As anti-American protests continue in parts of the Middle East, a friar who is a student and teacher of Islamic Studies, and who has traveled extensively in the Arab world, shares his thoughts on the context of recent events in parts of the Muslim world. He also reflects on the time that Francis spent in Egypt during the Crusades.
The essay below reflects the opinions of the writer and not necessarily those of Holy Name Province.
On Sept. 14, as protests and attacks on American and European embassies in the Middle East continued ostensibly over an anti-Muslim film posted on YouTube, I gathered for midday prayer with the Muslim community on the campus of Georgetown University, as has become my custom. My heart was heavy as I thought about what was happening in Cairo particularly, a city I consider my second home and yet suddenly torn by anti-American demonstrations. Yet, here at Georgetown, there were no fist-shaking, club-wielding Muslim protestors, and no flag-burnings. There were Muslim students, faculty and hospital employees who simply had come to pray, and listen to the khutba — the Friday sermon.
Humility and Restraint: Lessons from Muhammad
The khutba was offered by Nazir Harb, a graduate student in Islamic studies, and the Muslim program coordinator on campus. A soft-spoken man, Nazir did not raise his voice in anger, pound the podium, or call for protests in Washington. In hushed tones, he spoke about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), citing examples from the prophet’s life of humility and restraint. Perhaps most poignantly, he reminded those gathered about the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah (628 CE) which Muhammad concluded with his adversaries in Mecca to ensure peace and safe conduct for Muslims on pilgrimage. The Meccans had refused to sign the treaty because throughout Muhammad was referred to as the “Messenger of God.” Muhammad ordered his cousin Ali to delete the epithet, but Ali refused. Intent on securing peace, Muhammad himself erased the words designating him as a prophet of God. Nazir gently challenged the congregants to examine their own conduct as Muslims and pray for the forgiveness of their sins.
Nazir then led us in prayer, proclaiming Allahu Akbar — “God is the Most Great” — not as words of protest or violence, but to remind Muslims of their utter humility before God, cueing the prostrations of prayer. Here was an oasis of peace and prayer, one I am sure that was repeated in countless mosques and Islamic centers across the country at that very moment. The fellowship I experienced with the Georgetown Muslim community seemed a far cry from the protests that were raging in cities and countries from North Africa to the Far East.
‘Context is Everything’
So how might we understand the intensity of the protests? How could this 14-minute film clip, “The Innocence of Muslims” — and an amateurish, moronic and prurient film at that — inflame and enrage so many? Are Muslims that unreasonable, that thin-skinned, fanatical and violent by nature? “Context is everything,” a common adage reminds us. In order to understand the intensity of the reaction from the Muslim world, we must understand the context.
It is important to recognize that attacks on the character of the Prophet Muhammad are nothing new. Ever since the advent of Islam, Christian authors have attempted to discredit him in order to dissuade Christians from converting to Islam, encourage Muslims to convert to Christianity and, in more recent centuries, to justify military and political domination of Muslim countries. The defaming of Muhammad and Islam have been a significant aspect of the colonial agenda for centuries, with Christian missionaries following hot on the heels of European and now American armies.
One does not have to reach that far into the past to uncover attacks, whether real or perceived, on Islam and its prophet by Westerners. In the 11 years since 9/11, there have been numerous expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment by both Americans and Europeans. Both at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan, American military personnel have been involved in numerous well-publicized incidents of desecrating the Qur’an. Many of these acts, some as recent as 2012, have largely gone unpunished. American political figures — including Senator Jon Kyl (AZ), Rep. Tom Tancredo (CO), Attorney General John Ashcroft, Rep. Peter King (NY) and many others — have made public anti-Islamic comments and engaged in publicizing anti-Islamic materials.
In July 2010, Florida pastor Terry Jones announced he would burn 200 Qurans on the 2010 anniversary of 9/11. In 2011, he held a mock trial of the Qur’an, and after finding it “guilty,” ordered and executed its burning. Added to this, of course, is the Danish “cartoon controversy” of 2005, and the controversial remarks made by Pope Benedict in 2006. In recent years, a number of American states and European countries have proposed or already enacted laws that restrict the construction of mosques, the observance of sharia, and Islamic practices such as veiling and circumcision. News of these cases are quickly disseminated throughout the world and exploited by those with less-than-holy agendas.
While none of these incidents may appear significant in and of themselves, and none can or should be used to justify violence, they are part of a much larger context of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of torture and human rights abuses at Abu Ghrayb and elsewhere, of the rape and murder of Iraqi civilians, of desecrating dead Taliban, of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that kill innocent men, women and children, Israeli invasions of southern Lebanon and Gaza unhindered (if not openly supported) by the U.S., and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land with tacit U.S. approval.
The election of Barack Obama did not erase the errors of American foreign policy from the minds of Muslims worldwide, errors which continue still and worsen. It is within this larger context of perceived anti-Muslim actions by the U.S. and European nations which may help to situate the current protests. Such attacks on Islam and Muhammad are still seen as part of the colonial and imperialist agendas aimed at weakening Arab and Muslim societies and cultures.
Finally, there is a mistaken perception by many Americans that if people of the Middle East want freedom and representative democracy as the “Arab Spring” has shown, then they likewise want unrestricted freedom of speech. Not entirely. While citizens of Arab and Muslim nations desire the freedom to openly criticize their political leaders, for many, if not most Muslims in Africa and Asia, freedom of speech should not permit the defamation of religion and religious figures.
For many people in the Middle East who still yearn for the political and social stability enjoyed by Americans, they cannot understand how or why the U.S. would tolerate the denigration of religion. Many, if not most, Christians in the Middle East feel the same. (In 2001, Coptic youth clashed with police in Cairo as they protested the publication of photographs of a monk allegedly involved in an illicit affair).
As the feast of Francis draws near, I am left thinking about Francis, about his time in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, and what lessons that holds for us friars today. While the content of his conversations with the Sultan is unknown, it is clear that Francis never defamed Muhammad or Islam but conducted himself humbly and respectfully. The key was and continues to be what Francis wrote in the Regula non bullata for his brothers who go on mission: not to engage in arguments or disputes, “but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians.”
Now more than ever, we friars are needed to echo his words and live by them.
— Fr. Michael is a doctoral student in Arab and Islamic Studies with the University of Exeter, UK, and is currently serving as a chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He has spent considerable time in Egypt and the Middle East over the past 30 years.