Why should we not be offended?

September 21, 2012 5:21 pm

Christopher Stevens, US Ambassador

Who, in their sane and proper mental condition, thinks to celebrate the loss of innocent lives? A death is not a celebratory occasion for normal people, especially not the death of the blameless at the hands of crazed fanatics. Yesterday saw the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya, as well as three others in an attack on the American Embassy. The cause of the devastation has been identified as a video production circulating on YouTube in which Prophet Muhammad’s character and honour is very seriously denigrated. To get an impression of the sort of vile slurs that feature, I would recommend an article written in the Guardian today by Andrew Brown who, having seen some part of it, lists the depictions that have resulted in the bloodshed witnessed yesterday.

Unfavourable depictions of the Prophet are not rare or new. The most notorious among them are, of course, the Salman Rushdie affair and more recently the Danish Cartoons. We’ve been here before, many times. You might also recall the Dutch cherub Geert Wilders, with his very own cinematic attempt at tainting the Islamic faith. And the argument is always the same: it is a matter of pitting liberal values of freedom of expression against the murderous bigotry of those who wish to silence free speech. The Danish cartoon controversy was actually raging while I was at College studying J.S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’-  it couldn’t have come at a better time. My view at that time was that we are indeed all entitled to express our views if we consider ourselves adherents of liberal values, but that the cartoons were something else: they were gratuitous and inflammatory. They were designed not to provoke a reasoned debate but were wicked slurs designed to incite the sort of behaviour that succeeded in giving Muslims in general a bad name.

Obama, speaking on the death of Christopher Stevens

The attacks on the Libyan Embassy have not altered that view, but I have something further to say and it is this: We, Muslims, are compelled on each occasion something of this nature takes place, to condemn loudly, and in the most unambiguous terms, the actions of those who claim to be our fellow believers. What is disturbing is not only that anyone should think we need any nudging in this direction, but that this outpouring of contrition leaves no room for the expression of the fact that we are deeply aggrieved by the insults that have been aimed at the man who is most beloved to us. What is shocking is that some of us now concentrate entirely on the tragic actions of fanatics rather than giving a thought to the honour of our prophet. We accuse them of giving us a bad name. We accuse ourselves of failing to rein in the lunatic fringe of our community. We mourn with the world for the loss of life. But I fear not many of us mourn the desecration of the image of our prophet!

The idea that any protest against the honour of the prophet should be ignored, otherwise they would receive undeserved attention, is a revealing one. Let us not forget that the companions of the prophet jumped in front of his body in the mayhem of Uhud, and let their bodies be speared by arrows so that no harm would come to him. Does it sit well with the conscience of any believer, then, to simply ‘ignore’ slander against his reputation? But I fear that this is the level some of us have been reduced to. Barack Obama speaks of justice, but if he had any sense of it he would hold to account the shameless individuals whose film I believe was the operative cause of the loss of life in Libya.

Those who produced the film must have known, clearly and distinctly, that there exists within the Muslim community a negligible minority who cannot be dissuaded from engaging in insane actions; it is not as if there is no precedent for it. Having such knowledge, they were aware that their production would very likely result in danger to life and property. But they did not desist. They were not interested in the impact of their actions on the innocent, but merely in promoting a view of Islam that they had already cultivated. Their actions were calculated, and in my view, criminal. The upshot of all this is that, once again, we are forced to defend ourselves against accusations that Islam promotes violence and destruction. Again, we are blameworthy. What sickens me is that this state of affairs means we cannot leap in defence of the honour of our prophet. We have, I fear, become meek, and we manage to bleat apologetically. Just like in any community, there are some in the Islamic community whose actions have nothing to do with the teachings of the Islamic faith. We are not, I believe, accountable for them. But it seems that condemning murder and condemning those who incited it have become mutually incompatible ideas. There is almost a sense that we shouldn’t mention the offence caused to our most cherished beliefs, just in case it seems like we might be endorsing murderers. In my mind at least, the distinction is clear. It is sad then, that in a liberal democracy, it should take courage to say it.

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