True to form, religion has once again taken center stage in the world arena.
By now, the general premise of the protests in Libya, Egypt and beyond is well known, and special attention has been given to the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, a UC Berkeley graduate, here on campus. I am not here to recapitulate these events. My interest is in dissecting the role of religion within this situation.
Islam has been dubbed an explanation of the events, but why? In search of this answer, I want to momentarily suspend any political and personal convictions to create a sort of analytical vacuum so that we can look solely at the religious reasons behind this outrage.
What is it exactly about this video that made Muslims so angry? We’re going to go way back to the basics for this.
The Prophet Muhammad is considered to be the founder of Islam and is therefore a sacred figure to adherents of the religion. In addition to Muhammad’s own personal status, there is a basic religious concern that images of the prophet can divert attention from the worship of Allah. Accordingly, in Islamic law, it is forbidden to depict Muhammad in any form.
Variations on aniconism are a familiar and pervasive concept in religions across the board. Take, for example, the drama of the golden calf — a human made idol that violated one of the 10 Commandments and angered God — in the Old Testament. And this tension around symbolic representation is not limited to the religious world. Let’s not forget flag burning or laws against desecrating money — both reflecting nationalist sentiment — that also spark controversy. The anger of Muslims in the face of such an offense is therefore not a specifically Islamic phenomenon, nor should it be pinpointed as an aspect of religious extremism.
One could even argue that these Muslim populations are reacting to something that offends a very basic element of their identity. This is a crucial distinction that is often overlooked. Religious beliefs are impossibly intertwined with the personal and universal identities of these revolting nations. The result of this fusion is that religion and politics are never truly separate. As Americans who have, in theory, a separation of church and state, we struggle with this overlap.
The question of violence in this particular event seemingly supersedes all other efforts to rationalize the response. Hillary Clinton stated in a speech given after the attack on the Libyan embassy that violence was not an acceptable response. Similarly, it is not my intention to condone the violence in response to this affront; on the contrary, I fully condemn it. But it is important to note — extremist interpretations of “jihad” aside — that Islam does not promote violence as an acceptable means of defending the religion. That being said, it is not only misinformed but also slanderous to say that Islam is, by nature, a violent religion. The violence that we see occurring in these countries is the combination of many other factors, sometimes including religious extremism and misplaced religious justification, but is not exclusively based on them.
One of the most prominent Western critiques of the Middle East is the seeming inability of the people to adapt to “true” democracy, freedoms and all. Let’s consider what the implications of this claim really are. What makes American democracy such a beautiful thing is that it, in principle, represents the will of the people. Well, the “people” in question here are Muslims, and it is a part of their identity that is not invalid. We consistently fail to adequately account for the role of religion in their lives simply because we, as a secular nation, cannot comprehend that relationship.
In an effort to further understand this mindset, I spoke with a Muslim student on campus, senior Sumayyah Naguib, who said she feels that the violence and riots cannot be justified by the offense. She made it very clear that the video should essentially fall under the category of legally unprotected hate speech, as it defames an essential element of the Muslim identity.
Ismail Mohamed, a religious scholar who lived in Germany, advanced this position even further in a news article in The New York Times. He told a reporter that “we don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights.” He said the West needs to “understand the ideology of the people.”
In light of this outlook, maybe we should reconsider our condemnation of the anger caused by the video. The situation is complicated — it always is — but is it unfair for us to ask them to build a national identity without one of the most fundamental elements of their society, their religion? What if the will of the people is inspired by the will of Allah? It is certainly a slippery slope, but one thing is sure: Discounting religious sentiment is not going to solve the problem.
Contact Hannah Brady at [email protected]