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From Rushdie to Stevens: This Madness Must Stop

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Here we go again. From books and films to cartoons, teddy bears and desecration of copies of the Qur'an by a handful of American fundamentalists and soldiers, the story is the same: instead of ignoring material insulting and offensive to Islam, or forgiving their authors as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would have done, some immature Muslims resort to violence that ends up killing people who had done more than most to actually help Muslims or Muslim-majority countries. Furthermore, the poor-quality "offending" material receives far more publicity than it deserved, and the image of Islam is dragged through the mud yet again, to the exasperation of the vast majority of ordinary, decent Muslims.

In the 1980s, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, an expletive-laden, largely-unreadable book was catapulted, along with its author, into international fame by an Islamist campaign of "raising awareness" by publicising its satirical insults towards holy figures of Islam, culminating in Ayatollah Khomeini's notorious fatwa ordering Rushdie's murder. The same story was repeated, two decades later, with the Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): these were largely unknown when first published, until a Denmark-based Egyptian cleric began a campaign publicising them. Surely, to love the Prophet and his disciples means not to publicise gross insults directed at him. If people insult our loved ones, such as parents, children or siblings, would we broadcast those offensive comments or depictions to the whole world?

In all these cases, dozens of ordinary Muslims died in riots and protests around the world: this is extremely ironic, when the Prophet himself is said to have taught that "the destruction of the Ka'bah, the holiest site of Islam, is lighter in the sight of God than the killing of a single believer." Just last year, similar incidents occurred after the burning of the Qur'an by a negligible handful of US evangelicals, including the beheading of UN staff who had endured much hardship to help Afghanistan, an overwhelmingly-Muslim nation.

The latest tragedy is the murder of Christopher Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya, in an unnecessary protest against a pathetic and previously-unknown film insulting Muslims and their religion and Prophet. This comes a day or two after the UK's Channel 4 cancelled a screening of a documentary by historian Tom Holland questioning the origins of Islam.

Rather than rebutting Hollande's shaky conclusions (he himself admits in the film that he often fears that he has "got it all wrong") with academic rigour and proper scholarship, some Muslim groups and individuals have resorted to intimidation, insults, violent threats and ludicrous calls for the documentary to be withdrawn.

This madness must stop. The Prophet Muhammad himself was continuously subjected to insults, mockery and persecution but constantly preached constant patience, forgiveness and forbearance, as exhorted by numerous verses of the Qur'anic revelation.

It is true that, according to Islamic tradition, one or two pagan poets were killed for mocking the Prophet, but these were in the context of war: in the 7th-century Arabian culture dominated by an oral tradition, poetry was used in psychological warfare, and was indeed employed effectively by Muhammad himself, with Hassan bin Thabit and Abdullah bin Rawaha amongst his most skilful composers of verse: "Your verses hurt them far more than our arrows," as the Prophet observed to Hassan.

The traditional, mediaeval Islamic law that prohibits mocking or insulting the sacred symbols of religion developed much later: dialogue is needed between traditionally-religious societies such as many Muslim ones and modern societies where freedom of speech, expression and satire are equally enshrined as a fundamental, almost sacred, right. An excellent initiative in this regard is the online Free Speech Debate initiated by Oxford University in 2011: its ten draft principles include, "We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief."

A fundamental teaching in Islamic scripture is, "God says: My Mercy overcomes My Anger." Ultimately, our mercy, love and forgiveness must overcome our anger, hatred and bitterness. During UK protests against the Danish cartoons, extremists held outrageous placards saying, "Behead those who insult Islam" and even "Massacre those who insult Islam." We must surely look forward to, and work towards, the day when the image of Islam is represented by merciful young men and women rather than angry young men, and when believers hold placards at demonstrations saying "Forgive those who insult Islam."