On The Other Side Of Fear
By Javed Anand
Sep 29 2012
So what’s new? Someone makes a film, Innocence of Muslims, and there is “Muslim rage” in the streets. In this supposed “clash of civilisations”, how is one to choose between one brand of madness and another? Between those out to convince the world that there can be no such thing as a moderate Muslim because “Islam preaches violence”. And those Muslims who believe the best way to tell the world that “Islam means peace” is by resorting to violence each time someone provokes them with a book, a cartoon, a film.
The choice is simple. Nothing can justify violence. So the “Muslim rage” must be unequivocally condemned and freedom of expression defended, never mind the motive behind the making of the 14-minute film and its pathetic cinematic quality.
That there can be no democracy without fundamental freedoms we already know. What’s novel is the reiteration now by a growing number of Muslim scholars that Islam too rests on the freedom bedrock and the very notion of blasphemy is “un-Islamic”. That this is not a mainstream Muslim position is evident in the demand being raised by many Muslim religious and political leaders for a global consensus on limits to free speech and punishment for blasphemy.
Yet there is something new and refreshing in the air. Read the statements of religious and political leaders as well as editorials and letters to the editor in Urdu newspapers. Take, for example, a letter by a Saudi Arabia-based Indian, Abdul Rehman Mohammed Yahya, published simultaneously as a boxed/lead letter in the Monday editions of three Urdu dailies in Mumbai: Inquilab, Rashtriya Sahara and Sahafat. The gist of the long letter is a rhetorical question addressed to fellow Muslims: “What did Prophet Muhammad do in the face of repeated insults heaped on him during his lifetime?” The answer: he forgave them.
It is a universal Muslim belief that the prophet never retaliated to repeated insults to him, through either word or deed. In fact, he taught his followers that “the wounds of words hurt more than the wounds of swords”. In other words, Muslims who hurt others through word or deed do violence to the teachings of the very prophet in whose name they claim to act.
It is also now being realised that mindless murder and mayhem by Muslims is counter-productive: it merely reinforces the propaganda of Islam-baiters. Turn to the international pages of daily newspapers and hear voices from highly influential quarters that suggest an emerging consensus in the Muslim world: violence is no answer; words must be fought with words, images with images. Among other things is a proposed $350 million-dollar film on the prophet’s life and teachings. Early signs of a “Muslim spring”?
Perhaps we should look the other way too, at the phenomenon of recurring denigration and demonisation of Islam and its prophet in recent years. In the name of free speech, even hate speech is considered sacrosanct.
Is the freedom of speech absolute? Denying the Holocaust is a serious criminal offence in many European countries but not in the land of the First Amendment. But what about the 1919 verdict of the US Supreme Court: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre and causing panic.”
Last month, the California state assembly passed a resolution asking the University of California and the California State University “to take additional actions to confront anti-Semitism on its campuses”. Since anti-Semitism is reported to be raising its ugly head once again, the resolution is most welcome.
Now consider this: in 2001, polls by the well-known Pew Research Centre two months after 9/11 showed that 59 per cent of Americans had a favourable opinion of Muslims. But in 2010, ABC and The Washington Post reported that only 37 per cent of Americans held the same view. How is one to explain the paradox that post 9/11 American antipathy to Muslims is growing, and at an alarming rate? The answer lies in the exponential growth of Islamophobia in the US and throughout Europe.
So, how about state assemblies and the US Congress passing resolutions asking government agencies and educational institutions to “confront” growing Islamophobia? To this writer’s knowledge no such resolution is even under contemplation. Meanwhile, according to Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry: How the right manufactures fear of Muslims, “23 states have (already) presented anti-Sharia legislation of some type”. You might find the very idea of Sharia rule in the US hilarious. But for very many highly influential Americans today, the “danger” is real.
The meteoric rise of Islamophobia in the last few years, Lean argues, has little to do with what Muslims do or do not do. Rather, it is the cumulative product of the committed labour of “a tight-knit and interconnected confederation of right-wing fear merchants”, especially since 9/11. Engaged in America’s lucrative “fear factory” are individual bloggers, talk show anchors (Fox TV), “experts on Islam”, the evangelical Christian Right, Republican politicians, FBI officials, army generals and generous funders, many of whom are hard-line supporters of right-wing Zionism and Israel.
Lean is not postulating a hypothesis: his arguments are backed with meticulously researched facts and figures. Nor is he a conspiracy theorist. Not everyone who chooses to take a shot at Islam need be a paid member of some coalition. But the “interconnected confederation” is quick to pounce on every scrap of information, every “favourable” incident for its anti-Islam arsenal.
The scariest part, Lean argues, is that the methods and tactics of the fear factory are no different from those once deployed in the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism. You hate the enemy you fear. Are Muslims being made the “new Jews” in post-Holocaust West?
Javed Anand is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy. firstname.lastname@example.org