The fact that Muslims have not abandoned their values in the face of repeated assaults on their revered personalities is itself a great achievement. They should continue to protest and denounce such attempts at denigration.
Episodes such as the recent protests about the film attacking the Prophet (pbuh), produced in California with the support of a gaggle of notorious anti-Islamic groups, and published globally via YouTube, have come to have a certain familiar pattern, the broad outlines of which can be traced back to the Rushdie fitnah almost a generation ago. The attacks come in different forms, from novels claiming the right of artistic license, to cartoons claiming to represent freedom of political expression, to the latest film, which is so crude that not even the most enthusiastic promoters of attacks on Islam, or liberal defenders of free speech, can find a positive spin to put on it. Many of their authors have come to enjoy a certain celebrity on the back of their efforts, such as Rushdie himself (who has recently been in the media promoting an autobiography), Taslima Nasreen, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Theo van Gogh. (Although Nakoula Basseley Nakoula may reflect that the returns for such enterprises are diminishing somewhat). And despite the very different forms and contexts of these attacks, and many more that fail to spark the controversy that they seek, reactions to them share certain broad patterns.
Muslims are winning the argument about supposed freedom of speech.
In almost all cases, Muslim reaction starts on a relatively small, often local scale, escalating as word spreads around the Ummah, which may happen very quickly or take weeks or months. Nowadays, this is often on the back of internet or social networking campaigns, although these tools of communication were not available at the time of Rushdie’s satanic prose. The forms of protest vary from place to place, ranging from letter-writing and media campaigns in Western countries, to violent anger on the streets of Muslim cities, often targeting Western embassies and other institutions, including both those directly associated with the attack and others. In many cases, the targets of these protests are defined also by broader political concerns, as ordinary Muslims instinctively recognise such episodes to be inseparable from the global drive of Western hegemonic powers and institutions to dominate the Muslim world politically and economically. And increasingly, the protests blow over relatively quickly, having made their point. The protesters settle back into the routine of their often hard lives, nervously awaiting the next attack they face, whatever form that may take, knowing only that they will be called upon to defend themselves and their faith again. Meanwhile, the authors and supporters of the outrages enjoy their moments in the limelight (though some may be disappointed with their rewards) and the global commentariat pick over the bones of the controversy from their differing perspectives.
A number of threads in this resulting discourse are worth highlighting. One is that Muslims are winning the argument about supposed freedom of speech. While a stubborn minority in the West insist that so-called artists have the right to say and do what they want, regardless of the feelings of others and the broader consequences of their actions, many more have come to realise that such freedom is not absolute, that authors and artists must recognise contraints, and exercise their supposed rights responsibly and with sensitivity to the feelings of others. The debates on such issues that now take place after every such controversy are evidence of this; there were few such debates after the publication of Rushdie’s book, when it was taken for granted that those protesting against the portayal of the Prophet (pbuh) were simply ignorant, backward Muslims who did not understand art, literature or modernity. Of course, there are still those who try to dismiss Muslim protests in such terms now, but the fact that they no longer dominate the debate, and are increasingly opposed by those who take a more nuanced view (even if the latter are often at pains to distance themselves from Muslims and Muslim protests) is thanks to the steadfastness of Muslims in the face of such attacks.
The object of the Muslim protests was never to force the withdrawal of the book; many realised from the outset that this was impossible once it had become the focus of such attention and a symbol of the West’s supposed resistance to Muslim barbarity.
A second point is that many Muslims, particularly but not only in the West, fail to recognise the first point. Indeed, many accept the common Western assumption that Muslims lost the argument over Rushdie because the book remains in print, the author himself continues to enjoy the increased royalties from its notoriety, as well as other benefits of his celebrity, and that there have been all these subsequent attacks on Islam and the Prophet (pbuh), many of them deliberately setting out to cause offense and controversy. All of this is true, but misses all the key points. The object of the Muslim protests was never to force the withdrawal of the book; many realised from the outset that this was impossible once it had become the focus of such attention and a symbol of the West’s supposed resistance to Muslim barbarity.
The real aim of the Muslim response, as the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui said, was to take a stance, to say, “…you may have gone this far, but you go no farther; and in future, you will never go this far again.” And that is precisely what has been achieved. The Rushdie book may remain in circulation, but it has never been serialised or filmed or adapted for television or the stage. And no author has tried to produce another book treating the Prophet (pbuh) in a similar way, at any level, from that of high literature claimed by Rushdie to the mass market level of popular fiction. There will never be anti-Islamic equivalents of The Last Temptation of Christ or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. That is the measure of Muslim success.
The fact is that every subsequent controversy of this kind has stemmed from a specific and deliberate desire to offend Muslims, to provoke conflict and to follow the pattern of notoriety and celebrity established by Rushdie. That is inevitable. Islam and its followers are feared and hated in the West precisely because they stand against the moral and cultural decadence represented by Western civilization; and it is inevitable that the haters will repeatedly attack the things they fear. Hence the need for Muslims to stand again and again in defence of Islam and the Prophet (pbuh), who embodies and represents everything that Islam stands for.
The fact that such attacks continue does not reflect any failure of the Muslim defence of Islam; the fact that only such attacks continue is a measure of the Muslims’ success. What Muslims have achieved is to prevent the normalization of such treatment of Islam, to prevent Islam being diminished to the level of another historic and cultural artifact that Western artists and commercial entertainment companies can treat as they like, as they treat the histories of every other civilization. The Vikings, the Mongols, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mayas and Incas, even Judaism and Christianity — all have become entertainment fodder, with bowdlerized versions of their history and culture, as well as their most revered personages, as the basis of comics, movies, computer games and more. But not Islam — not now and not ever.
And this is not just a matter of people fearing the personal or commercial consequences of Muslim anger, though that is clearly a factor. It is also a broader recognition that Islam still enjoys a standing in the world, reflected in the fervour and commitment of its followers, that no other faith or culture maintains. It is a recognition, however subconscious or grudging, and however much it may be denied, that Islam is not just history; it is not just a remnant of an irrelevant and increasingly forgotten past. It is a vibrant, living, thriving civilizational force with the potential to reinvigorate the societies of those who follow it; which is clearly a challenge to the hegemony of those who have set aside all thought of faith, truth, respect and community in favour of self-centred individualism, hedonistic consumerism and the ruthless exploitation of anything and everything.
The real aim of the Muslim response, as the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui said, was to take a stance, to say, “…you may have gone this far, but you go no farther; and in future, you will never go this far again.”
Of course, few of those taking to the streets in Muslim cities around the world, or in Western capitals for that matter, may be able to explain their anger and motivation in such terms. But they know that they live in a world that is going in a direction they do not like and they know that the West’s deliberate attacks on the honour and person of the Prophet (pbuh) are part of that process. Those Muslims who are embarrassed by or apologetic about their fervour should think of what it has achieved. And those who say that we should be more mature and more measured in how we express our anger should know that polite letters and rational debate would have done nothing to prevent Islam and its Prophet (pbuh) being reduced to the status and levels of respect in the West as Christianity and ‘Isa (a) now suffer. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which such methods of communication worked to ensure that people behave as they should, but the fact is that we do not.
Until such time that we can succeed in reversing the trend of history, as assuredly we will in the unforeseeable future if not the foreseeable one, we must be prepared to fight such battles again and again.