'We do not have a monopoly on vilification'
Gehan El Margoushy

Over the last couple of weeks US embassies and consulates have been attacked in Cairo, Benghazi, Tunis, Khartoum, Sana’a, Karachi, Jakarta and elsewhere. It appears that the attacks were instigated by Salafists, or hardline Muslims with their own agendas.

We all know how the incidents in Libya led to the death of four Americans, among them the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, by all accounts an Arabist who was a friend of Libya and its people.

The main reason given for the attacks on US diplomatic missions was that Muslims were livid over the film “Innocence of Muslims” that mocks the prophet Mohammad. It later turned out that the film was nothing but a very badly produced trailer by an American Copt who lives in California, with a criminal record.

There is no doubt that the film produced the reaction that its makers must have intended. Once again, Muslims around the world reacted violently to someone expressing an opinion different from theirs.

In Egypt, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi played populist politics. Expecting parliamentary elections soon, he pandered to popular sentiment. It took him several days to denounce the attacks on the US Embassy in Cairo, and only then once US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asked where the Egyptian government stood.

Egypt’s consul general in New York tweeted that Morsi had asked the American authorities to take legal action against the filmmakers. This move could only be populist since Morsi knows well that there are no legal measures to be taken by the American government because of First Amendment protection of free speech. Anti-religious speech may be reviled, but it is legal.

The eyes of the world are upon us and we are not a pretty sight. There are a few things that we Muslims need to consider.

First: No one owes us anything. Non-Muslims do not have to automatically understand that some Muslims are so devout that they are ready to kill or die for their religion and prophet. 

Second: Holding the American government, and now the French government too, responsible for what their citizens do is hypocritical and counter-productive. Every time there is an Islamist terrorist attack, we expect non-Muslims to understand that these are the actions of an isolated fanatic few out of a world population of 1.6 billion Muslims, and therefore they should not blame us peace-loving Muslims. If we follow this line of reasoning, why should the U.S. and French governments be held responsible by Muslims for the actions of some psychopaths in their countries?

Objection and protest are most effective when non-violent, as proved by Gandhi. If Muslims object to insults to their prophet, as they should, they have a duty to do so in a way that does not damage the faith they treasure or harm others who are innocent victims.

It is doubtful that any of those perpetrating violence to defend the prophet’s honor know what they are doing. It is doubtful that they remember that he insisted on not harming or insulting those who harmed or insulted him.

As Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt has recently said, we do not have a monopoly on vilification and the sooner we develop thicker skins and start dealing with facts, the better it will be for everyone.

Gehan El Margoushy is a professor of English at Ain Shams University in Cairo.