By S Iftikhar Murshed
September 23, 2012
A criminal in whose remorseless heart only evil resides has succeeded in provoking the entire Muslim world into senseless violence which has resulted in more than thirty deaths till now. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a naturalised US citizen of Egyptian origin, has admitted that he is the manager of the company that produced the film Innocence of Muslims which demonises Islam and its illustrious Prophet. Nakoula, who was imprisoned in 2010 for 21 months after being convicted of fraud, is suspected of being the mysterious “Sam Bacile,” said to be the script author and director of the film.
The fraudster has provided Al-Qaeda and its affiliates a propaganda windfall. As soon as a 14-minute Arabic clip of the film was released on the internet, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) issued a statement urging violence against US diplomatic missions in the Middle East, and Africa.
Libyans, in particular, were reminded that Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal regions in June, and this should rekindle their resolve as “the sons of Omar al-Mukhtar (the Libyan independence hero) to take revenge upon those who attack our Prophet.”
The immediate outcome was the killing of the US ambassador in Libya along with three diplomats at the American consulate in Benghazi. Thus, the ex-convict had won early laurels in his objective of reinforcing the notoriously unwarranted perception that Islam is an inherently violent religion. The head of Libya’s National Assembly, Muhammad al-Megaryef, put the blame squarely on Al-Qaeda as he placed a bouquet in front of the consulate building.
The Al-Qaeda appeal resonated in the insurgency-ravaged tribal agencies of Pakistan and, on September 15, the spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Ehsanullah Ehsan, declared: “We invite the youth of Pakistan to stand up in defence of their religion and its sanctity. You are no less than the lads of Benghazi...” He then added that “atrocities” against Muslims were being perpetrated across the world and, “Zionists and crusaders are insulting the signs of Islam everywhere.”
The TTP’s version of Islam was in evidence a few weeks earlier when it circulated a video showing the severed heads of 17 captured Pakistani soldiers. The grotesque film clip was not the first of its kind.
The same day that the TTP issued its statement, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, met President Zardari and sternly denounced the anti-Islam film which he described as “disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage.”
But these words, which were a repetition of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said earlier, fell on deaf years. It was Nakoula who proved that he has a fiendish instinct for touching the raw spots of Muslims and provoking them to violate Islam’s doctrinaire emphasis on peace and non-aggression.
Violence in the name of religion is a heresy, but murder under the pretence of defending the faith is projected as piety. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chapter of the Jamiat-e-Ittehadul Ulema announced a ten million rupees bounty for the killing of the film’s director and insisted that the US ambassador be expelled. Similar demands were made by other religious parties as the protests gathered foreboding momentum.
The outrage in the Islamic world is undoubtedly justified, but the violence it has generated is starkly at variance with the Quranic injunction: “And, indeed, He has enjoined upon you in this divine writ that whenever you hear people deny the truth of God’s messages and mock at them, you shall avoid their company until they talk of other things...” (4:140.)
The prohibition of intemperate reaction against those who “deny” and ridicule “God’s messages” was demonstrated in the manner that the Holy Prophet negotiated the Truce of Hudaibiyya with the emissary of the Quraysh, Suhayl ibn Amr, in 628. Several well-authenticated accounts of the deliberations, confirmed, among others, by Muhammad ibn Hanbal (778-855), Shuyab an-Nasai (829-915) and Muhammad ibn at-Tabari (839-923), recount that the Prophet dictated the proposed agreement to Ali ibn Abi Talib in this manner:
“Write down, ‘In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace’; but Suhayl interrupted him and said: “We have never heard of (the expression) ‘the Most Gracious’; write down only what we know.” Whereupon the Prophet said to Ali: “Write, then, ‘in Thy name, O God.’” Ali wrote as he was told; and the Prophet continued: “This is what has been agreed between Muhammad, God’s apostle, and the people of Mecca...” But Suhayl interrupted again: “If thou wert (really) an apostle of God, (this would be an admission on our part that) we have done wrong to thee; write, therefore, as we understand it.” And so the Prophet dictated to Ali: “Write thus: ‘This is what has been agreed upon between Muhammad, the son of Abd Allah, the son of Abd al-Muttalib, and the people of Mecca...’”
The dignified restraint of the Holy Prophet at Hudaybiyyah towards those “who were bent on denying the truth” and “harboured a stubborn disdain in their hearts-the stubborn disdain born of ignorance” – is commended in the same Quranic verse (48:26). Compromise, and not violence, was employed despite Suhayl’s blasphemous insults.
An incident in Muslim Spain in 850 is also instructive. Perfectus, a Christian monk, used abusive language against the Holy Prophet in a marketplace in Cordova and was imprisoned. Though the Quran does not ordain punishment for such slander, the laws of Al-Andalus prescribed capital punishment. Despite this, the judge was extremely reluctant to award the death penalty because Perfectus had merely responded to an offensive remark by a Muslim. The hope was that he would recant so that he could be set free. But instead, the monk became even more vitriolic in his denunciation of the Prophet and was executed.
That summer, about fifty other Christian clerics deliberately followed in the footsteps of Perfectus. These so-called martyrs of Cordova were sternly criticised by the bishop of the city as well as by a majority of the Christian community. The episode was an aberration in the history of Muslim Spain where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived alongside each other for centuries in peace and harmony. The blasphemous pronouncements of the clerics did not spark violence. The law of the land, which was undoubtedly severe, was reluctantly applied, but only after the accused were provided the opportunity and encouraged to retract their statements.
In contrast, the violent reaction to The Innocence of Muslims has provided the film a publicity bonanza which would, otherwise, have cost its producer a fortune. The Pakistani government has done more than any other to promote the trashy video through its harebrained decision of declaring Friday a public holiday. Such cheap political gimmickry has achieved nothing but has cost the country billions of rupees.
The correct and dignified response would have been to sue the producer of the film. In a remarkably insightful article last week, lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani explained that despite the freedom of speech guaranteed under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court in 1942 was: “There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libellous and the insulting or fighting words those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”
In far away California, Nakoula must be laughing up his sleeves. He has learnt how easy it is to provoke Muslims who have set aside the rational emphasis of their great religion and seem to believe, as the as the 16th-century leader of the Protestant movement Martin Luther did, that “reason is the devil’s harlot.”
S Iftikhar Murshed is the publisher of Criterion quarterly.