It all started this time round, in September 2012, with an amateurish and rather tawdry trailer for a film entitled 'Innocence of Muslims' that intended to defame the Muslim prophet Muhammad; and in so doing insult the ummah of Islam worldwide and perhaps goad some Muslims into acts of violence.
This was quite a deliberate provocative tactic and one that clearly yielded ample dividends with the violent deaths and ongoing attacks against US and Western interests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and further afield.
But this latest incident -- irrespective of whether it was allegedly choreographed by individual Copts living abroad or even aided and abetted by other groups or individuals -- is not the real issue. It meant to seek publicity and to stir trouble, or as my history teacher used to say, "to fish in muddy waters", and in so doing embarrass Islam as a seemingly primitive and backward religion that cannot sit peaceably with ‘our’ Western norms and values.
There have been other recent examples too. Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director and producer, worked with the Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali to produce the film 'Submission', which criticised the treatment of women in Islam, aroused controversy amongst Muslims and led to his murder in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim.
There was also the episode in 2010 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten created another furore by publishing a series of twelve drawings depicting the prophet Muhammad unfavourably. The publishers were roundly condemned by the Muslim world, embassies were torched and Danish products were boycotted by many Muslim nations.
Also in September this year, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo printed a series of cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad, whose sketches purportedly focused on the recent tasteless America-produced film. So jittery was the situation that France chose to close its embassies and schools on a Friday in some twenty countries across the Arab and Muslim worlds since its foreign minister felt that they could well be attacked after the Friday weekly prayers.
But what phenomena are we witnessing worldwide? Has Samuel P Huntington achieved a posthumous victory by proving that his 'clash of civilisations' is truly an irrefutable reality, and that never the twain shall meet when it comes to East and West? Are Muslim beliefs so removed from the norms of the so-called West that they cannot accommodate each other? Is Islam an incompatible bedfellow with Western secular beliefs, and has the post-Enlightenment era of Reason detached itself totally from the Muslim idea of Religion? Why is Muhammad such a mobilising or polarising figure?
Let me start off by recognising plainly that those mischief-makers from both sides who wish to exacerbate tensions between Islam as a body politic and the ‘West’ will not shy away from baiting each other. However, they are surely in the minority, since the majority (often deafeningly silent) of Muslims and non-Muslims would wish to shun any unnecessary strife, deaths, destruction and political or social disharmony.
But in the midst of seditious elements, are we perhaps also witnessing the awakening of a countermovement? A colleague drew my attention recently to the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, who wrote in the prominent Egyptian Al-Shorouk newspaper that the Western world allows freedom of religion for Muslims, as manifest in the building of mosques and the licensing of their preachers, while Muslim countries do not allow others to publicly preach their beliefs.
He joined Imad al-Din Hussein, another columnist for Al-Shorouk, whose searing piece suggested that supporting Islam and its prophet should be done through work, production, values and culture, and not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats. His premise was that maybe we [Muslims] should examine ourselves before [criticising] others.
However, and much as I empathise with the goodwill of such writers, many parts of the West - certainly Nordic European countries as well as the USA - have over decades striven to move away from this discourse and separated the bounds of God from the boundaries of Caesar by subscribing to a set of basic freedoms that include the unfettered freedom of expression.
After all, while Jesus has also been grossly maligned in some parts of the media, there have hardly been any convulsive reactions or physical outrage. Is it because the West has turned, in a certain sense, post-Christian and there is an acceptance in many peoples’ minds of the separation between personal creeds and public affairs that is still uncommon to Islam?
A moot point for me is whether prophets need our protection, and if they do, can they still be prophets? Much more is it so perhaps with Jesus, who is more than a prophet for Christian believers?
However, those Muslim reactions, hash-tagged on Twitter as "Muslim rage", are not simply antithetical reactions to the separation we are witnessing in the West between the foundations of the Almighty and those of the world -- a separation that is less fathomable in some segments of Islam where the likes of Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, consider the divine (deen) and the temporal (dunya) coming together as one.
So while those reactions are dogmatic at some level, and thereby prone to manipulation, the acrimonious demonstrations we have witnessed in many countries also reflect a more truncated reality that manifests itself in the transference of angry frustration among many Muslims, both in its inward and outward looking dimensions.
Such angry frustration takes form in many ways and has many roots. We can think back as far as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses of 1989 (a semi-official Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii has just raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million) that in my opinion was a largely misunderstood book, but touched a collective Muslim raw nerve. Or consider the more recent, insidious public posturing by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, who burnt copies of the Holy Qur'an.
Then there is the unjustified war against Iraq in 2003, the American unarmed aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or drones violating the physical and human sovereignty of Muslim countries and hitting targets as part of US anti-terror policies, the Abu Ghraib prison abuses or even the ill-treatment of Guantanamo detainees. I hardly need add the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which perhaps remains the biggest issue for many.
So those who believe that God and Caesar are inextricably intertwined and who also harbour pent-up and deep-seated frustrations against their own societies, or the West, use such offences against the symbols of their religion (in this case Islam) to release their anger through violence.
Acceptable or not, these feelings percolate in the collective psyches and memories of some Muslims until such time as they erupt publicly and the accumulated ire or fury is vented in reprehensible ways. But while such reactions might be explained in anthropological or psychological terms, they still remain unjustifiable in human and religious ones.
It is also evident that these feelings of outrage are not being quelled through the ongoing bloody conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa region either. After all, the repercussions of the killings in Benghazi extend far beyond Libya or the sad death of an outstanding ambassador and his colleagues. In fact, the MENA region might well be another tinderbox, not least with the continuing deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians.
But the anger of Middle East and North Africa residents (I hesitate to use the term ‘citizens’ since many such residents still remain deprived of essential citizenship rights) is also inward-facing in terms of the deplorable poverty levels, unemployment, corruption and economic stagnation that are endemic to many parts of the region and have as much to do with internal political mismanagement as they do with Western culpability.
However, I still refuse to believe that the invidious riots of the past month are an ironclad indication of an irretrievable breakdown between different peoples, their faiths and cultures. Or to paraphrase US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “How could they hate us when we helped rid them of Gadhafi?” which is symptomatic of a sophomoric understanding of Middle East and North African politics.
After all, this is the violently regressive work of a small group, and one of the iron laws of Middle Eastern politics for decades has been that extremists 'push the envelope' whilst moderates tend to hold back and 'keep mum'.
But was the disdain of many ordinary Libyans to the violence not visible when they stormed the headquarters of the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi?
It seems clear that such a grassroots manifestation in Libya could well be replicated elsewhere. After all, Arab intellectuals have for long been writing and talking about these issues. One only needs to read some of the writings of critical thinkers such as Hisham Sharabi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Khaled Fahmy, Sadeq Jalal el Azm, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Elias Khoury, Saoud el Mawla, Nawal Sa’adawi, Madawi Rashid or Raja Ben Slama to understand that.
But unfortunately, the necessary internal debates within Arab secular and religious societies that such intellectuals labour for in their own countries, have been stifled by autocratic rulers whose regimes traditionally suppressed extremist Islamist parties but never permitted their ideas to be countered with free speech - either with independent, modernist, progressive interpretations of Islam or else by truly legitimate, secular political parties and institutions.
The so-called Arab Spring could well provide the platform for such a critical debate. True, the outcome remains quite unpredictable, and many intellectuals remain timorous, but the cogent question to be asked is not, “What is wrong with the West?” or else, “what is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?” -- since the answers to those questions are in many books, but rather would those pioneers be allowed at long last to engage their societies and filter their thoughts to the populace?
All this entails a process of awareness-raising and education, two buzz words that are anathema to autocratic systems, let alone to religious zealots, since both parties thrive on manacling fundamental freedoms and exercising their hold on people through malingering fear or manufactured bigotry.
But progress is achievable, with the right leadership, vision and mettle, and I already hear that some Muslim producers, in addition to Al-Azhar in Cairo, are considering the production of documentaries that portray the life of the prophet Mohammad in such a way as to help debunk some myths within Muslim societies first, as well the West.
Huntington’s pervasive underlying question is this: is it possible to stanch the polemical ‘them’ versus ‘us’ argument? Or will we simply bungle along in our collective efforts, so proving that we are indeed incompatible bedfellows? What we need is not further disengagement between peoples and cultures, but rather further re-engagement between them.
In the final analysis, and perhaps more as an obiter dictum, one of my mentors used to remind me often that our confidence in our own beliefs, irrespective of their nature, should urge us to question them all the time so that they can be renewed and grow healthier. This has never been an easy challenge, but it is one we have to face.
This article is an edited version of one that appeared on Epektasis.
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net