Cartoon controversy: Clash of the uncivilized

What would Muhammad do?

As the crisis that has emerged in the aftermath of the publication of the infamous cartoons that claim to depict the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of God upon him, escalates, we would do well by stepping back and attempting to analyze the situation as dispassionately as possible. By doing so, as Muslims, we can hopefully formulate a more productive and meaningful response, and avoid being exploited by either side in the ongoing conflict. Saying this, I do not mean to imply that Muslims are not justifiably angry over the caricatures. However, I would agree with those who argue that responses that involve wild outbreaks of frenzied violence are inappropriate, and they only affirm what the cartoonist is trying to imply. Namely, that Islam is a religion that encourages obscurantist violence and terrorism.

The current crisis shows the extent we Muslims are vulnerable to media manipulation, superficial shows of piety, and counterproductive one-upmanship militancy. If we start with the issue of media manipulation, it is clear that Western and Eastern media outlets played a large role in stirring up Muslim, and now Western sentiments. When the crisis initially broke in September, it was barely a blip on the media radar. Few outside of Denmark even knew of the cartoons. The Danish Muslim community, appropriately, by and large ignored the story.[1] It was only after a campaign undertaken by a delegation of Danish Muslim community activists to stimulate greater interest in the issue led to the “cause” being undertaken by some of the Arab satellite channels, such as Iqra, and then the reprinting of the cartoons by several European newspapers, months after their initial publication, that the crisis developed into the proportions we are currently witnessing. In light of that reality, it would be hard to deny the role the media has played in sparking and now perpetuating the crisis.

A question we must ask is if these cartoons, which are an example of hundreds of other anti-Islamic slights occurring daily in Europe and America, were not brought to the attention of Muslims by the media, would we be undergoing the current brouhaha? – Clearly not. That being the case, what does this say about our strategic vision? What does this say about our level of political maturity? And what does it say about our ability to engage in meaningful proactive work? The answers to these questions are obvious. We get angry about Israeli troops breaking the bones of Palestinian children, as long as it is in the media. When it disappears from our television screens, our interest vanishes with it. We raise millions of dollars for those affected by the Tsunami, as long as the images of death and destruction are beamed into our homes by the media. However, when the coverage shifts to other issues, the donations dry up. As for those crises that do not make the news in a big way, such as the ongoing famines in Mali, Niger, and the Horn of Africa, we are hardly stirred to action. Furthermore, we go on living our lives oblivious to the ongoing abuse of Islam and our Prophet, peace and blessing of God upon him, until it becomes a major media event. At that point based on urgings issued by parties, the origins of their dubious agendas unknown to us, we are expected to drop everything and hastily rush into the fray. In many instances, our ill-conceived actions only make the situation worse.

Sometimes, those actions may constitute superficial shows of piety emanating from the mob hysteria underlying them. In the mob we are empowered, and find it easy to confront our opponents, defy the rule of law, behave with wanton abandon, or engage in other acts which under the proper circumstances we may view as supporting Islam. In terms of more constructive mass actions, such as emerging into the streets by the tens of thousands to protest the brutal, authoritarian regimes that make a mockery of the prophetic ideals of justice, mutual consultation, and service to the oppressed and downtrodden of society; or by forming credible anti-defamation organizations to bring effective legal action against transgressing organizations and individuals, on a fulltime proactive basis, we come up terribly short. As individuals, we find it difficult to support the Prophet by adorning ourselves with His lofty character traits, or reviving His Sunnah in our daily lives.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, it is all too easy to get swept up into the mob hysteria generated by the crowd, and then engage in outrageous actions that only affirm the offensive claims of the transgressing cartoonist. It is as if we are saying, “We’ll show the Kafirs our Prophet, peace upon him was no terrorist! We’ll defame the symbols of their religion,[2] burn their embassies, murder their unsuspecting innocents, and behead the bloody cartoonist if we get our hands on him.”[3]

This brings us to my third point, that of counterproductive, one-upmanship militancy. It is during these crises that all Muslims are supposed to drop everything and join the latest “Jihad” fad. Those of us who urge restraint are mocked as not being militant enough, or ridiculed as cowards who are afraid to “stand up to the real enemies of Islam.” No differences in understanding, interpretation, or strategy are allowed, because there is only one correct approach, the one the militants have stumbled upon with the aid of modern, sensationalizing media.

Such an ad hoc, haphazard approach is counterproductive for a number of reasons. First of all, it destroys the basis for proactive work based on the existence of a strategic vision. As long as the enemies of Islam know that they can mobilize the Muslims to chase after an unimaginable number of distracting issues, divide our ranks by those issues, and diffuse our energies through their debate and the pursuit of their resolution, they will possess a trump card that will affect our ability to unite and work more effectively towards creating and implementing an agenda capable of effecting meaningful change in our circumstance. It also blinds us to the underlying agenda that reckless spontaneous action might be unwittingly serving.

For example, it is interesting that these events have come to a head in the immediate aftermath of the stunning landslide victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. That victory has rekindled, both in the East and the West, the debate around the implications of supporting democratization in the Muslim world when the biggest winners will be Islamic parties and movements. There are secularists in both the West and the Muslim world who advocate ending the democratizing experiment on that basis. However, they know that denying the democratic will of the Muslim peoples cannot be done without the support of the masses of people in Europe and America. These masses, especially in Britain and America, are increasingly wary of their governments’ nefarious agenda for the Middle East. However, the frightening images of crazed crowds rampaging, looting, and burning provides a powerful justification for the extreme, repressive policies being advocated by the far right for dealing with Islam and Muslims, both domestically, and internationally. Democracy in the Muslim world, they argue, will bring the advocates of mob rule to power.

If brutal draconian measures, such as those employed to end the democratization process in Algeria, are employed elsewhere, the Western public will be psychologically prepared to accept those measures, because of the fear that has been created around the “Islamic” alternative. That fear can not only be used to justify denying the democratic will of the Muslim peoples, it can also be used to justify denying their legitimate strategic ambitions. A recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post links the fanaticism of the cartoon protests to the lawful nuclear ambitions of Iran. It states, “If anyone wants to appreciate why the West views with such suspicion the weapons programs of Muslim states such as Iran, they need look no further than the intolerance Muslim regimes exhibit to these cartoons, and what this portends.”

This crisis has also occurred in the immediate aftermath of the appearance of the latest “Bin Laden” tape, intensified warnings of an imminent major terrorist attack in the West, something on the scale of 9/11, and it coincides with the escape of the alleged mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole from a Yemeni jail. The fear associated with the latter two events, combined with the images of hysterical protesters, work to create a climate that can support unprecedented measures if another major terrorist attack were to occur in the near future �whoever the perpetrators may be.

In addition to the setbacks on the psychological front, the current crisis indicates just how bad we are losing in the Jihad of ideas. It is not without significance that the ultimate objective of Jihad is linked to ideas, the word. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked about a man who fought to display his bravery, another who fought out of fealty to his tribe, and a third who fought to show off. Which had fought in the Way of God? He replied, peace and blessings of God upon him, “The one who fought to make the Word of God uppermost has fought in the Way of God.”[4] Is the nature of the current campaign working to make the word of God uppermost? Every Muslim needs to ask that question.

As Muslims, we are carrying the Word of God in an increasingly secular, militarized, and alienated world. What it means to carry that word is not an unknowable abstraction. We carry it by following the concrete example of our Noble Messenger Muhammad, peace and blessings of God upon him. In carrying the word, he endured unimaginable abuses and he persevered through them because he was inspired by a grand vision. That vision was to see his people saved by the life-giving, life-affirming message of Islam. No greater illustration of this can be given than the story of his expulsion from the city of Ta’if, after the arrogant leaders of that town unleashed the fools, slaves, and children against him.

In the aftermath of that onslaught, the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him, humbly raised his hands towards the sky and prayed:

O, God! Unto you alone do I plead my lack of strength, the paucity of my efforts, and my humiliation before the people. O, the Most Merciful of all! You are the Lord of the oppressed, you are my Lord. Unto who have you dispatched me? To a distant host who receives me repugnantly? Or to an enemy you have authorized over my affair? If you are not angry with me, I care not. It is only your goodness I seek to be covered with. I seek refuge with the Light of your Face, through which the darkness is illuminated and all the affairs of the world and hereafter are rectified, that you do not cast your anger down on me, nor cause your wrath to settle upon me. I will remain pleased with you until you are pleased with me. There is neither strength, nor power but with You. [5]

Two significant events are then related after this prayer was uttered by the Prophet, peace and blessing of God upon him. First of all, when presented with an offer by the Angels that God crush the city of Ta’if, the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him, refused saying that perhaps from the offspring of the offending hosts, there would emerge those who would worship God. This came to pass. This incident is well known. A lesser known incident associated with the journey to Ta’if occurred when the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him, was preparing to reenter Mecca, in the company of his companion Zaid b. Haritha. Zaid asked, “How can you reenter their presence when they have expelled you?” The Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him replied, “O, Zaid! God is bringing about through these events you have witnessed a great opening. God is most capable of assisting His religion, and manifesting the truth of His prophet.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of the current campaign to “Assist the Prophet,” for many converts, like this writer, is the implicit assumption that there is no Dawah work being undertaken here in the West, and no one is currently, or will in the future enter Islam in these lands. Therefore, it does not matter what transpires in the Muslim East. Muslims can behave in the most barbaric fashion, murder, plunder, pillage, brutalize and kidnap civilians, desecrate the symbols of other religions, trample on their honor, discard their values and mores, and massacre their fellow Muslims. If any of that undermines the works of Muslims in these Western lands, it does not matter. If it places a barrier between the Western people and Islam, when many of those people are in the most desperate need of Islam, it does not matter. If our Prophet, peace be upon him, had responded to those who abused him in Ta’if with similar disregard, none of the generations of Muslims who have come from the descendants of those transgressors would have seen the light of day.

These campaigns of desperation also implicitly display a lack of confidence in God’s ability to protect his religion and defend the honor of His Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him. We do what we can do within lawful limits, and then we depute the affair to God. Despairing of help from God and finding ourselves with limited strategic resources, we sometimes press forward with the most desperate tactics imaginable, taking little time to assess the compatibility of those tactics with Islamic teachings, nor their long-term implications for the cause of Islam, especially in the West.

There are certainly more constructive and productive ways to defend the honor of the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him. Why are we calling for a “Day of Outrage” when our Prophet has instructed us repeatedly not to become angry? There are surely times when we should become angry for the sake of God. However, under the current circumstances, are anger and outrage appropriate responses? Why not a “Day of Familiarization,” where we teach people who the Prophet was and what he really represents, peace be upon him? Why not a “Day of Sunnah,” where all vow to revive a Sunnah we have allowed to slip away from our religious life. Such a day could also include the Sunnah of showing concern for ones neighbors? We could visit them and tell them about Islam and our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him.

Whatever we do, as Muslims in the West, we may be approaching the day when we will have to go it alone. If our coreligionists in the East cannot respect the fact that we are trying to accomplish things here in the West, and that their oftentimes ill-considered actions undermines that work in many instances, then it will be hard for us to consider them allies. How can one be an ally when he fails to consult you concerning actions whose negative consequences you will suffer? No one from the Muslim east consults us before launching these campaigns. No one seeks to find out as to how their actions are going to affect our lives and families. The confused incompetence of the Muslim countries around the issue of moon-sighting, a situation that has painful consequences for Muslims here in America is bad enough, the added pressures generated by these reoccurring crises is becoming unbearable for many.

We have a generation of Muslim children here who have to go to schools where most of them are small minorities facing severe peer pressure. During these crises they do not have the luxury of losing themselves in a frenzied mob. Their faith is challenged and many decide to simply stop identifying with Islam. Is that what they deserve? If they are largely lost to Islam, what is the future of our religion here? We have obedient, pious Hijab wearing women, who out of necessity must work, usually in places where they are the only Muslims. Should their safety, dignity, and honor be jeopardized by the actions of Muslims halfway around the world?

I reiterate that I am not saying these cartoons, and other denigrations of our religion and our Prophet, peace be upon him, should be ignored. Imam Shafi’i stated that anyone who is angered and does not respond, he is a jackass. However, our responses should be weighed on the basis of a strategic calculus we construct. Their timing should be determined by that calculus, not by media sensationalizing. They should be undertaken in consultation with those who will be directly affected by the responses they generate. And their long-range implications should be deeply considered.

In conclusion, one should not see the ongoing crisis as a clash of civilizations. Phenomena as deep and complex as civilizations cannot by thrown into conflict overnight by media-driven campaigns. A clash of civilizations would also involve the overwhelming majority of people identified by a particular civilizational nexus. The current crisis is the result of a regrettable incident that has been exploited by an uncivilized minority of provocateurs both in the West and the East to advance their conflicting agendas. As long as that exploitation continues, the crisis could aptly be called the clash of the uncivilized.

[1] We say appropriately because the measured response of the Danish Muslim community killed the story. Certainly part of the defense of the Prophet’s honor is to keep these images out of the media. The initial response of the Danish Muslims did just that.

[2] The Danish flag prominently displays a cross, the symbol of Christianity. Hence, every time a Danish flag is burned or trampled on, the symbol of Christianity is desecrated. A similar transgression against Islam would occur if the Saudi flag, which contains the Name of Allah, and the declaration of Tawhid La ilaha illa Allah were burned or trampled. The question here is has the entirety of Christendom transgressed against the Muslim people in a way to justify an attack on the symbol of their faith?

[3] Protestors in Britain this past Friday threatened suicide bombing attacks in European cities, and the beheading of the offending cartoonists. Insightfully, the British Muslim youth protesting wearing a mock suicide bomber’s vest turned out to be a convicted heroin and crack dealer, out on parole. It is a lot easier to mobilize the Muslim youth for the anti-cartoon Jihad than to deal with the rising rates of incarceration, mental illness, failing schools, dysfunctional homes, and the drug addition and alcoholism that are ravaging the British Muslim community.

[4] Al-Bukhari, no. 7458, and Muslim, no. 1904.

[5] This prayer and the incident precipitating it are related in the various books of Prophetic biography, both ancient and modern. It is quoted here from Dr. Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, Fiqh as-Sirah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2001/1422), pp. 150-151.

Imam Zaid Shakir is a resident scholar at the California-based Zaytuna Institute.


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