A neighbor of mine, of many years ago from a Gaza refugee camp, was a sacrilegious person par excellence. Unemployed like most inhabitants of the camp, he was extremely poor. His family responsibilities were daunting, yet prolonged Israeli military curfews made it impossible for him to find a job, let alone venture outside his miserable one-bedroom house to puff on cheap brand cigarettes, which he often borrowed from some other neighbor.
When life pushed Ghassan beyond his ability to cope, he would go to his house’ courtyard and begin to shout, shrieking most imaginative profanities against everything sacred. His howls would often end with muffled cries and tears, especially once he realized that he had crossed every sacred line there was to cross, including those pertaining to God, the Prophets (no one in specific) and all the holy books.
But when Israeli soldiers dragged Ghassan out of his house and ordered him to curse at Allah and to insult the Prophet Mohammed - otherwise they would have beaten him senseless - he obstinately refused. It’s not that the man would not compromise, for he had already walked on all fours, barked like a dog and spit grudgingly at a poster of Yasser Arafat. But Allah and the Prophet is where he drew the line. Ghassan retold the story many times, even long after the scars on his face healed, and his broken arm was once again useful. And in no time, he resumed his regular blasphemy whenever life pushed him passed that dreadful, breaking point.
During military curfews, Israeli soldiers often got bored. When all refugees were locked in, and no stone-throwing kids taunted them in the camp’s small alleys, the soldiers would break down a few rickety doors and entertain themselves by humiliating hapless refugees. The practice was widespread and recurring. Men and boys would often comply with all sorts of requests, but many remained steadfast when the soldiers’ demands reached God and the Prophet. Many bones were broken that way, too many to count.
Spiritual, religious figures and symbols often represent the last hope to which poor, humiliated and disenfranchised people cling onto with absolute ferocity, for that hope is their last line of defense. Without it, all is lost.
Palestine has often served as a microcosm for a larger ailment, which many Muslims see as the lowest point of their collective humiliation that spans generations. Although Muslim solidarity with Palestinians is often wrapped up in religious symbols and slogans, in reality it is the degradation of the individual (as a representation of the Ummah – the nation) that troubles them most.
Palestine, however, is no longer the only low point. In the last two decades, other Muslim nations joined a growing list: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and so on.
Insulting Islamic symbols often represents that breaking point for many Muslims. The phenomenon is too obvious to miss. Long before Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ became a cause célèbre among western governments and intellectuals, supposedly so keen on shielding ‘freedom of speech’ from the hordes of vengeful Muslims: Offending Muslims somehow managed to survive all phases of political correctness that western countries experienced in recent decades.
It was hardly surprising that the latest anti-Islam video – The Innocence of Muslims – was directed by a pornographer, promoted by rightwing hatemongers, and championed by the very self-righteous ‘intellectual’ elements that hailed every American military adventure in Muslim countries. Those who are using the film, and the much violence and anger it generated, to preach ‘freedom of expression’ and such, are either willfully ignorant or know nothing of the political context behind all of this.
Similarly, it was not the single act of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishing of the offensive Mohammed’s cartoons in 2005, nor Pastor Terry Jones’ burning of the Holy Quran antics in 2010 that enraged many Muslims. It was the identity of the perpetrators – as western, American – that placed the insults in an already unbearable political context: The sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the insanity of Bagram prison in Afghanistan, the torture and unlawful imprisonment of Muslim detainees in Guantanamo, the millions of dead, maimed and displaced and a thousand more such examples.
Those who insist on placing ‘Muslim rage’ (the cover story of a recent Newsweek edition) within some futile discussion over freedom of speech are only confusing the issue. Offensive cartoons targeting Prophet Mohammed were published in numerous countries including newspapers in Africa, South America and even some Arab countries. There was no uproar. South Africa’s Mail and Guardian is notorious for attempting to add fuel to the fire, desperate for international attention. In 2010, shortly before the World Cup, cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro hoped to break away into international stardom with an offensive cartoon in the same newspaper, to no avail. Only local Muslim communities reacted, and the issue was more or less forgotten. Why?
Is it because Muslims are more tolerant to freedom of speech in Chile, Estonia and Peru, than the US, Denmark and France? Or is it because the former are involved in no wars that continue to humiliate Muslims, pushing them to the brink like my old Gaza neighbor?
Just as the protests were building momentum, a NATO airstrike on September 16 killed eight women in the Afghani province of Laghman. Thousands of angry Afghans, helpless before the recurring lethal strikes, roamed the streets in tears chanting anti-US slogans, burning US flags and more. Their 'rage' over the film was accentuated by the deadly strike. Few in mainstream media even bothered to link both events, as if the intention is simply to maintain that Muslims are irrational and that their misguided logic is deserving of no consideration whatsoever.
When I saw Pakistani, Afghani, Yemeni, Lebanese and other protesters rallying against the constant provocation emanating from western countries, I couldn’t help but think of Ghassan. Demanding Muslims to become more ‘tolerant’ as their most sacred symbols are being desecrated, while the smoke of NATO bombs continues to fill the Afghani-Pakistani horizon, is not much different than demanding an unemployed, broken and despairing man to sit on all fours, bark like a dog and repeat slurs targeting Prophet Mohammed. As irreverent to religion as Ghassan was, that moment defined his very humanity. He refused to obey the soldiers, and the beating commenced.