Blasphemy in the digital age

Irfan Husain

AS yet another furore breaks out over a movie with an unflattering depiction of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), it is time to reflect on how Muslims should react to offensive material on the Internet.

In our digital age where social media sites contain millions of pages of all kinds of material, should we respond to every scurrilous image with violence? The attacks on the American missions in Benghazi and Cairo because of the film Innocence of Muslims is a case in point.

Having watched clips from the movie on YouTube, I can say that it is deeply offensive, both religiously and aesthetically. Crudely produced, it would have sunk without a trace had it not led to the death of the US ambassador and three other Americans in Libya.

While the producer/director, ‘Sam Bacile’, clearly set out to offend Muslims by his crass film, should they have taken offence? Each time there has been a violent reaction in the Muslim world, the object of protests has been given publicity and attention it would not otherwise have received. Beginning with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the 1980s to the infamous Danish cartoons, and many other similar episodes, Muslims have inadvertently promoted offensive portrayals of their faith through violence. Books, cartoons and films that would have otherwise faded into oblivion have gained iconic status though irrational Muslim reactions.

It is the nature of the Internet that any nut with a computer can post all kinds of hateful material from the anonymity of his home, and at virtually no cost. No government can do anything about it, so to burn down a country’s embassy in protest really does no good at all. In fact, what it does is confirm the widespread impression in the West of Muslims as volatile, irrational people.

And while one can understand the fury of Muslims over the Bacile film, what is one to make of the reaction to the Channel 4 series Islam: The Untold Story? This is meant to be a scholarly, serious examination of the earliest period of Islam by Tom Holland, a respected historian who recently wrote Under the Shadow of the Sword about the same subject.

Holland’s purpose in the series is to question assumptions and beliefs about a virtually undocumented period of early Islam. Given the lack of historical documents from the era, he indulges in speculation, as historians do in the absence of hard evidence.

After the first segment was aired in late August, Channel 4 has received so many complaints and threats, presumably from Muslims, that it has decided to drop the series. While some may regard this as a triumph of Islamic activism, it only reinforces the view of Muslims as intolerant.

It is true that the scientific method of basing research into the past on evidence comes into conflict with blind belief. Historians are sceptics who demand proof before they accept a version of past events. They have long subjected the early days of Christendom to similar analysis, with the result that many anecdotes about Jesus are now generally seen to be questionable at best.

But most believers see a dispassionate examination of the foundations of their religion as an attempt to somehow de-legitimise their deepest-held beliefs. However, history is seldom value-free: even the most objective historian is never entirely free of bias.

Devout Christians have often recoiled from the constant questioning of their faith. Indeed, their belief and their spiritual icons are regularly pilloried on television, in books and on the stage. Senior clerics have complained that while the media criticise and mock their faith, it adopts a generally more cautious line where Islam and Muslims are concerned. We all know why, of course.

In the first and only episode of Islam: The Untold Story to be aired by Channel 4, Holland says: “History is like a labyrinth — once you are inside, who knows where it will lead?” But clearly, while he views Islam as a legitimate field of study, many Muslims are convinced that it is a matter of strict belief, not speculation and analysis.

It seems that what is blasphemy to some is freedom of expression to others. And even the definition of what constitutes blasphemy needs to be revisited in this digital age: if somebody sends me an unsolicited email attachment containing a segment of the scriptures, and I delete it accidentally or deliberately, am I committing blasphemy? Some cellphones are sold with religious text pre-loaded on them. If a non-Muslim buys one and then decides to delete the app, has he committed blasphemy?

Since words and images in cyberspace are ultimately composed of 0s and 1s, do they correspond to alphabets and pictures on sheets of paper? I am not sure if these issues have been addressed by Muslim clerics, but I would like to hear the views of religious scholars.

And as accusations of blasphemy are constantly being hurled at the weak and the vulnerable in Pakistan, I wonder if somebody could tell me what happens to all the millions of pages of religious texts printed every year. Surely it is physically impossible to preserve them all.

Clearly, we need to draw a clear distinction between gratuitous attempts to shock and offend and historical research. But in either case, protests only serve to give them a far larger audience than they would otherwise have enjoyed.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

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I am at a loss over why people insist on watching or reading material that offends them, whether it is blasphemous or obscene. Instead of calling for them to be banned, why don’t they just switch channels or click their mouse to another site?

Actually, in most cases, people just accept the word of others and go on a rampage, irrespective of the actual contents of a book or a web page. It seems we still have a lot of growing up to do. Dawn

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

[email protected]


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