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Prejudice breeds intolerance

‘Freedom of Speech’ does not authorise the US government to punish anyone until he or she actually breaks the law — a provision which is either not understood or ignored

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Afghan police stand by burning tires during a protest , on Monday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hundreds of Afghans burned cars and threw rocks at a U.S. military base as a demonstration against an anti-Islam film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad turned violent in the Afghan capital early Monday.
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Both elites and ordinary citizens in the Arab world put America in the shadow of suspicion. Most politicians and writers find it easy to blame the US than to take a hard look at events and understand their causes. There is a long history of great misunderstandings, as both Arabs and Americans have not looked deep into the roots of what sets them apart, despite their sharing common interests — both economic and political. This enigma can be partly realised by how the two parties look at the Palestinian issue that generated an accumulated love-hate relationship throughout modern history.

Strange enough, after the coming of the Arab Spring, both who benefited from, and those who lost out, blame American policy for the outcome. The film on Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ignited angry demonstrations from Benghazi to Tehran, from Siena to Kuwait. The American Ambassador to Libya, along with some other American staff members, were killed in cold blood because of that film! Some Arabs have also lost their lives. Ignorance feeds hatred — I heard a demonstrator in Cairo talking to BBC Arabic service, saying: “I did not see the film, but I am very angry and want the American Ambassador in Egypt to be kicked out!”

Out of curiosity, I saw parts of the film which has provoked all the fuss and I found it childish, very superficial and could not — under normal circumstances — have provoked more than dismissive laughter. To any rational person, Muslim or not, this film definitely does not mean anything. Islam is the largest growing religion in the US and “Mohammad” is the most widely used name in the UK — these facts and others should only make people believe that this film or any other means of media, written, spoken, or visual cannot harm Islam. So why all this madness and loss of lives? The problem lies, on the one hand, in ignorance and in the governments for not tackling the problem rationally. On the other hand, the issue is further compounded by mixing democracy in the cause.

Just a few years ago, when Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian born novelist published his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, which was no more than a tall story, the extremists cried out loud that Islam was under threat. At the time, all hell broke loose, everywhere from Morocco to Islamabad, and a religious fatwa was issued, seeking Rushdie’s death. What happened next? The book received free and influential propaganda and even those people who usually do not buy novels, bought the book out of inquisitiveness, including myself. Rushdie was protected by the British police for a few years following the outrage — with taxpayers’ money. And, after a number of deaths were caused by violent demonstrations in capitals of different Muslim countries, the whole episode was soon forgotten.

A similar outrage occurred when a Danish caricaturist published nasty comments on Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). A number of angry demonstrations were held in most Muslim capitals, one of them in Beirut where, instead of attacking the Danish Embassy, the demonstrators’ mistakenly torched the Dutch Embassy east of Beirut! In addition, a public outcry demanded the boycott of all Danish products, in an attempt to hurt their economy, which did happen for a short time. Yet, soon enough, we started seeing Danish butter on our grocery shelves back again!

The government and the media in most Muslim countries shy away from telling their people the naked truth — that it was not the government nor any agent in the US that produced this stupid film. America has no penalties against such acts and its ‘Freedom of Speech’, does not authorise the US government to punish anyone until he or she actually breaks the law — a legal provision which is either not understood or ignored. 
In addition, some politicians wanted to benefit from such devastating events. In most of the pictures of demonstrations which I saw, the most recognised faces were those of politicians who wanted to add credit to their careers. They know first-hand and better than anyone else that these events will pass off as the ones before, but not before claiming some innocent lives.

The Arab region is going through a deep transformation. In such times of uncertainty, it needs more enlightened and courageous leaders, not populists waiting to grab any opportunity arising from different causes — leaders, who can put into practice the great idea of Islam and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), especially his practice of tolerance and mercy. Caliph Omar — the second successor of the Prophet (PBUH) — said: “There are servants of God who kill a vicious deed by ignoring it.” The question is, can we do that?

Mohammad Alrumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.