By Ebrahim Rasool
10 January 2015
At the very outset of his mission, and in the face severe provocation and hostility, the Prophet Muhammad was invested with a default response by God in the Quran: “Endure what they say, and present them with the face of a beautiful dignity.” (73:10). This response was to be tested many times in the life of the Prophet and the early Muslims, most notably during his visit to the city of Taif when he was subjected to all manner of verbal and physical abuse and humiliation by Taif’s residents and leaders. On being offered the full array of natural and divine forces to exact punishment, he refused, praying instead that future generations would have less enmity and hatred and be more open. The spirit of endurance and dignity would also manifest with the Prophet’s tolerance of an old woman’s vitriol towards him displayed through her daily dumping of her rubbish at his door. On the day that he did not find the rubbish at his door, his compassion stirred him to enquire about her well being.
If this is how the Prophet Muhammad responded to his own humiliation then how is it that in our name some have appropriated the right to exact revenge, to commit murder, to implicate 1,6 billion Muslims, ostensibly to defend the honour of the Prophet against a cartoonist, even from an establishment that set out to exploit our discomfort with depiction, especially of God and the Prophet. How is it that the leadership of the global Muslim community is forced yet again to stand at the door of equivocation, weighing up the merits of the transgression of depiction and the crime of murder?
If ‘equivocation’ includes the meanings of speaking indirectly, avoiding unpleasant truths, pretending to communicate, appearing ambiguous, and being evasive to the point of prevarication and deceit, then the equivocation of the Muslim world overwhelmingly is a bewildered silence, garbled ‘yes, but’ sermons, and conversations that decry the murder but hope that cartoonists will not mess with us again. Encouragingly, there are more and more Muslim voices condemning the calculated assassinations at Charlie Hebdo, expressing condolences, refusing to choose between the atrocity of murder and freedom of expression, and distancing themselves from those who purport to act on our behalf. Encouragingly, they do so despite Charlie Hebdo’s deliberate provocation. Encouragingly, there are also more global, national and local political and faith leaders who are prepared to discern the Muslim world with nuance, when they can be forgiven for being blinded with outrage.
But silence, confusion defensiveness and flashes of courage are not going to be a sufficient counterbalance to the triumphalism of the extremists. They would believe after Charlie Hebdo, after the Australian coffee shop, after the Canadian Parliament, after the beheadings in Iraq, after the Nigerian abductions, after the Pakistan school horror, that they have successfully exploited a transitional moment for US, and therefore, Western, foreign policy reeling from 3 decades of unbridled militarism; that they have thrived in the confusion and distraction of regional battles for hegemony and the proxy forces – including some of them – nurtured in the process; that they have filled the political vacuums occasioned by a succession of fragile and failed states; and that they have been the beneficiaries of successful counter revolutions that ended the Arabs’ brief fling with freedom and democracy, and restored the fertile breeding ground for their cause by restoring the strong men of the region and repressing those who dared contemplate, even imperfectly, the possibilities of democracy.
But the extremists would also feel bouyed that their strategy to become the main representative of Muslims, to control its narrative, to define its relations with others, and to make the Muslim community the jungle for their violent jihad, has the possibility of succeeding. The strategy is based on the dual approach of instilling fear and eliciting equivocation. At the heart of all fundamentalisms is the capacity to paralyse the mainstream adherents by projecting or defending something that is familiar and germaine to their belief and identity. In Iraq and Syria, it may be a return to the idea of a Caliphate to offset the emasculation by globalisation. In the case of the Danish or Charlie Hebdo cartoons it may be in defence of Islam’s position on depiction or avenging the honour of the Prophet.
Against such a simplistic and instinctive perspective, is the more complex task of helping Muslims to navigate a complex world. Of course we feel hurt when the Prophet is not just depicted, but insulted; when Palestinians are not simply continuing to suffer, but zionism seems unstoppable in its ambitions; when Muslim immigrants to the west are not just unwelcome, but profiled through islamophobia; and when the yearning for freedom and democracy expressed in the Arab Spring are not just stymied, but the strongmen are returned and the freedom fighters repressed. But how do we win the argument for the Quranic and Prophetic capacity to endure what they do and to maintain a beautiful dignity in the face of hurt and anger? How do we demonstrate the unsustainability of rockets, bullets, suicide vests and other instruments of war?
We need to defeat the extremism from within Islam. It is a danger to humanity, to Muslims and to Islam and, therefore, it is not enough to distance ourselves from them. They distort our values, our teachings and our identity, and all of these need to be reclaimed from them. We must deny them the ability to elicit equivocation from us by insisting that only those who truly understand Islam’s orientation to peace, mercy and balance will be the custodians of the Prophet’s honour, the dignity of Muslims and the struggles for freedom. We must be the first to rally Muslims, and mobilise alliances and coalitions with people of other faiths and persuasions behind universal values, sometimes for causes which are explicitly Muslim and other times causes which impinge on the rights and dignity of fellow citizens. No vacuum must be left for extremists to fill.
We need to disarm the counterpart extremists. They are the mirror images of the Muslim extremists they purport to combat, yet they do more to make lands fertile for them, aid their recruitment, and often provide them causes to fight. They wage unwise wars, target blindly, decree that secularism be the precondition for democracy, drive hostile campaigns against immigration and multiculturalism, and prefer perfect order under dictators rather than imperfect freedom under democratically elected leaders. We need to confront even them and not allow the world to descend into a vortex of extremism and fundamentalism, militarism and intolerance.
We must refuse to make mutually exclusive binaries of fundamental values and rights. Freedom of religion is not a license for literal interpretations that oppress women and permit murder, and freedom of speech is not a license for hate speech and speech that demean. The core values that must be upheld are dignity and equality and they should remain the arbiters of when which rights trump others, and when some rights are inconsistent with the universal aspirations of humanity. Similarly, the values of peace and freedom also set out the methodologies by which we must manage differences and infractions of rights. No right is absolute, even as it remains fundamental. All rights are realized in relation to other rights.
We must build a culture of freedom, human rights and democracy among Muslim nations and communities. These are not in contradiction with Islam. Dictatorship is, and so is the denial of rights and liberty! We must not join the chorus of Westerners who believe we only deserve the politics of order, nor join the anti-democratic forces in the Muslim community who fear democracy and so declare either our unpreparedness for it or Islam’s opposition to it. Democracy, freedom and human rights are the antidote to extremism and fundamentalism.
We must avoid both isolation and assimilation as the means of coexistence where we are minorities. They respectively accentuate our otherness and obliterate our religious identity. Both foment discontent and resentment, making us either gleeful spectators of, or participants in, the atrocities done in our name. We must create rather the possibility of integration where we contribute to the integrity of the nation and, in return, we have our integrity as Muslims respected by fellow citizens.
Ultimately, we must provide leadership that is not equivocal, timid or isolated. We must discern between whether, for example, cold and calculated assassination to defend the honour of the Prophet does him more dishonor than the dishonourable depiction that we are ostensibly defending him from. And then we must say unequivocally that while we oppose the malignant work of some cartoonists, we reserve our deepest anger for those who pervert our values and violate our image. We must also provide theological leadership that does not hand the keys to our behavior to any obscure cartoonist who knows that we are more emotional about the depiction of the Prophet than, say, the wanton killing of schoolgirls in Pakistan. Nor must we allow extremists to get away, literally, with murder when they behead or assassinate supposed enemies of Islam the one day, and interpret our silence as a mandate the next day to murder schoolgirls, Sufis or Shias. Unequivocal consistency is our only ally in times of danger.