Islam’s Moment Of Choosing

When a group of Danish cartoonists drew images of Mohammed some of them made the implicit connection between Islam and extremist violence.

The reaction of the Muslim world to these images has largely proven that they were right. Confronted with anything that challenges the extreme Salafist view of the Muslim faith, millions of Muslims have once again chosen to act in a way that tarnishes their faith and once again makes Islam look like a religion of hatred and barbarism. Thankfully not all Muslims have done so, but the voices of moderation such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and this group of moderate Muslims have spoken out, the fact is that throughout the Arab world and even in the West, the voices of the imams and mosques and madrassas have fanned the flames rather than trying to extinguish them.

One should never hold an entire people to the actions of a few, but when the violence, intolerance, and irrationality is so widespread and so poisonous once cannot help but question whether Islam is truly compatible with civil society at times.

The Muslim world was once a beacon of civilization. Baghdad was once one of the world’s greatest cities. As Amir Taheri observes the Muslim world used to have a sense of humor and an ability to self-criticize:

Now to the second claim, that the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. That is true if we restrict the Muslim world to the Brotherhood and its siblings in the Salafist movement, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda. But these are all political organizations masquerading as religious ones. They are not the sole representatives of Islam, just as the Nazi Party was not the sole representative of German culture. Their attempt at portraying Islam as a sullen culture that lacks a sense of humor is part of the same discourse that claims “suicide martyrdom” as the highest goal for all true believers.

The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade. Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion,” at times to the point of irreverence. Again, offering an exhaustive list is not possible. But those familiar with Islam’s literature know of Ubaid Zakani’s “Mush va Gorbeh” (Mouse and Cat), a match for Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion. Sa’adi’s eloquent soliloquy on behalf of Satan mocks the “dry pious ones.” And Attar portrays a hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard. Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.

Islamic ethics is based on “limits and proportions,” which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as the enemy. Islam rejects guilt by association. Just as Muslims should not blame all Westerners for the poor taste of a cartoonist who wanted to be offensive, those horrified by the spectacle of rent-a-mob sackings of embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy.

Taheri is right, not all Muslims share in this hatred and violence. However, this event like the events of September 11, Bali, Madrid, London, and other incidents of Islamist violence is showing the true nature of Islam today. A minority are showing a respect for their fellow man, wisdom, tolerance, and peacefulness, all values that can certainly be found in Islam. At the same time, the majority of Muslims worldwide are embracing an ideology that is utterly incompatible with human rights and tolerance.

The West cannot decide which way the Islamic world will turn. Only individual Muslims can make that choice. It is up to each and every Muslim to stand up for the values of human dignity, freedom of expression, and tolerance – all values which are rooted in the shared tradition of the three Abrahamaic religion as well as others. The ultimate question of the compatibility of Islam and human freedom can only be answered by Islam itself, and the horrific violence of the minority and the acquiescence of the many should be of great concern not only to the West, but to those Muslims who once again want to see the Arab and Muslim world be a beacon of civilization rather than a symbol of backwardness, oppression, and intolerance.

UPDATE: Rich Lowry thinks Ayatollah Sistani should get a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in democratizing Iraq and his noble and difficult stand against the extremism against Denmark and the West. While Ayatollah Sistani may not be what everyone in the West would consider a model of democratic values, in comparison to the rest of the leaders of the Islamic world he’s one of the most forward-thinking and progressive. I agree, in a just world, Ayatollah Sistani would be given a Nobel Peace Prize – then again, given his desire to avoid directly interfering in secular affairs, I’m not entirely sure he’d accept.

3 thoughts on “Islam’s Moment Of Choosing

  1. I see what has become typical of Muslim reaction: groups of chanting/screaming people in the streets waving signs or whatever else they may have in the air, setting things on fire.

    I frankly don’t care what the history was, its the present that counts.

  2. Many Muslims in the United States have spoken out against terrorism committed in the name of Islam. Many Muslims abroad have also voiced their abhorrence of terrorism as well.

    Ultimately the fate of Islam and Muslims is in Muslim hands. I do think it is important to note that there is a great deal of misinformation being disseminated through media outlets and through the internet, and this unduly prejudices the minds of those who do not know what Islam truly stands for, and this in turn makes it even harder for rational voices from the Muslim world to be heard.

    Also, I find an interesting parallel between those Muslims who riot and decry the oppression of the West in response to the Danish cartoons without giving critical thought to the irony of their actions and the impact of their deeds, and the many people who reflexively castigate all Muslims and often the religion of Islam as inherently evil or as facist because of what they see and read in the media.

    The fact of the matter is that there are people in the West and in the East who fail (or refuse) to consider the other sides position in its totality. For example, the rioting Muslims fail to see that the original newspaper that printed the cartoons was trying to provoke a “typical Muslim” response, that some Muslims intentionally included additional photographs not published by the Danish paper to further inflame the masses, and that the reprinting of the cartoons by other papers was not an affirmation of the message of the cartoons, but rather a show of solidarity of the value of free expression.

    Those who see the Muslim response as evidence that all Muslims are violent or that Islam is a religion of violence fail to consider the social, political and economic factors at work in the lives of those who are rioting. The original pictures were run in September 2005 and subsequently the local Muslim community made numerous peaceful efforts to petition to paper and the government for redress to what they perceived as an attack on their faith. The local Muslim entreats were largely rebuffed. Also, prior to the printing of the Muhammad caricatures the same Danish newspaper declined to run cartoons of Jesus for fear of offending Christians.

    Many people seem to think that Muslims immediately took to the streets. This is not the case (of course, the fact that peaceful efforts were pursued does not in any way make subsequent violence accepable). These are facts that are important in assessing the current situation.

    Furthermore, it is plausible to think that there is resentment towards the West (rightly or not) for the pathetic economic conditions in which many Muslims live. In some instances there are local actors who are manipulating the situation for their own purposes by whipping up a frenzy among feeble-minded people by trumping up the meaning and significance of the cartoons.

    Some look to Islam’s religious/sacred text, the Holy Quran, and cite passages that are clearly martial in nature and argue that this is clear proof that Islam is a violent religion (some even go so far as to say Islam is not a religion but an ideology, and as such not worthy of the respect afforded Judaism and Christianity). I am not surprised by the conclusions many people reach when they see these passages. However, it is simply insufficient to read passages out of the Quran or sayings of Prophet Muhammad without the proper historical and theological context, and without also recognizing that there is a methodology to interpreting the significance of these passages.

    This is not the appropriate forum to undertake a detailed explanation of the interpretive methodologies in Islamic law (and I am not qualified to do so), but I will simply draw your attention to the complex process involved in our own constitutional jurisprudence and suggest that a similarly complex process exists within Islamic jurisprudence.

    Ultimately I do agree with the conclusion you’ve reached in the foregoing essay, but also feel that responsible citizens must counter the growing, irrational and misinformed fear of Islam, because it portends disasterous consequences for our world.

    Junaid M. Afeef

  3. My first reaction to the violent protests of muslim People was itself quite emotional. With a little time gone by and more thinking done, I would like to comment on comparing the Muslim World with Nazi Germany.
    As a German (wearing my hair short, or just not wearing it at all) I am often confronted with open hatred by Fellow Citizens from foreign countries, which I do not really understand, for I grew up in a democratic and peaceloving Nation and I am the grandson of my grandfather, which is about everybodies fate.
    As easy as I find keeping distance right now, I am shure, that had I lived then at the times of my grandfather and the Nazi Regime there could not have been any distance. It would either have ment going with the dynamism of the masses or against it, although keeping silent might have been a more secure option in such a repressiv political structure (yet this is not a third Option, but just part of the first).
    Having had Grandfathers and Granduncles who were quite activly working pro Regime, I had to ask myself, if I would really have had a critical perspective on the Regime. Therefore I am far from blaming anyone inside any such ideological structure – like certain Islamic Believes are – for not taking a stand against the System but staying silent or even acting according to the common Ideology.
    I feel sorry for the People who are instrumentalised by their leaders in the name of the Gods and Prophets they believe in. This Instrumentalisation does also have a grip on the Holy, therefore critizism blaming its abuse can always be interpreted as an attack on the Holy itself.
    In the end everybody confronted with an attack on his person or his holy believes, has to reflect, if it is truly him or his God or Prophet who is attacked. The evil Nazi which has been pictured in so many cartoons and movies, has to sides of real existence. On one hand as “Feindbild” in the heads of the Allied Countries Peoples, on the other hand as a reflection on the real opinion and deeds of real Germans. Both does reflect the fears and worries of the people on the Allied side, just as the Danish cartoons reflect fears and worries of Europeans and a view of certain Muslims and “their Mohammed” leading to terror and death.
    All other Muslim People should not recognize this Prophet as their own but a distorted vision of him in European as well as Muslim Minds.
    I do not like the fashism of “this Mohammed”, yet I know there are many more Mohammeds, each a little different in the Minds of peaceloving and tolenrant People.
    Let’s just throw “The Clash of Cultures” into the dustbin!


    Frei der Vogelprinz

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