Coverage of Muslims and Islam is a bread and butter media commodity. First amendment guarantees and free speech provisions in western countries limit censorship based upon sensitivities of a particular religious group. Favorable coverage and dispassionate, objective editorial regarding Muslims and Islam is not an entitlement in the real world of the free press. Such is usually accomplished through paid advertising. Journalistic integrity competes with ratings and circulation value, and responsible reporting from one perspective is unwarranted media bias from another. Such happens when people think for themselves. Thus, it stands to reason that negative portrayal and contemptuous commentary of Muslims, and Islam in western media is an inextricable certainty of the industry, particularly in light of global events. Although it frequently angers Muslims, and evokes protest and condemnation, it is unlikely to go away. Nevertheless, as Muslims our concern is legitimate and the matter requires attention. The question is what type of attention?
Despite condemnation, various public relations overtures, civil rights actions and legal maneuvers, the anti-Muslim comment has not vanished. When will it end? How can we stop it? The truth is, there is no foreseeable end in sight, and if we continue to employ the same reactionary methods to change public opinion, or quell anti-Muslim statements, the problem will only exacerbate. Part of the conundrum is our reluctance to assume collective accountability for our condition. Another cause of the problem is conspicuous absence of Quranic and Prophetic guidance in our choice of tactics.
Slander, ill treatment, and negative perception of Muslims are not simply public relation challenges requiring conventional image re-tooling. Or a mere civil rights dilemma remedied by protest and letters to the editor, and certainly not just a constitutional infraction requiring a Bill of Rights refresher course. There are numerous geo-political, theological, and socio-environmental factors which determine how Muslims living in the United States are spoken of, spoken to, and treated. Overstating the scale and breadth of ill sentiment toward Muslims in America is counter productive. Disregarding the root causes is irresponsible. Ignoring it completely is a missed opportunity. Expecting positive results while failing to employ an Islamic ethical approach is a fantasy existing only in the quilt of our minds woven together with the threads of wishful thinking.
Ill sentiment and verbal attacks against Islam and some Muslims in the United States does occur. However, considering that there are about 5 million Muslims in America, the ratio of reported incidents of anti Muslim bias reported by CAIR is 40 out every 100,000, which is too low to warrant priority one status.
Countering verbal disparagement with protest is a tactically flawed approach. In this year alone; there has been at least three major incidents (the cartoon satirizing our Prophet (SAWS), the Pope’s repeating a centuries old quotation, and the eight Imams who were unceremoniously escorted off an airplane) of verbal or public insult of Islam, the Prophet (SAWS) or Muslims. In each case there was protest, vociferous indignation, and demands for retraction or apologies. Yet, in each case, indignation yielded no measurable improvement of Muslim image or cessation of anti-Muslim bias or speech. Additionally, the principal sentiment fueling the response was anger. In all but the last incident, response resulted in the loss of innocent life. It is ironic that anger is the very emotion that warrants suppression according to the islamic ethical code.
A greater irony is that in each case, media characterization of Muslim response was replete with words like, “rage”, “fury”, and “anger”. I personally do not recall any headlines that captioned; “Muslims love for their Prophet caused them to… “or the love of Allah fuels protest”, or, Muslim expresses their love for Islam by boycotting….” Thus from a strategic perspective, response netted negligible dividend. To consider whatever dialogue that followed as tangible gain is a misleading since doctrinal polemics between Islam and other faiths have existed for over 1400 years. In the game of image politics, celebratory elation when a detractor agrees to your petition to dialogue is a sophisticated and sanitized form of humiliation. It messages a craving for legitimacy. The compulsive rush to defend criticism implies that there is truth in it.
Islamic canonical law does not prescribe recrimination as a response to verbal affront which carry no judicial or legal consequence. Unflattering words are not repelled by the same; on the contrary, evil is only repelled by justice. “Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!” Ibn Abbaas said: “Allah (God) summons the Muslim community to exercise patience when angry, benevolence in the face of ignorance, and pardon when offended. If people did that, Allah would protect them from the Devil” . If countering verbal disparagement with protest and reciprocal assault is righteousness, then to do the opposite constitutes unrighteousness. Obviously, such a hypothesis contradicts Prophetic guidance. The example of the Prophet (SAWS) in responding to verbal disparagement against himself, His Lord, or Muslims was to exercise restraint.
The dangerous theological implications of the protest approach seem to escape consideration. Understandably we are frustrated by the incessant degrading, slaughter, and humiliation of Muslims. However, although anger, insult and frustration are causes of moral infraction in Islamic law, they are unacceptable justifications for it. Otherwise, emotion would outrank divine injunction as the primary criterion of good conduct. Such a notion is heresy according to orthodox Muslim theology
Prioritization of anti-Muslim bias as a premiere issue over Muslim intra-religious hostility and sectarianism transposes the divine contractual assignment of Islamic law. It creates a reverse moral assumptive whereas intra-religious sectarianism is an acceptable paradigm while anti Muslim bias is not. The latter is declared intolerable to the degree of public protest, indignant response, and central billing in Friday sermons, while the former warrants no such attention, although it ranks amongst the category of major sins in Islam. Stoicism in the face of verbal invective is virtue while the Muslim slander of Muslim is depravity and Muslim on Muslim killing approaches heresy. “Slander of a Muslim is depravity and killing him is heresy”.
Therefore, by what moral rationale do we address anti-Muslim sentiment in the press, which by itself bears no spiritual penalty for Muslims if left unattended, and not devote similar attention to Muslim on Muslim killing and slander which register sin by occurrence, and sin when allowed to continue. “Verily the believers are a single brotherhood therefore make peace between your brethren and fear Allah so ye may receive mercy” .
Since verbal disparagement against Muslims and Islam is an inevitable occurrence, Islamic spiritual etiquette emphasizes preparing in advance for its contingency and utilizing deflective buffering if and when it happens. “Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs!” Hence, no shock or dismay should follow slanderous, negative, or degrading statements about Muslims especially in environments where we are religious minorities, such as the United States. As a rule Muslims should resist grieving over verbal insult, “Let not their speech, then, grieve thee. Verily We know what they hide as well as what they disclose”
When verbal and media denigration occurs, there are scriptural analgesics that buffer and counteract psychological, emotional, or spiritual irritation. “And have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity)” . Dignified detachment rekindles spiritual fortitude and prioritizes inner jihad. Self control and spiritual focus does more to convey the noble attributes of Islamic teachings than hypersensitivity and angered reaction to disparagement. It brings forth divine assurance of blessing and guidance which in significantly more rewarding than emotional capitulation to antagonist sentiments. “Those who, when afflicted with calamity say: "To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return. They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from God, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance”. Blessings and mercy is better than anguish and consternation.
Frenzied retort to anti-Muslim speech underscores the need for Muslim moral attentiveness, and bolsters the argument for reform. Not reform of Islam as suggested by many, but reform of the Muslim heart so that behavior response conforms to Islamic teachings and pleasing the Creator takes precedence over pleasing the created. If there is truth in the verbal invectives launched against us, then reminder is a timely utility since remembrance benefits the believer. If it is false, with no basis in truth, we praise Allah that we are free of it. Demanding that people not insult or speak ill of Muslims only bolsters animosity. It may occasionally silence the tongue, but it has little effect on the heart of the antagonist. Public criticism when muffled turns into whispers (was’wasa) which though lower in decibel, is exponentially more insidious. Let’s leave response to insult to Allah and concentrate on our own salvation. “If good fortune comes to you, it grieves them; and if evil befalls you, they rejoice in it. But if you are patient in adversity and conscious of God, their guile cannot harm you at all: for, verily, Allah encompasses [with His might] all that they do. ” The sooner we do this, the better. Otherwise we will find ourselves inducted into a war of words in which entry itself assures moral casualty.
©Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad
Imam Luqman Ahmad is second gereration, African American Orthodox (Sunni) Muslim. He has been an Imam (Muslim Cleric) for the last 10 years and is also a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org