Dear Muslim protester,
Where do I begin? Having watched you shout and scream in front of the world's television cameras, throw petrol bombs and smash windows, I reluctantly decided to write this open letter to you.
Let me be blunt: you and I have little in common other than our shared Islamic faith, our common belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger. You live in a Muslim-majority country, where religion (or should that be religious extremism?) defines the boundaries of political debate and the limits of free speech; I was born and brought up in the liberal, secular west as a member of a minority Muslim community.
If I'm honest, I have to say that, listening to your belligerent rhetoric and watching your violent behaviour, I struggle to recognise the Islam in which you profess to believe. My Islamic faith is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy; it revolves around the Quranic verses "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and "Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion" (109:6). Yours is a faith disfigured by anger, hate and paranoia.
Please do not misunderstand me: yes, you have every right to be angry. I have no time for those neoconservatives here in the west who airily dismiss "false grievances" in the Middle East and beyond. Muslims have much to be aggrieved over - from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay, from Abu Ghraib to Haditha, from US soldiers urinating on the Quran to the spate of racist films and cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/ delete-as-applicable.
Anger, however, is not an excuse for extremism. Have you not read this saying by the Prophet? "The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger."
Today, 14 centuries later, too many of us seem to have lost all self-control. Your fanatical counterparts on the Christian evangelical right have a phrase they often deploy: "WWJD", or "What would Jesus do?". Perhaps you and your fellow protesters should ask "WWMD": what would Muhammad do? Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, on police stations and shops?
We both know the answer. As a child, you will have been taught, like me, about how Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by the pagan worshippers of Mecca - but never responded in kind. The Quran calls him a "mercy for all of creation".
But your anger has blinded you. You tell foreign reporters you are protesting against injustice - but the fight for justice begins at home. Where were you and your fellow flag-burners when a poor, 14-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan was arrested on trumped-up charges of "blasphemy" in August and threatened with the death penalty? Where are you today when the Syrian regime continues to wage war against its own (Muslim) people? Why do you not protest outside the embassies of the Bahraini regime, which tortures and tear-gasses its (Muslim) citizens?
You say you love the Prophet and cannot bear to see him abused, yet in Saudi Arabia the house of the Prophet's first wife, Khadija, was flattened to make way for a public toilet, while the house where Muhammad was born is now overshadowed by a royal palace. Where is your rage against the Saudi regime? Or is your selfprofessed love for the Prophet just a cynical expression of crude anti-Americanism?
You and I have long complained of the west's double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country's Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante's Inferno. Trust me, he'll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.
Perhaps the greatest irony, and tragedy, is that by publicising the online insults directed at the Prophet, you have given the wretched "Sam Bacile", the maker of the offensive movie, and his Islamophobic, evangelical Christian ally, Steve Klein, a victory they could never have achieved on their own. Need I remind you that when the full-length film, Innocence of Muslims, was released earlier this year, it was shown only once, to an audience of fewer than ten people, at a run-down cinema in California?
Meanwhile, the reputational damage done to our faith - exacerbated, I hasten to add, by lazy journalists in the west who cannot seem to distinguish between Islam and its adherents - has been immense. Have you not seen the cover of Newsweek magazine? "Muslim rage", screams the headline.
But I have some (bad) news for you (and, for that matter, Newsweek). You represent no one but yourself. You do not speak for Islam or for the Prophet. Nor are you representative of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. In a recent Gallup survey conducted in ten Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 80 per cent of the global Muslim population, believers, when asked what they admired most about the west, cited political freedoms, fair trials and...wait for it...freedom of speech.
Your actions undermine not just the great religion of Islam but a worldwide Muslim community, or umma, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.
Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue. As the great Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib once wrote: "Remember that people are of two kinds: they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind."
Yours faithfully, Mehdi.
Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and the political director of The Huffington Post UK.
This post also appeared on the New Statesman.Suggest a correction