Why Muslims should protest public insults to the Prophet

A photograph of a rally in Pakistan, showing South Asian men in a variety of headwear including turbans, holding aloft a sign that reads "Stop blasphemers at social media, blasphemous sketches contest in Holland".Geert Wilders (or Geert Hitlers as I call him), a far-right Dutch opposition politician, has cancelled an event he had been planning (or claimed to have been planning) this coming November, a contest for cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. He claimed he had cancelled the contest as a result of having received death threats and because he did not want others to become the “victims of Islamic violence”. According to Al-Jazeera, around 10,000 people had taken part in a protest organised by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik party in Islamabad, Pakistan, against the event and to call on prime minister Imran Khan to cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands (and there have been others elsewhere, though often organised by certain Islamic schools). AJ quotes a Dutch political analyst in London, Stijn van Kessel, as saying that the event was “a way for him to generate media attention; he hopes that will eventually translate to votes”. A 26-year-old man, reportedly also from Pakistan, was arrested in the Hague for making a threat against Wilders. Unlike in the case of the Danish cartoons ten years ago, there have not been widespread Muslim protests in Europe against the event.

Kessel’s analysis is key to why Muslims should object to and protest against public insults to the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and the public demeaning of Islam or Muslims. While I do not believe Muslims should turn into irrational raging mobs or lose our composure, we should raise our voices and use all legal means to ensure that such events are shut down and that, if a politician like Wilders wants to come to our country, he is refused a visa on “public good” grounds as has been the case with racist speakers of all stripes in the past, including Muslims accused of supporting anti-Semitism or terrorism. This goes far beyond the threat posed by The Satanic Verses, a novel by a writer beloved on the UK’s literary scene which would have sold few copies if it had not been for the protests and the infamous ‘fatwa’ from the Iranian leader who sought to bolster his prestige and power. Cartoons or literature insulting any religious figure, still living or otherwise, are quite legal in the UK but material intended to foster hatred against a minority is on much more shaky legal ground.

Some of the Danish cartoons (which were solicited by and published in a mainstream, right-wing newspaper, a bit like the Daily Mail) show what the cartoons that might have won a competition organised by Geert Wilders might have looked like: essentially they were stereotypes of a nasty Arab or Muslim — a man with a bomb in his turban, for example, or a man with an unkempt beard holding a dagger with two veiled wives behind him. The message was, “look at the kind of man these Moozlums aspire to be like”. In other words, it is a slur on all Muslims; the suggestion is that if we weren’t restrained by western norms or western-backed dictatorships, we would all be like the dirty, deranged-looking man in the cartoons; we are only feigning civilisation out of necessity or engaging in taqiyya or concealing our true beliefs or nature. The target is us. In addition, such events serve to embolden bigots and to chip away at inhibitions about what may be said about, and ultimately done to, Muslims. It gets people used to expressing hate, to shouting vile slogans, to repeating untruths without a second thought, and the next stage is violence.

A Muslim friend was asking why we only protest when it is our own Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) who is insulted rather than, say, Jesus (peace be upon him) or another prophet. The answer is that most of the people who would insult Jesus Christ are people of Christian background striking back at their own upbringings and, while it does offend us, it is no threat to us and additionally, most of what goes on in this country that we consider blasphemy against Jesus Christ is intended as reverence by those involved. On the rare occasions we hear earlier prophets insulted or condemned, it is based on very harsh descriptions of their behaviour from the Bible, which may or may not be accurate and are in some cases misunderstood (the story of prophet Solomon, peace be upon him, and the baby being a classic example). We do not have the resources to be every nation’s conscience and police about all these things.

Insisting on drawing cartoons or other pictures of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is a tell-tale sign of someone with bad intentions towards Muslims or Islam. It’s widely known and understood that we do not do that in Islam (much as we do not play-act him or his Companions — despite its popularity, The Message remains banned in many Muslim countries), and we do not appreciate seeing others do it. Those who respect us, respect that tradition; only those who do not will go to the effort of drawing or painting such images — unlike with other mannerisms which can easily trap those who are unaware, it’s not a difficult taboo to observe. As for why, the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) forbade the drawing of pictures and making of statues in general, and we have always used the word rather than the image to inform and educate. Our aim in Islam is to know and please Allah, God, and not to confuse Him with His creation, even the best of creation. Even the flag of Islam contained the shahada, not a pictorial symbol (the battle flag also includes a sword). None of us knows what the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) looked like, although we have descriptions, but we have a lot of details about his behaviour, how he treated and interacted with people, right down to how he ate. We can all aspire to be like him in these traits; particularly as we are a multi-racial community, we cannot all look like him.

Some Muslims on Facebook have said that the best response to hate towards the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is to celebrate him with gatherings in which we remind ourselves of his life and his nature and read poems such as the Burda and the many mawlid (birthday) poetic suites, and that we should strive to educate the public on the truth about these matters. I agree. But we must remember that the true targets of these insults is the Muslims who live in the same lands as the people issuing them — namely, ourselves, and our rights and liberties and in the most extreme cases, our lives and our loved ones’ lives. This, and not our hurt feelings, is why we must fight them.

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