He patiently said, "I am a messenger sent as a blessing for the mankind, not as a burden."

Hence, the whole controversy is not either about insulting the Prophet of Islam or the "justified reaction" of the Muslim world. There is a cultural and behavioral issue involved in this situation. Thus, we have to find out what motivates some Muslims to demand the revisiting of the concept of "freedom of expression" in the United States.

I find it strange when Muslim countries, where I grew up, contest the notion of free speech. We actually do not understand in the Muslim world what free speech simply means -- because we don't have it over there.

Most Muslim countries live under totalitarian regimes, military dictators, autocratic kingdoms and corrupt and brutal semi-democratic governments. While attending Pakistani schools, my textbooks rarely introduced me to my right to freedom of expression. Thomas Friedman has already published a wonderful account of hate material circulated in Muslim societies against other religions. The hate material textbooks in Pakistan contain against other religions and cultures deserve another full column.

Muslim societies strictly discourage questioning. I remember one of my class fellows being slapped and humiliated by our school teacher when he naively asked why we addressed Allah (god) as "he" instead of "she"! Most of us who grew up in strictly controlled Muslim societies have our awkward moments when we were asked to shut up when we, in reality, endeavored to ask some of the most critical questions in our lives.

The plea from Muslim scholars that "freedom of expression" should come with "responsibility" or "limits" is absolutely irrelevant. For ages, Muslim clerics and dictators have used "responsibility" and "limits" as a pretext to dissuade citizens from seeking their right to freedom of expression. People's chances of behaving "irresponsibly" or crossing their "limits" are very high in societies where they are denied the right to freely articulate their aspirations. With freedom comes responsibility, but not the type that is defined by the status quo for the vested interests of the ruling clergy and kingdoms.

Every "controversial" movie or book actually puts our commitment to free speech into a new challenge. The U.S. should not feel apologetic about the First Amendment. It is demoralizing to learn that the U.S. embassy in Pakistan is spending American taxpayers' money on running television advertisements against the movie. Artistic works that displace us from our comfort zones vis-à-vis free speech can only cement the glorious idea of freedom of expression. Who knows, the anti-movie protests might fade away after a few weeks but eventually trigger mature civil rights movements in the Islamic world where people begin to ask for their right to free speech.