By Martin Accad
The movie trailer, “Innocence of Muslims,” which was considered by millions to be offensive to Islam and to its prophet Muhammad is in its second week of controversy. Embassies have been burnt down, people have been killed, flags of western nations continue to go up in flames and to get stepped upon. An overwhelming number of emotions and thoughts have been going through my mind since the controversy hit the news. It immediately brought back to mind the Terry Jones saga of 2 years ago. Perhaps not so incidentally, it would appear that the maker of the controversial movie had been in contact with the controversial Jones to seek help with promotion.
I went to YouTube as soon as I had a moment, in search for the source of all this trouble. Frustration was my first emotion, after watching the 14 minutes that had finally downloaded through one of the slowest internet connections in the world. The product felt as grotesque and one-dimensional as the Terry Jones “burn-a-Qur’an” stunt had felt two years earlier. Islam’s prophet appears as a deranged womanizer and murderer. The one-dimensional character could hardly have been the leader of a movement that, politically, grew into one of the fastest and most extensive empires of human history, and religiously continues to be the all-embracing way of life of nearly 1.5 billion human beings. Not to mention, of course, that as a student of Islam, I am fully convinced that the portrayal is far from what would have been the real historical character.
What added to my frustration was the fact that the reaction to the trailer in the Muslim world was as mindless as it had been in the case of the Jones controversy. Sad is the death of people that results from the mindless and irresponsible act of individuals who are addicted to bigotry and media limelight. I imagined for a moment being in the shoes of the wife or son of the US ambassador to Libya. Together with the families of other victims of this reactive violence, could I not bring “Sam Bacile,” the apparent pseudonym of the alleged filmmaker, to court for incitement to violence and murder? It’s not like he would have been unaware of the consequences of his act. There was enough precedent to leave no doubt about it. I am no legal expert, but does this not qualify as premeditated conspiracy to murder?
A browse through the hundreds of comments left by YouTube viewers reveals that many find the reaction of the Muslim streets equally unacceptable as the making of the film. I would agree with this. And in fact I was very impressed to read the strong condemnation of this violence by some of the leading Muslim voices in the US, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Cordoba Initiative through its Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, who was himself the target of bigotry not too long ago as a result of his project to build an Islamic Center at Park 51, considered too close for many to Ground Zero in Manhattan. Their immediate reactions? Hardly anything on the film and its deep offense against their religion. Just pure and unconditional condemnation of the killings perpetrated by confused individuals in the name of Islam and a reaffirmation that this had nothing to do with “true Islam.” Proud of the maturity of these Muslim leaders is how I would describe the second feeling I had as a result of this controversy.
The third feeling I got, which I will close with, is a sense of awe at the magnitude of the task that remains before us. Both the senseless act of the filmmaking and the mindless reactions to it are the result of a deep chasm between two sets of values whose bridging is hard to imagine. By making his film, Bacile believes he is exercising his fundamental right to freedom of thought, perhaps the most central value of western societies today; yet by doing so he has actually stepped on the central value of Muslim societies: the sanctity of God and of his prophets. Conversely, by burning down western embassies and engaging in violent reactions, Muslim people believe they are exercising their fundamental duty of defending God and their prophet, a duty far more important to them than any idea of human rights; yet by doing so they have stepped on the central value of freedom of thought that is so dear to western societies. What we have before us is no less than a clash of fundamental values, “holy” versus “holy.” What are we to do when each group’s exercise of their fundamental value leads to the bespattering of the other’s fundamental value? The Bible has plenty to say on that. If you are mature enough to eat meat sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience but know that doing so will be a cause of offense for your neighbor, abstain from it. As Paul says: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9) This is a very pragmatic principle that the Bible teaches. More fundamentally, I am invited to love my neighbor and to give up my right for their sake to the point of self-sacrifice and death. That is the fundamental value of Christ’s community: my neighbor’s right dictates my own duty.
But how do we teach and apply this at a global scale? That core value should drive us to be people of dialogue. It’s by recognizing the deep clash of values separating the Muslim world from the secular world today that the people of Christ can begin to serve as bridges between these two worlds.
At IMES, this role is summarized by our mandate “to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.” Our annual Middle East Conference strives to trigger a paradigm shift in thinking between Christians and Muslims, East and West. MEC 2013, which will take place on 17-21 June, will specifically deal with the issue of rights and duties in Christianity and Islam, examining possible discrepancies and clashes in cultures and values, by exploring the “universal” rights conventions (human rights, rights of the child, freedom of thought, human trafficking, etc…). Furthermore, our new Master’s degree in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies), which is being launched in less than a month, aims at taking our mandate to the next level. Through it, new generations of global leaders will be formed to teach, write and influence others across the world with Jesus values of self-giving and other-affirming love. This seems to be the only value that can begin to bridge the deep chasm between cultures that overwhelms our current reality.