One controversy subsides; a worse one begins. After the Danish cartoons, the Dutch video Fitna and several low-grade irritants, a short, crudely executed — and scrupulously insulting — film has inflamed deep-seated resentment. Several hundreds of furious demonstrators gathered in front of the American Embassy in Cairo and the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In the confusion and violence, a US Ambassador and three diplomats were killed. Elsewhere, embassies came under violent attacks, with many wounded and serious damage to material. Literalist Salafists succeeded in mobilising a relatively small number of demonstrators; over-excited young people and ordinary citizens who, firm in their intention to protect the Prophet’s [PBUH] reputation, joined in to express their rejection of the American government and its policies. The demonstrations were the work of a tiny minority, but media coverage and the rapid spread of the protest movement have destabilised the region, and may well have substantial consequences for the future of Middle East — and for the process of democratisation and normalisation in the region.
The violence must be condemned unconditionally. To attack innocents, diplomats and to kill indiscriminately is anti-Islamic by its very nature. Muslims cannot respond to insults to their religion in this way. On this principle, there can be no compromise.
Still, there is every reason to ask what lies behind such vulgar provocations (whose intent is clearly to set off a reaction by mocking Muslims’ unanimous respect for the Prophet [PBUH]. Here we have individuals, or interest groups (and not the American government) that make cynical use of the noblest values — freedom of speech — to attain the most poisonous objectives, promoting hatred, racism and contempt. Well-established and protected in their rich and comfortable societies, they pretend to celebrate critical intelligence and wit at the expense of a religion practised by much less fortunate people, many of who are struggling with numerous social frustrations and are barely surviving. But behind the celebration of freedom of speech hides the arrogance of ideologists and well-fed racists who feed off the multiform humiliation of Muslims and to demonstrate the clear “superiority” of their civilisation or the validity of their resistance to the “cancer” of retrograde Islam. In criticising this ideological stance there can be no compromise either.
In the light of the contemporary Muslim conscience, while deploring and regretting the emotive reactions of the populations of the Muslim-majority societies of the Global South, we must take into account their social and historical reality. Economically and culturally disadvantaged, their political and cultural sensitivities are sorely tried by deliberate insults to the sacred symbols that give meaning to their perseverance and their lives — the very symbols invoked by leaders or Islamist tendencies to nurture resentment and to give voice to anger. This reality in no way justifies violence, but helps us understand its source and seek out possible solutions. It is the task of the elites, the leaders, of Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals, to play a leading role in order to head-off explosions of anger and mob violence. They bear three kinds of responsibilities.
First, they must turn their attention to education and work towards a deeper understanding of Islam, one that focuses on meaning and ultimate goals, and not simply on rituals and prohibitions. The task at hand is enormous and requires the full participation of all schools of thought.
Second, Islam’s extraordinary diversity must be accepted and celebrated. Islam is one, but its interpretations are many. The existence of literalist, traditionalist, reformist, mystic, rationalist and other currents is a fact, a reality that must be treated positively and qualitatively, for each of them has its own legitimacy and should (must!) contribute a multifaceted debate among Muslims. Unfortunately, today’s Muslim religious scholars, and the leaders of various trends, are caught up in an ideological confrontation, and often a clash of egos, that create divisions and transform them into dangerous populists who claim for themselves the title of sole and authentic representatives of Islam. Within Sunnis, as within Shiites; between Sunnis and Shiites; scholars and schools of thought lash out at one another, forgetting the fundamental teachings and the principles that unite them and instead splitting along doctrinal or political lines that remain secondary at best. The consequences of these divisions are serious. Populism pushes people to vent their emotions blindly in the guise of legitimacy. The attitude — or the absence of it — of such scholars perpetuates among Muslims nationalist, sectarian and often racist postures based on their particular school of thought, their nationality or their culture. Instead of calling upon individual egos to control themselves, and upon minds to understand and celebrate diversity, leaders and scholars play, in their rhetoric or in their silence, upon people’s emotions and sense of belonging with catastrophic consequences. The Great Powers, West and East, easily exploit these divisions and internal conflicts such as the danger-fraught fracture between Sunnis and Shiites.
Instead, it is imperative that voices from the two traditions collaborate on the fundamental principles that unite all Muslims. Whenever considerations of belonging threaten to replace principles, religious scholars, intellectuals and leaders must return to shared principles, must find common ground between these considerations, in full respect of legitimate diversity.
Third, scholars and intellectuals must have the courage to expose themselves further. Instead of encouraging popular feelings, or use those feelings to further their own religious identity (Sunnis, Shiites, reformists, Sufis, etc.) or their political ideology, they must face the issue squarely, dare to be self-critical, commit themselves to dialogue and — more often than not — tell Muslims what they may not like to hear about their own failings, their lack of coherence, their propensity to play the victim, failure to understand and to accept responsibility. Far from the feverish rhetoric of the populists, they must put their credibility on the line to awaken consciences in an attempt to counter emotionalism and mass blindness. The educated elites, students, intellectuals and professionals also have a major responsibility. The way they follow their leaders, as does their status as intermediaries, makes their active and critical presence imperative: Holding the scholars and the leaders accountable, simplifying and participating in grassroots dynamics is an absolute imperative. The passivity of the educated elites, looking down upon inflamed and uncontrolled populations far below them, is a grievous fault.
Ultimately we end up with the leaders — and the people — we deserve. Without committed and determined religious scholars, intellectuals and business people aware of the critical nature of the issues, there can be little doubt that we will be heading for an upsurge of religious populism and the emotional blindness of the masses. The words and the commitment of the leaders must set the highest standards — beginning with knowledge, understanding, coherence and self-criticism. They must abandon the notion of victimisation by appealing to responsibility, by freeing themselves from the illusion that opposition to the “other” can lead to reconciliation with one’s self. Make no mistake: The violent reactions to the insults uttered against the Prophet [PBUH] have driven many Muslims to behaviours far removed from the principles of Islam. We become ourselves not in opposition to someone else, but in accord and at peace with our conscience, our principles and our aspirations. In the serene mastery of ourselves, and not in the aggressive rejection of the Other. Such is the message the world’s Muslims need to hear, and most of all, put into practice.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.