international analysis and commentary

It’s time for Muslims to focus on their core interests

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The wave of protests − angry protests to say the least − sparked by an anti-Islamic video in a large part of the Muslim world is as worrying as it is excessive. It reveals the extent to which religious issues continue to spark impassioned controversy and gut reaction, reminding us − if there were any need − of the holy and excruciatingly sensitive nature of religion. If we look closely at the nature of the reactions that have been rocking the Arab and Muslim world in September, it becomes clear that radical and conservative roots continue to have a strong grip and that the reek of Islamism appears to be predominating over the sentiment of tolerance and of religious coexistence in those countries. The most worrying thing is to see doggedly anti-Western demonstrations taking place in those very countries that have paid such a high price to shake off the shackles of dictatorship, of oppression and of political and ideological unanimity. Whether it be in Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt or in Yemen – or even in Syria, which is in the grip of a devastating war – the religious radicals have been hollering their indignation out loud, but they have also been displaying their penchant for violence.

And that is not all. Through their exhibitions of muscle-flexing, they also appear to be bent on demonstrating the clout that they wield in their societies; in fact, they are practically setting themselves up in the place of the official religious institutions in order to emit a verdict on a most delicate issue. In lashing out against Western countries’ symbols as they have done, certain Muslims have openly displayed their vulnerability and their inability to accept anyone or anything that is different from them. If psychiatrists or other sociologists were to analyze the deeper significance behind their excessive reactions (to put it mildly), they would probably discover signs of malaise, of intellectual immaturity and of a mistaken interpretation of religion.

Not that these protests are unprecedented, but now they spark concern and raise questions regarding the future of the Arab and Muslim world in the new context of social change and political transitions. That is undoubtedly why these protests are a source of greater concern than has been customary hitherto: Did the women of Tunisia back the Jasmine Revolution only to watch their exemplary freedom be hijacked in the name of religion? More broadly, there are fears that recent events reflect the reversible nature of some of more positive changes of 2011. In particular, the diffusion of a YouTube video has been sufficient to exacerbate confessional tension among Muslims and Christians in Egypt (in part because its author is a Copt). In fact, that tension resurfaced virtually the day after the revolution that was spawned and took shape in Tahrir Square. In this light, the virulence of the September demonstrations may be self-defeating and damage the image of Muslims across the world. Would it not have been more effective for those Muslims who feel offended by the film to state their case by parading outside US embassies in as peaceful a manner as possible? Is it not time for them to embrace such notions as freedom of worship and freedom of expression in their daily lives, on condition of course that societies both in the East and in the West prove capable of appreciating the proper measure of those values?

Questions about the nature of the recent street protests also go beyond the Arab region: Are the people of Mali, who are not directly concerned by the Arab Spring (yet who have still suffered from its fallout), happy to stand by with their arms folded, powerless to intervene, as their country is broken up in the name of the shari’a?

We have to admit that the anti-Islamic film may indeed appear to some people as a provocation, but in this case it would probably be more judicious for such people to respond, for example, by producing a high-quality film portraying the Prophet in his genuine greatness – in the tradition of the hitherto unparalleled movie masterpiece “Errisala” directed by the late Mustapha al Aqad. “The best way to answer fools is by keeping silent,” the old saying goes. Well, the best response to provocation probably is to apply reason and intelligence to the specific issue under discussion, while avoiding any simplistic manipulation. After all, if the movie was intended as a provocation, too many people seem to have fallen into its trap.

It is without a doubt time for Muslims to dwell at greater length on essential issues and to avoid getting bogged down with the futile and the ancillary, especially since the real challenges that they are facing are immediate and material but also carry long term consequences for the future identity of their societies.