The more I think about the horrific bombings in London, the more upset I become. First and foremost, it upsets me that anyone – let alone someone claiming to be Muslim – would take it upon themselves to kill another human being in such a vicious manner. Yet, I can’t help but worry about the subsequent backlash against the Muslim community. It is a bit selfish, I fully admit, but like I said, I just can’t help it, because the backlash is real.
Already, several mosques in Britain have been subjected to arson attacks. Even a mosque in Bloomington, Indiana – thousands of miles away from the scene of the July 7 attacks – was set on fire, and the incident is being investigated as a hate crime. Unfortunately, whenever terror occurs in the name of Islam anywhere, someone is liable to avenge said attack against some Muslim somewhere. It is the sad reality of being a Muslim in the 21st Century.
My upset at the London attacks leaves me at a loss for words. How can such an attack really be prevented? How can you stop someone who is determined to leave a bomb in a subway train, or bus, or mall? I mean, if two people secretly meet in the mosque to plan an attack, how can you police that? How can you know of such a plot? It is most unnerving.
I can’t even fathom the possibility that Muslims in a community – be it in Britain or here in America – would turn a blind eye to a terror plot that they uncovered. Even though Muslims have a lot of problems, I refuse to believe that their humanity has deteriorated to such an extent that they would look the other way as misguided members of the community actively plan and plot to kill other human beings. If this were to ever happen, may God help us.
Yet, there were some things that were occurring in Britain that the July 7 attacks brought to the forefront that were very disturbing. For many years now – as both the Washington Post and New York Timeshave reported – London has been a haven for radical Muslims and their vitriolic rhetoric. The New York Times article said, “extremists…have played to ever-larger crowds, calling for holy war against Britain and exhorting young Muslim men to join the insurgency in Iraq.” One such cleric, Abu Hamza Masri, was quoted by the Washington Post as urging his followers to get an infidel and “crush his head in your arms, so you can wring his throat. Forget wasting a bullet, cut them in half!” Lord God, help me!
This sort of rhetoric has no place in the Muslim community. This hate speech – and it can’t be characterized as anything else but that – should never be allowed to emanate from the Friday prayer pulpit. That pulpit is the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and whenever someone stands on that pulpit to give a sermon, they stand in the place of the Prophet (pbuh). Spewing incitement to murder and violence defiles that space, and it flies in the face of the message the Prophet (pbuh) struggled so hard to convey to us.
Is this infringing on freedom of speech? I do not believe so. The principle of freedom of speech is very important to me. Why, this very blog thrives under that sacred principle. Yet, freedom of speech does not give one the license to yell “Fire!” into a crowded theatre. Such an act is liable to cause harm to the theatre-goers who may rush out fearing for their lives. Yelling “Fire!” into a crowded theatre is not freedom of speech; rather, it is malicious mischief. It does not deserve to be protected.
The same thing should hold for hateful sermons at the mosque. Standing on the pulpit and telling the congregation to “crush the infidel’s head and wring his throat” is a repugnant thing to do. There is no basis in Islam for such violent incitement, no matter how many people – Muslim or not – may claim the contrary. To teach such hate is an enormous sin, and mosque leaders and authorities have a responsibility to ensure this does not occur in their mosques.
But why? What does the mosque have to do with a Muslim committing a terrorist attack? The Friday sermon is a unique opportunity: the imam has the undivided attention of hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of Muslim faithful. The imam can teach the congregation something it did not previously know, or uplift its spirits, or recharge its spirituality for the coming week. In addition, the imam speaks with authority by virtue of standing on that pulpit. Thus, it is an opportunity to do an enormous amount of good. By the same token, however, it can also lead to an enormous amount of evil.
If the imam continuously uses the pulpit to preach that infidels are “worse than trash and deserve to be killed,” some of the congregation may believe that those words are the truth, which is a complete disaster, because it is totally not true and heinously distorts the message of Islam. Furthermore, it only takes one misguided soul in the congregation to act on the imam’s false teachings to commit a terrorist attack. That attack not only may cause the deaths of countless innocent human beings, but it also places the entire Muslim community – which has nothing to do with the act of terror – in grave danger.
That terrorist attack – goaded on by the hate speech of the imam – may lead misguided souls anywhere in the world to attack an innocent Muslim walking to the grocery store, or throw a brick through a mosque window, or set fire to a mosque, or try to blow up a mosque, even. Now, it is enough of a barbarity that someone would listen to a hateful sermon and then kill innocent people, and I don’t want to give the impression that this is not as bad as a brick being thrown in a mosque window. Nevertheless, long after the smoke from the bombs has cleared, more innocent people are liable to be hurt, and this is wrong as well.
Thus, mosques have to be vigilant against hate speech being preached from their pulpits. Now, I am fully aware that hateful sermons are neither the sole cause – nor even the major root cause – of the tumor of terror committed by the fanatic fringe of Muslims. There are many root causes: political repression, alienation from the greater society, horrible injustice prevalent in the Muslim world, an ugly interpretation of Islam, and many others. I am also fully aware that the overwhelming majority of mosques in the world do not spew hate speech from their pulpits.
Still, it only takes one mosque’s pulpit and one willing worshipper to start a disastrous chain reaction leading to terror, and thus if every mosque makes an effort to root out hate speech, it is an important start.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said, “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should only say something good or remain silent.” There is nothing good about inciting violence against those who choose not to follow the path of Islam. There is nothing good about exhorting the faithful to attack their fellow citizens. There is nothing good about saying that Muslims will give Western governments “a 9/11, day after day after day.” If that is all you have to say when you get up on the pulpit, then go and sit down in the congregation and remain silent. You don’t belong on the pulpit of our beloved Prophet.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.