A writer once said, “I disagree with your opinion, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I agree with this philosophy, even having seen Geert Wilders film, Fitna. And while I disagree with many of his conclusions in the film, as a Muslim secure in my faith, I will defend his right to express himself and to be critical of my religion and my fellow Muslims.
There is a sentiment popular among Muslims that Islam should be immune from criticism, constructive or otherwise – especially when it comes from non-Muslims. This sentiment is often the result of misplaced pride and the fact that, currently, Muslims have little else to be proud of. Regardless of the reasons, this defensive sentiment still comes as a shock to me. There has never been a religion, belief, philosophy, perspective or idea that has been immune from criticism. Looking back at history, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, capitalism, globalism, communism, socialism and every other “ism” has been subject to scrutiny and public debate. Why should Islam be any different? One should already expect that such scrutiny will often come from those who do not believe in the ideology they are criticizing (in this case, from non-Muslims). Why, then, are Muslims so sensitive to investigation of Islam when it comes from non-Muslims (or even other Muslims)?
Nothing is immune from criticism, constructive or otherwise, including Islam. All of the prophets, and the messages they conveyed, were subject to every type of scrutiny and humiliation (in many cases, far worse than what we are experiencing now). However, their response was not to silence and condemn the opposition, but to teach it. If we are so concerned about the honor of our religion, we should try practicing it in response.
Ironically, the most striking example of this do-not-criticize sentiment in the non-Muslim world involves Israel. At least in the United States, Israel has achieved a level of sanctity so high that it is beyond reproach. If you criticize Israel, rightly or wrongly, you are branded an anti-Semite. No politician can dare object to it. No mainstream pundit can openly condemn it. Surprisingly, the Muslims who complain the most over Israel’s immunity to criticism are the same ones who complain the most about Islam’s lack of immunity.
In the last couple minutes of his film, Mr. Wilder concludes that, among other things, Islam is intolerant, undermines freedom and seeks to destroy Western civilization. Other than his conclusions in the film, there is actually very little for a Muslim (or anyone else) to object to. Most of the film consists of quotes from the Koran, actual footage of various Muslim clerics and militant groups spewing hatred or beheading people, actual photos of Muslims committing atrocities, and actual newspaper or magazine headlines highlighting such footage and photos. In all honesty, most of the film is closer to being a documentary than hate speech.
Where the film fails, however, is that the quotes from the Koran are not given any context whatsoever. And admittedly, if one were to interpret such quotes literally, and without context, it would be very easy for a non-Muslim (and evidently for Muslims too) to conclude that Islam promotes violence. These quotes are then overlapped with the footage and photos of Muslims promoting or engaging in violence. The insinuation is that such promotion and engagement is simply in furtherance of the quoted verses.
I do not fear or condemn non-Muslims scrutinizing Islam. In fact, I encourage it. It is only through this process of scrutiny and understanding that one can appreciate Islam (or anything else for that matter). What I do condemn, however, is an incomplete and biased analysis that fails to interpret holy verses in context of the surrounding verses, and in context of the circumstances to which they respond, and in context of the greater Koran, and in context of the teachings and example of the Prophet.
What is necessary now is an orchestrated, substantive and effective response to the film. A response that explains the context of the verses and their limited applicability. A response that highlights the peaceful verses of the Koran. A response that explains the very restrictive rules of engagement for war established by the Prophet. A response that condemns violent Muslims and distances them from mainstream Muslims.
But in typical Muslim fashion, we got anything but that. We got boycotts, outrage, hatred and YouTube sabotage, none of which did anything to make non-Muslims think any better of us or Islam, and all of which simply added fuel to Mr. Wilders fire. This is yet another foregone opportunity to explain ourselves while the world was listening that instead was wasted on knee-jerk, unproductive reactions that did nothing more than satisfy our primal need to do something.
When will Muslims learn that wrong speech is countered by correct speech, not by shutting it up? When will Muslims learn to respond with their minds and not with their emotions? When will Muslims learn that to reach the minds of those who are accustomed to open dialogue and an open marketplace of ideas, Muslims must also effectively engage in dialogue and submit well-reasoned ideas to the marketplace? When will Muslims learn that the honor of Islam and the Prophet are guarded by Allah himself and that we should therefore focus our efforts on bettering ourselves, setting a good example and winning the hearts of non-Muslims? When will Muslims realize that their current way of responding to attacks on Islam is inconsistent with Islam and the teachings of the Prophet? When will Muslims realize that, in confronting criticism of their faith, they need to start acting like real Muslims?
Photo: Sam Graham via flickr under a Creative Commons license.
Hazem Bata is an attorney and real estate developer living in Florida.