The people who killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats in Libya on Tuesday may have believed that violent revenge for blasphemy is a useful way to promote Islam.
It isn’t. And most Muslims who see Islam as a religion of peace know that.
The storming of the US Consulate in Benghazi appeared to have been triggered by news of a film made in the United States that criticizes the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Protesters also breached the US Embassy in Cairo. The diplomats were simply a convenient target for impatient Muslims eager to defend Islam, perhaps even keen to quickly restore a caliphate in the Middle East.
While Muslims worldwide may be angered by acts of religious bigotry, most know that killing in the name of Islam is hardly favorable to Islam. Most faiths are based on love, not hate, in order that humanity can honor godly commands to love one another in a spirit of individual freedom. If there is to be a global contest of beliefs, it is beliefs, not people, that can be disputed.
Yet Muslim fears of blasphemy remain strong. They first erupted on the world scene in 1989 with Iran’s death sentence against author Salman Rushdie. They were behind 9/11 and the many senseless attacks that often follow slights on Islam.
Each violent response should compel Muslims to assert Islam’s teaching of tolerance. They have a good reason. Most of those targeted for blasphemy by Muslims are actually of Muslim background, such as Shiites accusing Sunnis, say scholars of Islam. And, according to the State Department, nearly half of the world’s governments abuse religious minorities. Opposing bigotry nonviolently is a global challenge.
Many Christians, for example, see Islam as an enemy, although few resort to acts of violence on innocent Muslims. (The recent killings of Sikhs in Wisconsin may have been an attack on people who the killer misguidedly thought were Muslims.) Polls show a third of Americans are “not favorable” to Islam.
Muslim-led governments that want strict antiblasphemy laws – both in their own country and enshrined in international law – see freedom of speech as a threat to social order and a license to insult Islam. Until enough peace-minded Muslims stand up for an interpretation of Islam that sees freedom as necessary for the flourishing of faith, these governments will continue their campaigns of intolerance or wink approval at mobs of zealots.
Libya is now in a difficult transition from autocracy to democracy. Hard-line Islamists hope to restrict the country’s new freedoms and its secular governance. The killing of the Americans reflects that struggle. How the world reacts to the killings, especially Muslims’ reactions, could shape Libya’s future, as well as the image of Islam worldwide.
Asserting Islam’s qualities of mercy and peace is the best counterpoint to such violence. Islam need not be a victim of bigotry if its adherents are steadfast about the truths it stands for.