Let’s be honest for a moment. When you first heard about the protests and riots in Muslim countries in response to the Innocence of Muslims film were your initial thoughts along these lines?
“These Muslims are reacting in a considered and appropriate way to a film that has won universal support and approval from leaders all around the western world.”
No, me neither. Obviously.
It was instead for me one of those “Oh no, here we go again” sinking feelings.
Let’s be clear about this film, having seen the trailer it can only be described as shocking; shockingly poor production and acting and shockingly poisonous in its motives to offend. And as we know it did indeed offend.
I’m not an expert on Islam, but I’ve friends who’ve worked in Pakistan and hearing them speak you get a sense of just how incendiary it can be in many Muslim dominated countries if anything is perceived to be insulting the prophet Muhammad.
Western leaders have denounced this film as strongly as possible and yet it has had no apparent effect. Instead we’ve had examples like Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, calling for more demonstrations on a national scale and beyond:
“Prophet of God, we offer ourselves, our blood and our kin for the sake of your dignity and honour,” Nasrallah told supporters chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” at a rally in the southern Shia suburbs of Beirut. “The US should understand that if it broadcasts the film in full it will face very dangerous repercussions around the world.”
Of course no right-minded broadcaster would broadcast the film or have anything to do with it. This is the frustration. The intense outrage against something that the vast majority of those protesting have not seen and have no understanding of bears no relation to the more informed reaction of those in Europe and the US.
You’re left wondering if anything will get through to these people. Can they ever be persuaded that no one of any standing has any respect for this pathetic excuse of a film and that their violent reactions have been universally condemned? Why do many of them think it is acceptable to persecute those of other faiths whilst hypocritically making death threats if they feel their own has been insulted? Looking at what’s been happening day-by-day the senselessness of it all becomes more and more overwhelming.
Tony Blair on Radio Four’s Today programme said that he believes it will take a generation for these attitudes to change and that in the meantime there is very little that countries on the outside can do. He described the internal conflicts these countries are dealing with:
“There is a struggle in the region between the forces of modernisation “and these very powerful forces of reaction based on a perverted view of religion”.”
The interview also touched on the fact that part of the reason why so many in these countries have a hatred of the US and the West is because of interventionist foreign policy and the wars in Iraq. Most in these countries believe that the West is out to oppress them and deliberately attack their religion and values.
The danger for us observing what is going on is to lump all Muslims together and say that they are irrational extremists who are unable to defend their faith without resorting to violence.
Of course this is not true. The Muslim Council of Britain has issued a statement, which concludes by saying:
“We urge that such vile actions of a few on both sides must not be allowed to
create divisions. Understanding, mutual respect and peaceful dialogue must
prevail. We hope that others will join us in condemning both the violence in
Egypt and Libya, and the irresponsible actions of the film’s producer.”
Even so the temptation, especially if we don’t have any Muslim friends, is to harden thoughts and feelings towards a faith that although similar to Christianity in some ways is actually very different. When Christians have become used to living with criticism and scrutiny of their faith, trying to respond to questions and challenges with grace, it’s not always easy to understand why some Muslims are unwilling to engage constructively or decide to act in a threatening way if their beliefs are put under the spotlight.
It’s a challenge to take an interest in those who are different from us. It’s a lot easier to dismiss or ignore them. When we begin to build walls, we begin to dehumanise people. Muslims in other countries might be too far out off reach to do anything about, but those in our country are not. In our supposedly open society, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge and question others’ beliefs, but more importantly we need peace makers who are willing to break down walls, fight prejudices and build bridges between communities instead.
If Christians can’t find it in themselves to do it, when Jesus gave the instruction to love our neighbour, whoever they are, then who can we expect to do it instead? The more pictures we see on our TV screens of people overwhelmed by hatred and intolerance, the more important it becomes that we don’t fall into the same trap and let even a milder form of those feelings towards others infect our hearts too.