Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blasted Backlash: An Essay on Western Artistic Criticisms of Islam

Blasted backlash

Gamal Nkrumah feels the pulse of Egyptian intellectuals and clerics in the aftermath of a spate of Western artistic outpourings criticising Islam and denigrating the Prophet Mohamed

Which is worse, the films, plays and cartoons by Westerners who fail to understand that depicting Islam, Muslims and the Prophet Mohamed in a denigrating manner deeply offends many devout Muslims, or the determination of Western politicians to fiddle away while Rome burns?

Fitna (Sedition), a recently-released 17- minute film made by the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, is the latest production to incense sentiment across the Muslim world, Egypt included. This wave of "Islamophobia" that swept the West is ostensibly seen by many as a backlash to avenge the humiliation of the United States in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Divergent views -- if not downright hostility -- masquerading as freedom of expression cannot help but widen cultural gaps and sour relations between the West and the Muslim world.

The hitherto heated dispute is fast acquiring a sharper edge, and reactions in Egypt and other Muslim countries to the screening of Fitna have been nothing short of frenzied. Perhaps the most galling scene was the tearing up of pages of the Quran with which the film ends. "Nothing less than repugnant," declared Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit. He described the film as an affront and an offence to the religion of more than 1.5 billion Muslims across the world, and added he was speaking on behalf of the world's Muslim nations.

"Egypt rejects any offence or denigration of Islam and its prophet," Abul-Gheit stressed.

When Fitna, featuring images of the terror attacks in New York and Madrid interspersed with Quranic texts, was posted on the Internet on Thursday the indignation it provoked was predictable. A more optimistic sign, though, were those who are beginning to find the blizzard of European anti-Muslim artistic expression tiresome. Ironically, three Dutch nationals converted to Islam after watching Fitna.

"Freedom of expression and secularism were once the hallmark of our own cultural heritage," Samir Farid, one of Egypt's leading film critics, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "In 1935 an Egyptian writer, Ismail Adham, published a book entitled Why I am an Apostate. Nobody called for his trial, let alone his death. Nobody called him an infidel. That was freedom of expression," Farid laments the way in which, over recent decades, Muslim societies have become prey to the dictates of self-styled religious authorities who are seeking power. "When Westerners watch televised interviews with Osama bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri in which they celebrate the attacks of 11 September it should come as no surprise that some of them will go on to produce films, plays and books depicting Islam as a religion that glorifies violence," says Farid.

There is a reign of terror, he contends, and the view of the world that exists in Europe is irreconcilable with views prevalent in the Muslim world. The anti-Islamic tide remains as strong, he believes, as in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

He is not in the least surprised that Fitna falsely designates the Quran as a manifesto of violence, or that another spat should have erupted over a play directed by the German Uwe Eric Laufenberg and based on Indian- born British writer Salman Rushdie's novel Satanic Verses. It will be staged at the Hans Otto Theatre in Potsdam, southwest of Berlin. Turkish actor Oktay Khan has already withdrawn from the production after receiving death threats.

Farid draws a comparison once again with the far more relaxed climate of the early and middle part of the 20th century. "In 1926, the celebrated Egyptian actor Youssef Wahbi announced that he intended to portray the life and times of the Prophet Mohamed. The issue was debated in the press but no one dared to threaten Wahbi. Yet such an announcement would be unthinkable today. Times have changed, and no actor now has the courage to challenge conventional Islamist wisdom."

Nor, says Farid, is the phenomenon, the dangerous politicisation of religion, restricted to Muslim countries. "US President George W Bush talked about a crusade, and it was not a slip of the tongue. The Dalai Lama is involved in the Tibetan independence movement. He is, indeed, its symbolic leader. Politicians the world over are using the language of religion to justify war and pursue political ends. Whatever the dangers, to remain silent in such a climate is to court disaster."

Others beg to differ. "As Muslims, we have a duty to respond to attacks on Islam launched in the name of freedom of expression. Artistic expressions such as Fitna necessitate rejoinders from intellectuals who are true believers," Gamal Qutb, Islamic scholar, told the Weekly.

"The film is an unwarranted affront to Prophet Mohamed and Islam. We have an inalienable right to defend the values of Islam and monotheistic religions. Westerners may have forsaken religion but we in the East uphold its sanctity and the respectability of the prophets of old, not just the Prophet Mohamed, but of Jesus, Moses and other prophets."

If such thinking is sometimes viewed in the West as more of a threat than a badge of honour, it is far more moderate than the calls of those militant Islamists who demand retribution and insist that producers of such films, plays and books are "infidels" who should be executed.

Qatari-based Egyptian cleric Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi dismissed Fitna as "lies and fabrications". And according to the Saudi Arabian-based Muslim World League, the film is an "offensive act that aims to spread discord between people".

There is a widespread belief in the Muslim world that films like Fitna are deliberately designed to "offend and hurt the feelings of Muslims", notes Qutb. "Most Muslims would support freedom of expression but are for the censorship of provocative and insulting productions," he explains.

"We must differentiate between a film produced by a fascist such as Wilders and Submission, produced by a liberal such as Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered because his film was critical of the Muslim hijab and of violence against women and actually defended the rights of Muslim women," Farid told the Weekly.

Yet the prevalent view in the Muslim world is that the producers of all such films are agents provocateur.

"Unfortunately films such as Fitna provide a platform for Europeans from across the political spectrum to denounce Islam," noted Qutb. "It amounts to bad publicity which we can do without."

The politics of religion may be a puzzling business but no one would deny it is prickly.

"We regret that Wilders made this film, we believe it serves no other purpose than to cause offence," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was reported as saying.

"I condemn in the strongest terms the airing of Geert Wilders' offensively anti-Islamic film," announced UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. "The right of free expression is not at stake. Freedom must always be accompanied by social responsibility."

It was a message repeated last week by Professor Nadia Mustafa, director of the Dialogue of Cultures programme at Cairo University's School of Political Science during a meeting with Dutch religious and intellectual figures to discuss Fitna. A seminar scheduled for 8 April will further consider the matter.

"There is a schism over freedom of speech. There is the question of the politics of morality, or the lack of it," is how Farid sums up the situation.

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