Muslims all over the place are foaming at the mouth over what they claim is disrespect for their religion and its founder, Mohammed. They are upset about a lousy video made by an obscure figure in the United States which has gained wide exposure on social media. I haven't seen it, and have no desire to, but from what I gather, it is an extremely amateurish production with cardboard characters and obviously contrived to generate just the kind of reaction it has. Unfortunately, it has resulted in the death of several people, including the US ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues.
They died when a mob attacked the US mission in Benghazi after the video hit the electronic network which today ties the world together but which, alas, also helps divide it. The mob was among many who assaulted diplomatic outposts of the US and other western countries in many places. Now, Muslim mobs are again outraged over some cartoons published by a satirical weekly magazine in France. The cartoons depict Mohammed in a variety of situations, including some that show him naked.
There is nothing new in all of this. We recall similar upwellings of outrage a few years ago when a Danish newspaper ran some cartoons mocking Mohammed, and even further back to 1989, when the Indian-born writer, Salman Rushdie, was denounced and had to go underground after a fatwa, or death sentence, was issued against him by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rushdie was living in London at the time and the British government provided him with round-the-clock security guards for a decade.
Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai to a Muslim family, had written a book called The Satanic Verses. No sooner had he published the book in September 1988 than Muslims around the world screamed in protest. They felt his depiction of the prophet who founded Islam was irreverent. The title refers to what some say is a Muslim tradition in which Muhammed added verses to the Qur'an accepting three female figures who used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings, but later revoked the verses, saying that the devil had tempted him to include the verses to appease the Meccans.
Since 2000, Rushdie has lived in New York City, and for the past five years has been attached to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, as a writer in residence. He was prominently seen in Toronto this month, attending that city's annual international film festival. Right now he is collaborating with movie director Deepa Mehta on the screenplay adapting his novel Midnight's Children into a feature picture. He has just published his latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Joseph Anton was the name he assumed during his years in hiding.
Rushdie's experience and the current uproar over that wretched video exposes the total disconnect in today's world. For people in the United States, Europe and other parts of the democratic world with their open societies and liberal attitudes, the publication of books, articles, illustrations and moving pictures critical of religious attitudes, beliefs, leaders, practices and rituals goes with the territory of freedom of expression.
There are observant Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others who find any criticism, questioning or even humorous depiction of their beliefs blasphemous and offensive. But for the most part they don't form mobs and throw bottle bombs at buildings housing representatives of the countries where those publications appear. And to be fair, the overwhelming majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, who may or may not find these things offensive, don't go on rampages in the vast swathes of the world they inhabit.
There are two important aspects of the reaction to the video, as expressed so clearly by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the attack in Benghazi: "To us, to me, personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose, to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. Let me state very clearly - and I hope it is obvious - that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video." But, Clinton continued, it was a mistake for protesters to express their anger with violence and against US diplomatic missions. "Violence, we believe, has no place in religion and is no way to honour religion. Islam, like other religions, respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it is a violation of that fundamental dignity to wage attacks on innocents."
Make no mistake: there is a small but vociferous faction - including some fundamentalist Christian sects - in the United States and in Europe, which believes Islam is evil and has no legitimacy and therefore it is perfectly all right to do anything to decry and denigrate it in public. We recall that parson in Florida who burned the Qur'an deliberately to set off reaction in the Muslim world.
On the opposite side, Islam is such a thin-skinned set of beliefs that, like a paranoid teenager worried about his or her appearance, it takes umbrage at any slight, real or imagined. I remember several years ago when an outcry arose because one of the big manufacturers of athletic shoes came out with a new model with a spiffy logo and had to withdraw it almost immediately because some Muslims noted that the logo resembled the Arabic description of The Prophet. The problem? This was a shoe, which comes in contact with the ground, and therefore represented a dishonouring of Islam.
This ugly religious xenophobia is manifesting itself in a very nasty fashion in Pakistan, which once upon a time was a quite reasonable and tolerant society (except towards Hindus). Demonstrators in the southern city of Hyderabad have accused a local businessman of blasphemy because he refused to join their protests against the video.
As they massed last Saturday, the hundreds of protesters asked the man to shut his 120-odd shops in solidarity and when he refused, one of his tenants said his decision supported the picture. Protesters ransacked his house and surrounded a police station, where they refused to go away until the police opened a blasphemy case. The man and his family have fled into hiding.
Then there is the case of a girl from a Christian family, who has been accused of desecrating the Qur'an by burning some of its pages. The girl, whose age is between 11 and 14 (no one is quite sure about that) and who is said to have Down's Syndrome, was just recently released from detention. Pakistan's Christians, who make up about two per cent of the population, are among the country's poorest and are always in danger of persecution from people who use the blasphemy laws to drive them out.
Getting back to the recent protests about the video - westerners don't understand that people who grew up in authoritarian societies regard the west as monolithic societies and therefore the making of such a movie must be sanctioned by governments. But we have to be mindful that violent protests are often provoked by people who don't really believe in Islam but use it as a cover to make mischief and co-opt the true believers in their diabolical schemes.
I know that's how the world is, but can't help but find it disgusting!