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Blasphemy riots: less about theology, more about power plays

Although riots in Egypt and Libya were said to be provoked by a blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, Islam scholars say the teachings are ambiguous and co-opted for political ends. 

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“Sadly, we had idiots on our side take the bait hook, line, and sinker,” says Arsalan Iftikhar, a Muslim commentator and author of “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.” [Editor's note: The original version misstated the title of Mr. Iftikhar's book.]

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“It was a criminal mob act of murder that, on our side, some people will try to say was trying to defend the honor of Islam,” he says. “And of course there are going to be a lot of [non-Muslim] right-wingers who are saying Islam is a religion of violence.” 

Un-Islamic response

But Mr. Iftikhar rejects that conclusion, attributing the violent response instead to societies just emerging from decades of dictatorial rule, during which there was no concept of freedom of speech.

He also refutes the argument advanced by some that because the prophet Muhammad, unlike God, cannot defend himself against blasphemy it is incumbent upon Muslims to take matters into their own hands.  

Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, agrees.

“It’s not up to individual Muslims to act to seek retribution,” he says. “Their role is to send out the correct information about the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.”

Nor is it correct to take action against citizens of any country for the trespasses of their fellow citizens, according to Prof. Abu Sway. “Muslims should not blame innocent people and make them pay for the actions of others,” he says. 

A statement from the Quran, quoted in a 2011 article in the Review of Religions says, “Let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness.” 

But in some instances, hadiths – sayings or actions attributed to Muhammad – have been used to justify murder as a punishment for blasphemy, the article continues. One such hadith claims the prophet Muhammad said, “Kill the person who abuses the Prophet and whip the one who abuses his companions.” 

In Islam, the primary authority is considered to be the Quran, which Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad received from Allah. But hadiths also carry weight in Islamic jurisprudence. However, translations and interpretations of both sources can vary widely.

Muslims point out that the book of Leviticus in the Bible, read by Jews and Christians, says that someone who blasphemes shall be put to death.

Freedom of speech debate 

Some have argued against anti-blasphemy laws because they limit freedom of speech, but Abu Sway of Al Quds University says laws curbing hateful speech are essential. 

He stresses that the YouTube clip is “unacceptable” from an Islamic point of view because it’s against the religion to tarnish the character of any person in such a manner. 

“So there is no way of correcting this film in itself, except that … it’s a moral imperative for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to enact laws that would prevent such actions.” 

But Ms. Shea, co-author of the 2011 book “Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide,” argues that trying to protect all citizens’ religious sentiments from offense negates freedom of speech.

Such restrictions also often fail to deliver on promises that they will bring social harmony, she adds, and instead creates resentments that people didn’t even know they had.

“It just feeds the sense of outrage,” she says. “The societies are constantly roiled by extremists ... that are constantly pointing at this person or that person, this offense and that offense.”

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