The recent protests across the Middle East have revived a debate about blasphemy in Islam – how it is defined, and how devout Muslims should respond.
While some Muslims cite the Quran or hadiths – sayings or actions attributed to the prophet Muhammad – as justification for violent retribution, Muslim scholars and analysts alike say there is no clear mandate in Islamic theology for such a response.
Instead, they say, the recent violence reflects 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."
In this case, 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 and incites his followers to unrestrained violence.
The movie clearly was meant to incite a response.
"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."
"Of course there are going to be a lot of [non-Muslim] right-wingers who are saying Islam is a religion of violence," he adds. He attributes the violence to decades of dictatorial rule with little freedom of speech.
"Their role is to send out the correct information about the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him," he says.
Nor is it correct according to Islam to take action against any individual for the trespasses of their fellow citizens, says Professor 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."
But in some instances, hadiths have been used to justify murder as a punishment for blasphemy, the article continues. One such hadith quotes the prophet Muhammad as saying, "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, and translations and interpretations of both sources can vary widely.
New laws are needed to prevent materials such as the offending YouTube clip from being disseminated, says Abu Sway of Al Quds University.
"It's a moral imperative for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to enact laws that would prevent such actions," he says.
But Ms. Shea, coauthor of the 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 create 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."