One of the most confounding tendencies for non-Muslims living in the West to apprehend is why some Muslims react with such vehemence, and even violence, when the two most sacred symbols of Islam—the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)–are the object of disparagement and desecration. My belief is that the answer to this question rests on fundamental differences in the way in which Muslims and non-Muslims view the question of self-identity.
I think it can be fairly said that in modern western societies, one’s nation or race are the primary categories by which an individual identifies himself. Minority groups that have suffered unique historical injustice and persecution often adhere to a “heightened” form of self-identity in which they constitute subgroups (a particular race or ethnic group) within a larger collectivity (a particular nation). In the United States, the most obvious example of this is found in native Americans and black Americans, both of which have experienced a sui generis form of discrimination–that is, one distinct from any other in the American experience, both in magnitude and duration. Indeed, their respective histories are characterized by centuries of human bondage and mass extermination, the residual effects of which continue to disadvantage them in employment, educational, economic, and host of other opportunities.
In the context of their respective struggles, native and black Americans developed a rich and indigenous cultural uniqueness that manifested itself in differences in dress, manner, speech, food, song, dance, and many other forms of collective (and even defiant) expression. These differences enabled both groups to preserve a semblance of their original traditions and mitigate sweeping assimilation into a country that did not regard them as equals. Similarly, the history of the Jewish people is one marked by more than two millennia of persecution, spanning the many countries and continents in which they scattered and existed as minorities. Following the Nazi Holocaust, in which fully one-third of world Jewry was annihilated, Jews too recognized the dangers of assimilation and the need to preserve the religious and cultural heritage of a rapidly declining population. The creation of the modern state of Israel was a manifestation of this recognition.
Given their unique history of suffering, these three groups represent the most conspicuous examples of racial groups that subscribe to a heightened form of self-identity. Despite the fact that significant numbers of all three exist in the United States, (less so in the case of American Indians) many of them view themselves as Indian, black, or Jewish, respectively, before viewing themselves as “Americans.”
With regard to the Muslim world, the question of self-identity must be examined from an alternate perspective. While nationalistic and ethnic identity are undoubtedly important elements of one’s self-identity, they are trumped by more a universal trait, namely the religion of Islam. In my experience, there is one overarching characteristic that holds true for almost every Muslim I have ever known. Whether it be my family, friends, the community in which I grew up, or the countless Muslims I’ve come to know since, a profound love for Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a near-universal. This fact holds true no matter how “conservative,” “moderate,” “liberal,” “sinful,” or “pious” one may be. Muslims today, by-and-large, have a strong yearning to remain in touch with their religious roots and come to an understanding of an Islam that is in harmony with their moral conscience and which can be a source of pride, tranquility, and spiritual nourishment. Although the level of religious devotion varies considerably from one person to another, most Muslims have at least one avenue through they derive enthusiasm for their faith–Eid, Ramadan, congregational prayer, Islamic history and spirituality, charity work, or even sharing stories of the great Abrahamic Prophets, are just a few examples. However, few would deny that a special love for the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a trait embedded in the heart of every Muslim in the world.
As young children Muslims are taught to love and revere the Prophet Muhammad more than themselves. They are encouraged to send God’s love, peace, and blessings upon him each time his name his mentioned. His example is one that Muslims, both young and old, strive to emulate in all aspects of human endeavor, including how to conduct oneself with grace and dignity, not merely when circumstances are difficult, but also when they are advantageous. In spite of the many thousands of deprecating tracts that have been written by both classical and contemporary polemicists since Islam’s inception, even fourteen hundred years since his coming, Muslims remain unshakable in their belief that Muhammad was a man of the highest moral character; someone so gentle that he was capable of being moved to tears by the most subtle expression of humanity, including receiving a smile from a stranger. Indeed, the entire Muslim consciousness is one rooted in paying homage to Muhammad’s life example, even in matters that appear seemingly trivial to an objective bystander: how to comb ones hair, what prayer to recite upon leaving one’s home, how to conduct oneself at meals, and how lay at night during sleep. Such emulations are not carried out to merely engage in ritual copy-catting, but rather to enable Muslims to be continually aware of his life example, which, in turn, impels them to conduct their dealings with others with fairness, patience, high-mindedness, and sagacity.
The Islamic tradition teaches that even in the midst of battle, the Prophet Muhammad required his soldiers to adhere to the highest ethical principles, principles that mirror the laws of war enshrined in modern international treatises, including the Geneva Conventions. Muhammad (pbuh) categorically prohibited the killing of women, children, priests, monks, elderly persons, disabled persons, and indeed all non-combatant civilians not overtly involved in battle. He famously stated that “no one can punish with fire except the Lord of fire” (effectively barring nuclear weapons); he also forbade poisoning wells and uprooting trees (biological weapons). He explicitly disallowed burning or mutilating the bodies of the dead. And because he taught his followers that God has ennobled all of humanity and created mankind in image of Prophet Adam, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even prohibited his followers from striking their enemies in the face during battle.
In short, a Muslim’s love for the Prophet Muhammad is simply above reproach. Thus to hear his name dishonored and defamed is the equivalent of hearing disparagements about one’s mother, one’s father, and or even oneself. Although the analogy is not without shortcomings, one may say that, to a Muslim, blasphemy is comparable to calling a black American the “N” word, or engaging in genocide-denial in a discussion with a Holocaust survivor or American Indian, the offensiveness of which cannot be overstated. Religion and scared tradition are simply inseparable from the Muslim psychology, in the same way that the Nazi Holocaust is an event indelibly imprinted upon the Jewish consciousness.
It should also be remembered that, in view of the many centuries of antagonism that have existed between the Islamic world and the Christian (and more recently secular) West, the question of blasphemy takes on an added symbolic significance that conjures up memories of crusades, inquisitions, and persecution of the “Mohammedans.” It is therefore imperative for cultures to recognize the unique perspective that the world’s many races and religions bring to their respective histories. To reduce the issue of blasphemy to a debate about free speech misses the point. One must wonder, what is the moral benefit of depicting the Prophet Muhammad in sinister manner, or burning the Qur’an for sheer public theater? Is there any inherent moral and intellectual value to these bizarre displays of “expression”? And do the perceived benefits of such theatrics outweigh the immense offense they cause nearly one and five people on the planet? Even figures such as Sarah Palin who have shown insensitivity and even hostility towards foreign cultures have been unanimous in their condemnation of the infamous “Qur’an burning” incident incited by Terry Jones; many even worked tirelessly to isolate the “pastor” and contain a public spectacle that would have sown rancor in the hearts of millions of Muslims around the world. They were sensible enough to recognize that sacrilegious deeds and utterances directed towards any sacred tradition have little to no redeeming social value, a point that the Islamic tradition itself recognizes. The Qur’an prohibits Muslims from defaming the sacred symbols of other faiths stating, “Do not curse the idols that [non-believers] have set up beside God, lest they blaspheme and curse God, out of ignorance…Ultimately, they will return to their Lord, where He will inform them of everything they have done.” (Qur’an: 6: 108).
In insisting that blasphemy is a source of profound offense to Muslims, it must be emphasized that it absolutely does not legitimize violence and the many other exaggerated displays of protest that have emanated from the Islamic world. I have expressed my views on this issue elsewhere, and believe that it is incumbent upon religious leaders in the Muslim world to counsel their followers to express opposition to blasphemy in a peaceful and dignified manner. However, it must be said that Muslims are certainly not unique in engaging in excessive displays of opposition when they find their culture and sense of identity affronted. Following the unjust acquittal of the LAPD officers responsible for Rodney King beating, hundreds of black and minority Americans felt justified anger and sparked the 1992 LA riots that were marked by looting, destruction of public property, and even violence against innocent civilians. The tragic beating of Reginald Denny represents an image forever memorialized in the American consciousness. While one can rationalize these visceral reactions on a purely intellectual level, particularly in light of black America’s history of injustice under the American judicial system, even the most committed civil rights activists would maintain that such actions were without redeeming social and moral value. The same is true of Muslims who have sometimes resorted to even more extreme tendencies, including murder, following the vulgar cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and desecration of the Holy Qur’an in Guantanamo Bay. Regrettably, the tens of millions of Muslims who protested peacefully were invariably overshadowed by a statistically insignificant group of fanatics whose actions make the kind of splash that arouses the profiteering interests of the commercial media.
My sincere hope is that, going forward, Muslims and non-Muslims committed to peace will work towards a richer understanding of one another, and join in their efforts to isolate the few madmen bent upon maintaining a state of perpetual enmity and war.