Sam Becile's recent "movie" depicts Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, as a buffoon, a womaniser and a child molester. The movie is far from a genuine attempt at social or theological criticism; rather, it comes across as a work created by a group of misinformed and bored misanthropes. Unfortunately, many in the Muslim world have taken the bait, and have responded with acts of brutal violence. The saddest moment in this outpouring of rage was the death of US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens (all this on the anniversary of 9/11).
The violent protests involve a cruel, and perhaps bitter, irony. The protesters believe Becile's movie besmirches the honour of Muhammad, and this is because the movie depicts Muhammad as being a violent, bloodthirsty, womaniser. The irony is that the protesters have responded to this movie with acts of violence, all the while believing that Muhammad was a peace loving and virtuous person. Such acts seem to epitomise the height of irrationality, and it is no wonder that Islam has become easy fodder for the champions of the New Atheism movement.
For example, Sam Harris, a leading proponent of New Atheism, declares that mainstream Islam itself "represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism. The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no centre". Considering the violence we have witnessed, one couldn't be blamed for being sympathetic with the sentiments expressed by Harris.
I disagree with Harris' view of Islam. However, his comments cannot simply be ignored as they raise a number of important questions that should be considered: is there a mainstream Islam; if there is then do mainstream Muslims reject intellectual honesty, equality, secularism and pluralism?
There is a strong tradition of intellectual honesty and pluralism within Islam, consider the example of Abu Yusuf al-Kindi, considered to be the first Muslim philosopher who stated the following: "We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself."
I believe the tradition of Islam represents a spectrum of views, and there is a centre made up of those who welcome intellectual honesty, equality, secularism and pluralism. The problem is not that Islam lacks a centre, but that mainstream Muslims are being out-manoeuvred by the violent and irrational fringe. This fringe dominates the headlines and shapes the public view of Islam and Muslims.
The person of Muhammad is dear to the heart of Muslims, and the reason for this is that Muhammad represents an important, and challenging, ideal. Prior to Islam, there existed tribes, some of whom had hated each other for generations. Muhammad was able to transform hate and distrust into genuine love and trust. Muslims love Muhammad because he showed it was possible to love each other while being at peace with ourselves.
Given what Muhammad represents, we can argue it is the perpetrators of violence who are the ones who have besmirched and dishonoured Muhammad. After all, Muhammad is reported to have said that, "the strong are not the ones who overcome others by force, but the strong are the ones who control themselves while in anger".
Dr Zain Ali is head of the Islamic studies research unit at Auckland University.
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