The attacks two weeks ago on the embassies in Cairo (and later in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Yemen and Pakistan), and the truly tragic deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and others, has reignited the false dichotomy of Western values and Islamic beliefs. Once again, right-wing pundits exclaim that Muslims and their beliefs are antithetical to decent, democratic societies.
Muslim reactionaries, on the other hand, believe violence and death are a suitable response to the slightest insult to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
This recent spate of violence is apparently the result of the backlash to a 14-minute trailer posted to YouTube in July. That trailer, for a film titled “Innocence of Muslims,” was posted by “Sam Bacile,” who is now believed to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American, Coptic Christian, and criminal on probation for credit card fraud and once convicted of cooking methamphetamines. The trailer was picked up and disseminated on Arab television and by September 11th, boiled over into violent protests.
How could a film, however repugnant, incite people towards violence and murder? There is no excusing such vicious behavior. Those who attacked the embassies and killed Ambassador Stevens and others are murderers. The violence they perpetrated is horrific and completely antithetical to the tenants of Islam. Every Muslim should stand in condemnation of such acts and the perpetrators should be found, tried, and sentenced for their crime. They are mindless thugs, who treat their religion purely as a tribal identity and not a belief system. If Islam was truly their belief system, they would never have dared to respond in such a manner.
In Islam, as with all religions, murder is a hideous thing. The Qur’an deplores it — equating the taking of an innocent life with the killing of all mankind (5:32). The only instance in which one can be killed is if he/she commits murder or corruption. And still, according to the Qur’an, forgiveness is preferred. Yet these violent attackers not only took a life, they took the lives of those who had nothing to do with what they were protesting.
Although this amateur, crudely made trailer attacks the character and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), it is just the latest episode in the battle between the Sacred and the Profane.
The Sacred and the Profane
Building off of French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s classic dichotomy within religion, this latest episode exposes two opposing groups’ definitions of what is sacred and what is profane. For the provocateurs, freedom of speech is sacred and religion profane — and vice versa for the religious reactionaries.
How can speech be held sacred when one uses it to mock, ridicule and harm another? How can religion be sacred when one uses it to justify wanton murder of innocents? Tellingly, each side ignores what they find to be sacred in order to silence the perceived profanity of the others actions and thoughts.
And therein lays the problem: How we define what is sacred and profane and how we treat others’ beliefs of what is sacred and profane. Those who profane that which others believe sacred are not practicing anything other than oppression of thought. This is the essence of the culture war we all find ourselves in.
This culture war – the one that identifies outsiders as an enemy and seeks to vilify their every belief and action – cannot be fought with guns and bombs. It must be fought with ideas and dialogue. Just as one cannot stop the many U.S. drone attacks killing innocent Muslims on a daily basis with art, one cannot stop art with weapons of violence.
These Muslims, who respond to hate with hate, only bring greater attention and justification to the initial provocation. They fail to live the example of the Prophet (pbuh) and instead kill to maintain the idea of what they deem sacred. It’s a twisted and warped logic borne of ignorance and misdirected anger. Those on Nakoula’s side have no respect for what Muslims consider sacred. In response, the violent reactionaries have no respect for what the provocateurs consider sacred. Each feeds the ignorance of the other.
One has to wonder, though, with the amount of people who protested a small, undistributed independent film, if there wasn’t a provocateur on the Muslim side — one flaming the fire of anger and hatred, most likely through misleading propaganda and lies. Or as one U.S. official claimed, the attacks and protests may have already been coordinated to coincide with 9/11, with the film as a mere footnote.
Either way, the Nakoulas of the world are quietly laughing in the background. Once again, with the slightest provocation, they prove to the world how irrational, dim-witted and criminally cruel Muslims can be. They drop some kerosene and patiently wait for the hot-headed, ill-tempered, illogical Muslim reactionaries to ignite the fire. Nakoula — like Theo Van Gogh, the Danish cartoonists and many more before him — seeks to provoke Muslims by taking their most cherished beliefs and dragging them through the mud.
Nakoula is a provocateur, a coward and a fool. The essential tool of the provocateur is to take what another holds sacred and depict it as profane. (It’s a delicate line. For comedians, the trick is taking the profane and making it sacred. When done right, it can be legitimately funny.)
And certain Muslims fall for it every time. By no means are the provocateurs responsible for the violence committed by the reactionary Muslims. These Muslims need to study, learn, and relearn that Islam is about justice and peace — not the vicious and violent implementation of their concept of what is right.
The provocateurs simply set the trap, point at the heathen beast before them, and say “Look, I told you those people are irrational and follow a backward belief system.” They believe that the right to free speech liberates them from any responsibility for their words. But, free speech is not free of consequence. Yet these provocateurs cry foul every time their message is met with resistance in any form. For them, religion is profane; free, unregulated speech is sacred.
Mirror Image Enemies
The great irony of this culture war is that those who profess to be opposites are actually one in the same — they are the flip side of the same coin. Both sides actively choose to profane what others believe to be sacred. Their rights are not enough for them; they must take the rights of others to feel superior, thus reinforcing their beliefs and actions. No one is preventing those who decry Islam from voicing their opinion, yet such provocateurs feel victimized. No one is preventing Muslims across the world from practicing their religion, yet the reactionaries claim to be victims.
The provocateurs will only feel vindicated when Islam — and for some, all religion — is wiped off the map. Similarly, the Muslim (and all religious) reactionaries will only rest when their belief system is accepted as the norm. What makes them similar is their lack of perspective, understanding and empathy. Both are abhorrently close-minded.
Let Us Redefine This Culture War
This will not be a war between the West and the Middle East, European thought and Islamic Belief, or Freedom and Terror. In fact, no dichotomy can ever truly capture the grand nuance that exists in the human experience. But to keep it simple, this culture war should be defined by the Reasonable vs. the Unreasonable. There is plenty of room on the reasonable side for Muslims, Jews, Christians, Agnostics, Atheists, Communists, Conservatives, Progressive Liberals and people of every stripe and color.
But, those who denigrate the beliefs and rights of others must stand across from us. The Nakoulas and violent reactionaries of the world are the same people. They do nothing to serve the best interests of humanity; they simply create deeper and darker divides among all humans.
Fighting such vitriolic rhetoric as found in Nakoula’s independent film with aggression only promotes and perpetuates it. Who would have known of the Danish cartoonists outside of readers of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper if Muslims didn’t cause a worldwide uproar? No one.
Nakoula’s film originally premiered to a largely empty audience in Hollywood. A trailer for the film was then uploaded to YouTube — and the mindlessly violent reactions followed. Who would even be talking about this film if violent reactionaries didn’t storm the U.S. embassies? No one. That’s not to say that such attacks on another’s beliefs should go unanswered. There is a way to disagree, yet coexist. It involves open dialogue, not violence.
For example, two years ago, an atheist and agnostic students’ club at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to partake in the international Draw Muhammad Day to support free speech rights in the face of angry religious zealots. The club decided to take to the sidewalks with chalk to draw stick figures labeled Muhammad. The students were exercising their right to freedom of speech, albeit on public walkways.
The Muslim Students’ Association was faced with a dilemma. They were not about to let their beliefs be ridiculed but knew a tempered response was needed. So, instead of protesting or deterring their antagonizers’ freedom of speech, they grabbed their own chalk. They found the sidewalk drawings of Muhammad, drew boxing gloves around the hands, and appended “Ali” to the name.
In one clever instance, the MSA of Wisconsin-Madison turned provocative rhetoric on its head. They took to the streets and fought fire with fire — they responded with their own right to freedom of speech. If only all sides could be this level-headed and witty with their retorts, we would all be able to hold on to what we believe to be sacred without having to profane the other.
Obaid H. Siddiqui is a writer and journalist based in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the anthology “All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.” Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.