When the
Satanic Verses Affair erupted in 1988 the man on the Clapham Omnibus could have been forgiven for
scratching his head over the fury an alleged work of
fiction had aroused in the global Islamic commu­nity.

To the western mind, desacralized by decades of materialism, the idea that people could still be offended by the sat­irisation of their sacred history and the parodying of their religious figures was genuinely alien. Popular culture was al­ready
replete with irreverent and mock­ing
references to Christianity s foremost personages
and beliefs. Monty Python s box office hit, The Life of Brian”, and Madonna s pop song “Like A Prayer” both
attested to the extent to which secularisation
had driven religion out of once staunchly Christian societies.

Yet despite the reams that have been written to explain why Muslims find the depictions so offensive new controver­sies continue to surface. The increas­ing presence of
Muslim journalists in the West and the explosion of
internet and social media appear to have done little
to arrest the production and pub­lication of ever more offensive
material. To the contrary western editors saw the issue as
something of a cause celebre and
themselves as keyboard warriors spearheading an existentialist
conflict between liberal western values and re­ligious intolerance. In 2005 caricatures of the
Prophet Muhammad published by the Danish
newspaper Jyllands-Posten ignited a
fresh outburst of rage across the Muslim world.

Today it is the turn of Innocence of Muslims” to rile the Muslim masses. The 13-minute trailer to the movie, report­edly directed by an American-Egyptian Christian Copt, has already triggered a deadly attack on the US ambassador to Libya and bloody demonstrations against western interests and symbols across
the world.

Although non-Muslim commentators and politicians down from
President Barack Obama have condemned the film –
his secretary of state Hilary Clin­ton called the trailer
“disgusting and reprehensible”- it
has done little to allay Muslim outrage.

Attacks on Muhammad are nothing new. Criticism and calumny have followed the Prophet ever sinc e he announced his divine mission. Medieval Christendom revelled
in such obloquy. In his Divine Comedy, considered one of the world s literary masterpieces, Dante depicts a naked Muhammad in the 8th circle of Hell with his belly sliced open and entrails hanging out, a punishment for breaking away from Christianity and founding a new religion. Representa­tions like Dante s were echoed by artists such as Giovanni da Modena whose 15 h century fresco The Last Judgement” shows
Muhammad tethered to a rock in Hell and being clawed by demons.

But however much they vilified Muham­mad, medieval characterisations were a product of their time and reflective of the highly antagonistic climate in which Christians
and Muslims existed. By the 11th
century the conquest of Christian heartlands by the Seljuks spawned a se­ries of wars including the Crusades, pro­viding a
sanguinary canvas for their rep­resentations
of Islam. Today that open hostility
from mainstream Christianity has disappeared only to be replaced by Christian fringe firebrands and liberal extremists bent on fomenting a new conflict
with one quarter of the world s population.

What the recurring crises illustrate is that the
hatemongers are encouraged by the absence of
any legislative or political will to stop them spewing their obsceni­ties. Soon after the anti-film protests broke
out, US President Barack Obama went on TVto
say his country rejects

efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”. However he stopped short of calling for concrete action that
would prevent any repeat of this scenario. Across
the pond, the secular fundamen­talist
French state did not even bother to comment
on the apparently gratuitous publication
of fresh caricatures of Mu­hammad by the satirical magazine Char­lie Hebdo, whose offices have already been burnt down once before as a result of
the same provocation.

It is not a coincidence that Muslim pro­testors
have targeted US and other west­ern
embassies: by failing to act against the
culprits western states are seen as complicit
or indifferent to the offence. Throw
in a popular perception in the Muslim
world of malevolent western in­volvement
in their affairs and you have an understandably combustible cocktail.

It is
not as if constitutional obligations prohibit
legislating against this type of hate
speech. The statute books of most western jurisdictions already outlaw incitements to various types of hatred as well as offensive communications. Only last September, 19 year-old Azhar Ahmed was convicted in the UK of post­ing what the judge in his trial called a “derogatory” and
“inflammatory” mes­sage on Facebook. Ahmed had written following
the deaths of six UK service­men in
Afghanistan that all `soldiers should
die and go to Hell.”

The absence of adequate legislative de­terrents in the
West is fuelling repeated attacks and increasingly
vitriolic attacks against Islam. If editors, artists and writ­ers know they are operating in an atmos­phere of total impunity it only encour­ages
the irresponsible amongst them to overstep
the mark.

Thankfully though, the tide of opinion seems to
be turning. Unlike their stance over the
Satanic Verses Affair the chat­tering classes seem to be coming around to the view that this kind of attack is an unacceptable exercise of free speech — the Guardian s film critic Peter Brad­shaw called the trailer tgly Islamopho­bia”, “a nasty piece of work” and
“a bigot­ed piece of poison calculated to inflame the Muslim world”.

The regard in which Muslims hold the Prophet of Allah cannot be understated. As the beloved of God he is closer to God than anything else in creation. Mu­hammad is also the Messenger of God, the
vehicle by which God conveyed his final and most complete revelation, the Qur an, to mankind. Muhammad is also the perfect role model and the perfect man whose example fellow believers should strive to emulate. In fact in the Islamic vveltanschauung, no one or noth­ing even comes close to Muhammad as a figure
of awe and reverence.

Yet despite this Muslims have never claimed nor expected any special immu­nity from
criticism for the Prophet from those outside the faith. It is
clearly unre­alistic
to expect people who do not ac­cept Islam
to view Muhammad or other Islamic figures and values in the same light. But it is realistic, indeed imperative in
today s highly interconnected world, for any
criticism or debate to respect the boundaries of civilised discourse and not to deliberately trample on the sensitivities of others. Free speech is not and has never been a substantively ab­solute right: it has always stopped at the point
that it starts to trespass on other fundamental rights such as the right to life, personal and communal safety and peaceful social existence. As more and more
people gravitate to this viewpoint, it is
high time that politicians translate public
opinion into laws that banish ma­terial
such as Innocence of Muslims” from
the civilised world.

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