Saturday, May 1, 2010

Changing the Muslim Conversation

Thursday, April 29, 2010
VIEW: Changing the Muslim conversation —Mahjabeen Islam
In the pre-modern era, religious scholars controlled the discussion; now anyone even vaguely familiar with the Quran and prophetic tradition can write a book and gain credibility. Specifically, authorship does not connote authority

So is Abu-Talha Al-Amreeki going
to be speaking for me now? A 20-year old, formerly known as Zachary Adam Chesser, is now media-commissioned to be the loudest responder to the South Park incident satirising Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). On cursory examination, why should he not be? If you posted bloodied photos of Theo van Gogh (murdered in 2004 for making a film critical of Islam), with the threat that South Park’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would share the same fate, you would grab the spotlight too.

Will we always sit up to the squeakiest wheel? Have Muslims, especially Muslim-Americans undergone a wholesale abdication and left the conversation to a loner previously interested in Goth and satanic bands with now radicalism as a primary interest? And ‘Sheikh’ Osama bin Laden as his motivating idol?

I watched the South Park cartoon and must admit was more amused than offended. There is a refrain throughout this episode that Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) face cannot be shown. Other religious figures, especially Moses, are shown irreverently as well, but this is a cartoon! Finally, they settle on showing Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a bear costume. No sooner is the cartoon aired that Abu Talha Al-Amreeki posted the threats on his website as well as in interviews and the networks went crazy. As he had, I thought. When asked whether he was threatening the lives of Trey and Stone he said that their work was threatening their lives.

In his lifetime, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was targeted on a daily basis by a hateful woman who dropped garbage on him as he walked by. When the smelly load did not appear one day he went to her home to determine the reason, only to find her unwell. The other more poignant event is that of Taif where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), during his attempt to spread the message of Islam was mocked, jeered and pelted with stones to the point that the blood congealed in his sandals and he almost fainted. According to an authentic Hadith, on his return from Taif, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “Why should I pray for the destruction of the people of Taif? I do hope that their posterity will be among the believers in the one Allah.”

Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) is probably the most accurately documented life in history. These and other events of his life portray his tolerance and forbearance in face of insult. And his amazing perspective and forgiveness.

In the hierarchy, our love is to be for God, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and then parents. The respect for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is made incumbent on all Muslims, which includes that Muslims are not to portray the likeness of Muhammad (PBUH).

The Quran reverberates: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). It would be utopia if people of all persuasions had the magnanimity and basic courtesy to respect all religious and culturally important figures. One does not have to be a deep religious scholar to say with complete credence that killing, or even threatening someone for insulting the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), goes against the very basic tenet shared with the Abrahamic faiths: thou shalt not kill. What my non-Muslim neighbour, the television or an article does with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is not a fight I am supposed to fight. I move on or hit delete.

In a Christian-Muslim-Jewish dialogue, Dr Sherman Jackson, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, detangles the issue of “Who Speaks for Islam” very skilfully. He traces the history of authority in Islam. Islam, he says, has no problem with pluralism and that, in pre-modern times, Islamic jurists had the authority but no power and the situation stood much like the current day American model of the separation of church and state. The problem began with the development of the modern nation-state in which the authority of the religious scholars could be successfully marginalised. And the paradigm shifted when activists wanted power to affect the socio-political order.

Currently, Dr Jackson says, classical jurists are competing with modern activists in representing Islam. In these pantheon activists, heroic acts, and authors of whatever book on Islam and Muslims, are considered to have authority. The heroic stand is taken by Osama bin Laden. In the pre-modern era, religious scholars controlled the discussion; now anyone even vaguely familiar with the Quran and Prophetic tradition can write a book and gain credibility. Specifically, authorship does not connote authority.

Dr Jackson expands on the role of the West and how Anwar Awlaki, the man who allegedly inspired Major Hasan in the Fort Hood incident, was converted by the West into an authority. He is referred to as a cleric when, in actuality, Awlaki’s credentials are unknown.

So why, I ask you, is Abou Talha Al-Amreeki not written off as just another lunatic? Are his blue eyes and flowing brown beard giving him credibility even though Revolution Muslim has all of 12 followers? Muslims in general and the media in particular are misdirected. The ones offended by South Park must choose their battles, no pun intended. The media, following journalistic ethics, ought to do basic homework and interview representative organisations such as CAIR, Council of American-Islamic Relations and MPAC, Muslim Public Affairs Council, or individuals of scholarly credentials such as Dr Sherman Jackson, Dr Akbar Ahmed of American University or Dalia Mogahed (former President Obama’s adviser on Muslim relations), among many others all across North America.

Incidents like South Park unnecessarily endanger us all. Together we can change that if we alter the interaction by marginalising the violent and discoursing with the deserved. And, of course, keeping response to offence in perspective.

Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician, addictionist and freelance columnist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be
reached at