September 22, 2012 by Water Wisdom
Though most Muslims felt insulted by a film trailer that disparaged the Prophet Muhammad, many were embarrassed by the excesses of protesters and preachers
Sep 22nd 2012 | CAIRO | from the print edition
AFTER the noon prayer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on September 14th, a copiously bearded speaker delivered a rousing, finger-wagging open-air sermon. Thundering against the incendiary anti-Muslim film trailer that recently appeared on the internet, he warned his brothers to prepare for battle, urging them to take up weapons against incoming “Crusader armies”. Soon after, youths resumed a rock-throwing assault on police protecting the nearby American embassy.
As with past incidents of what many Muslims see as Western attacks against their beliefs, similar scenes unfolded across the Muslim world, producing tragic results. The anger displayed at all these events was certainly real, and widely shared among Muslims. Yet the television coverage of protests obscured an obvious fact. As in many other protests across the region, the crowd at the fiery Friday sermon in Cairo numbered in the mere hundreds, in a space where throngs a thousand times bigger have become commonplace. In the midst of a city of perhaps 20m inhabitants, the rest went about their business as usual. The number of youths who actually picked up rocks barely rose to the dozens. Their anger was aimed as much at the police as against “the West”. The street-fighting looked more like a rowdy sporting event, replete with parading to the cameras, than a clash of civilisations.
In this section
- »Rage, but also self-criticism
- Passing the buck
- Don’t push them underground
- Where al-Qaeda rules the roost
- Blazing saddles in the Sahara
- Tangles over tenure
The news focus on violence and on the shrillest voices of protest shifted attention from other important responses to the offending film. In many Muslim countries the furore has boosted moves to strengthen laws against blasphemy, just when such laws had come under unfavourable scrutiny. In Pakistan, for instance, a young Christian woman was belatedly freed from custody when her accuser was found to have planted evidence used to charge her with blasphemy. In Egypt human-rights groups had protested against the imprisonment of several Coptic Christians for allegedly putting blasphemous material on the internet.
In Egypt the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood now appears to have bowed to pressure from harder-line Salafists to enshrine stern wording against blasphemy in the country’s draft constitution. This would criminalise “insults” directed not only against God and all the prophets of monotheism, from Moses to Muhammad, but also against the wives of Muhammad, the first four caliphs of Islam and the prophet’s companions. In a related move, at least six countries with big Muslim populations persuaded Google, the owner of the YouTube video service, to block access to the offending footage.
Seeking to show a more measured response than public displays of rage, some governments have proposed counter-offensives to the film. The vastly wealthy Gulf state of Qatar says it is spending $450m to sponsor a three-part epic film on the life of Muhammad. The office of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the highest state religious official, plans to launch an international “Know Muhammad” campaign to correct misinterpretations of him.
Yet the debate has also sharpened criticism of religion’s intrusion into politics. To expose the pitfalls of Egypt’s blasphemy laws, for instance, activists have filed suits against a sheikh who angered Egyptian Christians by publicly burning a bible in response to the anti-Muslim film clip. Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, provoked an angry backlash by staging a giant rally to protest against the film. Critics not only charged him with manipulating the incident to ingratiate himself with Sunni Muslims, among whom Mr Nasrallah’s star has waned with the region-wide rise of sectarian animosity. They called him a hypocrite for condemning America as a shielder of blasphemers while ignoring the offences to God committed by his ally, Syria’s regime. Its soldiers have destroyed mosques and, by the evidence of YouTube footage, forced prisoners to say, “There is no God but Bashar Assad”.
As the noise over the film died down, the furore also provoked deeper reflection about the issues of blasphemy, and of legal and cultural differences between Muslim countries and the West. The tenor of this more thoughtful response, in newspaper and internet commentary, has been sharply self-critical. “We Are All Khaled Said”, an Egyptian Facebook page with 2.4m followers that was instrumental in rallying last year’s revolution, posted a list of 12 truths regarding the allegedly blasphemous footage, such as the fact that before the protests erupted barely 500 people had watched it, a number that apparently rose to 30m a week later.
Writing in the London-based daily, al-Quds al-Arabi, Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist, was less circumspect. The “film”, he said, was in fact just a trailer. It is “us”, the Arabs, who are the spectacle. Mr Khoury ended by quoting al-Mutanabbi, a medieval poet who ridiculed religious excess with a gibe against men of his time who, in supposed imitation of the prophet, sported full beards with bare upper lips: “Is it the point of faith to shave your moustaches/ O people whose ignorance i