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. 

Ibrahim Alaguri/AP
A man looks at documents at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sept. 12. The graffiti reads, 'no God but God,' 'God is great,' and 'Muhammad is the Prophet.'

The mobs that killed the US ambassador to Libya and assaulted the US Embassy in Egypt may have been provoked by a blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, but Muslim scholars and analysts alike say the attacks have little justification in Islamic theology. Instead, they reflect societies roiled by power struggles and competing ideologies – in which Muslims are used as pawns for political gain.

“The punishment for blasphemy and even the definition for blasphemy is not in the Quran. There are some hadiths that address it, but it’s ambiguous,” says Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. “So it’s very vague and … it’s manipulated by those who want to raise a mob and wield power within a society.” 

She cites other recent examples of blasphemous incidents being exploited for political purposes, including the protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan over Florida pastor Terry Jones burning the Quran, fanned by the Taliban, and a Danish newspaper’s denigrating cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, exploited by Arab governments upset with the Bush administration’s push for democracy in the Middle East.

In this instance, the offending material appears to be an amateurish 14-minute YouTube clip that portrays Muhammad as a bumbling philanderer and child molester who makes up his religion on the fly to suit his own whims and incites his followers to unrestrained violence. The clip is purportedly taken from a full-length film that the filmmaker, a man claiming to be an Israeli Jew by the name of Sam Bacile, said cost $5 million and was funded by some 100 Jewish donors. 

But there is mysteriously little proof that Mr. Bacile, who told the Associated Press he was a California-based property developer, is who he says he is. The Israeli government has said it knows of no citizen by that name, and there is no trace of a Sam Bacile in US White Pages or the movie database A colleague of his interviewed by The Atlantic said Bacile was not Israeli, “most likely” not Jewish, and was using a pseudonym.

But whoever was behind it, the film – whose quality suggests a far lower budget, it should be noted – was clearly meant to incite a response, just as the Danish cartoons did. 

“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.]

“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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