Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. The riots and Iranian fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, which forced the British-Kashmiri author into hiding for 13 years, can only be described as tragic — for him and for the cause of freedom and tolerance.
In the years since the 1989 fatwa, the rage expressed at perceived Western “insults” to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, have transcended tragedy to become farcical, with often tragic consequences. Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” — which, as those who have actually read it are aware, betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammed, despite its criticism of religion and human nature — at least had the merit of artistic and literary quality.
In contrast, most subsequent targets of this brand of outrage have been crude and amateurish, such as the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad, and consciously out to provoke a reaction, like the poorly scripted and badly acted “Innocence of Muslims,” which those “pre-incited,” “pre-programmed” Muslim protesters, as the film’s spokesperson Steve Klein described them, obligingly did.
At a certain level, I can understand, though I am personally not a believer, why Muslims would find offensive the infantile suggestions contained in the film that their prophet got the inspiration to establish his faith by performing oral sex on his first wife, Khadijah, or that the Quran was authored for him by a Coptic monk.
To my mind, the best reaction to this so-called “film” — which looks like it cost about $10 to make over a weekend, but was alleged to have cost $5 million — would have been not to dignify it with a response, so its makers would have been left to wallow in the bitter realization that their endeavor did not capture an audience beyond the 10 people who turned up to watch its one and only public screening.
The Muslims who expressed their outrage peacefully had every right to do so, since freedom of expression guarantees not only the right to cause offense but also the right to take offense. However, the minority that chose violence not only went against liberal, secular values, but also against the teachings of their own prophet and an ancient tradition of mockery of religion in their own societies.
Moreover, the protesters triggered widespread disapproval and disbelief across the Arab world. “The only thing that seems to mobilize the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria,” tweeted one dismayed Syrian activist.
So why did a production so out there that it wouldn’t even qualify as the lunatic fringe provoke such outrage and violence?
Part of the reason is a simple case of ignorance. Many Muslim conservatives fail or refuse to understand that the United States and many other Western countries hold freedom of speech, at least in principle, in higher regard than religious sensibilities. That would help explain why so many protesters called on the United States to apologize for the film and ban it, despite the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
But before Westerners take too much of a holier-than-thou attitude toward their commitment to free speech, they would do well to remember that, up until very recently, Christian conservatives had a powerful influence on constraining freedom of expression. This shows that it is religion in general (or rigid secular ideological orthodoxy) that is a significant barrier to free thought and inquiry, not just Islam.
In fact, a number of European countries with a Christian majority, as well as Israel, still have laws against blasphemy or insulting religion on their books, and though most no longer apply them, some still do, such as Poland and Greece. Meanwhile, nearby Albania is a majority Muslim country that has a long history of atheism and no laws against blasphemy or insulting religion, and has never prosecuted anyone for such a crime.
In Russia, the punk-rock band Pussy Riot was recently convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” How their “punk prayer” was offensive to Christianity is unclear, though it was highly insulting to Russia’s earthly deity, President Vladimir Putin.
Further West, cinematic classics, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” elicited angry protests across the Christian world, including the firebombing of a Paris movie theater, and was banned outright in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.
Likewise, “The Life of Brian” also elicited widespread protest — despite Monty Python’s respectful portrayal of Jesus and its insistence that the film is not blasphemous but only lampoons modern organized religion and the sheeplike mentality it inspires in followers — was banned in parts of the U.K., Norway and Ireland, and British television declined to show it.
The current protests are paradoxically both about Muhammad and have absolutely nothing to do with him. The insult to Muhammad was just an issue of convenience and, had it been absent, another cause would have emerged for popular frustration and fury.
This is not because, as some Westerners seem to believe, rage and fury are full-time occupations for Muslims, but because they are fed up with American hegemony (and local corruption) and dominance over their lives —– from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the decades spent supporting and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, while paying lip service to the haughty ideals of freedom and democracy.
This fact has been conveniently overlooked by Pax Americana’s cheerleaders, who, despite having been thrown off kilter by the revolutionary wave that has swept the Middle East, are now returning to business as usual with their suggestions that the fury unleashed by the anti-Muhammad film is incontrovertible proof of the irreconcilability of Western and Islamic values.
Describing herself as a “combatant in the clash of civilizations,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, atheist and advocate of neo-con policies, uses the latest flare-up to call for more, not less, U.S. intervention in the region to bring down political Islam “in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union.”
Although I admire Hirsi Ali’s courage in standing by her convictions despite death threats, I cannot abide her politics, her willful myopia to the destructiveness of much of America’s interventions and her insistence that there is a “clash of civilizations.”
In my view, there are clashes of many things in this world — trivializations, idiocies, fundamentalisms — but no clash of civilizations. Although culture and ideology can on rare occasions lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to a clash of interests.
That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of Al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 9/11 attacks. It also sheds light on why Israel once shortsightedly backed Islamist Hamas as a counterweight against the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Despite the mutually exclusive historical narratives of Dar al-Islam and Christendom, of crusades and jihads promoted by extremists, any deeper reading of history will soon reveal that conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilizational groups are greater than those between them. Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their co-religionists than each other. Take, for example, World War II, whose Christian-on-Christian carnage far surpassed anything the Muslims had ever inflicted. Moreover, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shias has often surpassed the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.
Add to that the fact that alliances regularly cut across presumed civilizational lines, such as the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France and Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.
More fundamentally, despite popular references to a “Judeo-Christian” civilization, Islam actually also belongs to the same civilizational group, with common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences. In fact, Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and farther east in Asia.
Some will undoubtedly protest that, even if this is true, the Enlightenment and its values, such as freedom of expression, have largely passed the Arab and Muslim world by. But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Although Arabs and Muslims generally lag behind scientifically, this is not just due to local cultural factors. There are plenty of geopolitical and economic factors that are beyond their control holding them back.
More important, the values of the Enlightenment have been an integral part of the secularizing and modernizing reform project in the Middle East that began in Turkey and Egypt in the 19th century. More recently, it was the desire for freedom and democracy — as well as economic justice — that lured millions of protesters onto the streets, and even if mainstream Islamists have made the biggest gains for now, they have had to adapt their discourse to suit this public mood.
What all this demonstrates is that the clash of civilizations exists mostly in the fevered imaginations of extremists on both sides. But we are in danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to fall for the divisive, though alluringly simplistic, logic of the prophets of doom. To remedy and challenge this, moderates on all sides must join forces to highlight the reality and benefits of the mash of civilizations in which we really live.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer currently living in Jerusalem, who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea. A version of this essay originally appeared at haaretz.com.