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In 1987, the American artist Andres Serrano won an award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art for his photograph entitled “Immersion (Piss Christ).” It depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in what appeared to be a yellow liquid. Serrano later said the liquid was his own urine.
The photograph wasn’t displayed in public for another two years, and when it was, it predictably set off a storm among devout Christians. Complicating what was already a volatile issue was the small matter that the US$15,000 award had been partly sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects. In other words, the US taxpayer had helped fund a picture of Christ in a glass of urine.
There was an outcry throughout the US — Serrano received hate mail and death threats and, when the photograph was exhibited abroad, it was vandalized both in Australia and France.
But no one died. The US embassy was not torched in either country, despite the American government being a sponsor of the work.
Western galleries and cinemas are full of art and films denigrating Christ, God and various other tenets of the Christian faith. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” offered what many thought was an incredibly unflattering portrait of Jewish characters but while there was much anger, irate Jews did not scale his garden walls setting fire to his shrubbery. Or put a bounty on his head.
Last week, US embassies were attacked in Benghazi, in Cairo, in Tunis and Khartoum. While the facts remain unclear, it appears that the attacks were originally instigated by Salafis, hardline Muslims with their own agendas. What is clear is that the storming of the embassy in Libya led to the deaths of four people, among them the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, by all accounts an Arabist who was attached to Libya and its people.
The initial reason given for the attacks was that Muslims were livid over a film, “Innocence of Muslims,” that mocked the Prophet Mohamed, allegedly made by an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile. It later transpired that the film is little more than a trailer with astonishingly bad production value and the actors involved claimed they had been duped, not realizing they were making a film about Islam. And according to reports Bacile is apparently Californian, an Egyptian Copt, with a criminal record to boot.
By now it has become a cliche to say that the riots weren’t really about the film, but rather about other domestic grievances. This is almost certainly true; there are multiple facets as to who was demonstrating and why, but that’s another discussion. For the purposes of this discussion, however, one fact is very clear: there is no doubt that the film produced precisely the reaction that its makers must have intended. Once again, Muslims around the world reacted violently to someone expressing an opinion which runs contrary to theirs. In Egypt, Islamist President Mohamed Morsy, the first Egyptian president who actually has to take public opinion into consideration, played populist politics. Assessing that parliamentary elections might be around the corner, he pandered to popular opinion. It took him over a day to denounce the attacks in Cairo. Egypt’s consul general in New York tweeted that the president had asked that the American authorities take legal action against the filmmakers. This move could only be a populist one since the president must be perfectly well aware that there are no legal measures to be taken. The first amendment of the American constitution protects freedom of expression and religion. Hate speech may be reviled, but it’s legal. The only exception is if the speech is likely to directly incite violence.
The timing of the attacks is horrific (or excellent, depending on one’s viewpoint), coming as they do on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks and so close to the American presidential elections. There are few things which limit an administration’s ability to exercise diplomatic leeway like an election. And apart from the abhorrent nature of the attacks, they have handed Islamophobes cutlery and a napkin. The Arab Spring, they say, has accomplished nothing more than exposing the true, barbaric face of religious extremism. The eyes of the world are upon us and we’re not a pretty sight.
While the situation is anything but simple, there are a few facts that we need to grasp.
The first is that no one owes us anything. Non-Muslims do not have to automatically understand, or appreciate, that some Muslims are so devout that they would die, or worse, kill, for their religion and their Prophet.
The second is that holding governments responsible for the actions of individuals is both reductive and counter-productive. Every time there is an Islamist terrorist, we expect non-Muslims to understand and appreciate that these are the actions of an isolated fanatic few, from among a global population of 1.6 billion Muslims. If one follows this line of reasoning, why would we hold the United States ransom for the actions of a convicted criminal? Or indeed, for any Islamophobic speech, incident or film? If the National Endowment for the Arts gave a prize to a photograph depicting Christ submerged in urine in a country where Christians make up approximately 75 percent of the population, what entitles Muslims to demand the criminalization of what they consider to be blasphemy?
And finally, noone is suggesting that we don’t make a stand. When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet in 2005, the Pakistanis bombed the Danish Embassy. The Syrians, Lebanese and Iranians, among others, started fires at embassies in their countries. In Egypt, we stopped buying Danish butter — a far better idea.
Objection and protest is often at its most effective when it is non-violent, as proved by Gandhi and the US civil rights movement. If Muslims object to any form of misrepresentation they have a duty to object. They also have a duty to do so in any number of ways which will not insult the faith they treasure. It is doubtful that any of those perpetrating violence to defend the Prophet’s honor remember that he insisted on not harming or insulting those who had harmed or insulted him.
In less esoteric terms, Muslims have a duty to object in way which will not bring the roof crashing down on the heads of Muslim minorities.
We do not have a monopoly on vilification. And the sooner we develop thicker skins and start dealing with the fact the better it will be, for everyone.
Mirette F. Mabrouk is a nonresident fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution