Muslim Rage Is About Politics, Not Religion

Muslims have good reason to be angry—and it’s not a sophomoric movie trailer on youtube.

Thousands of cellphone subscribers in Pakistan received an anonymous text message recently announcing a miracle: an earthquake on Tuesday, Sept. 18, had destroyed the Washington, D.C. movie theater that was exhibiting Innocence of Muslims, the controversial film that has triggered violent protests in several Muslim countries. An email version of the text message even included a picture of a mangled structure. Allah, the texter claimed, had shown His anger against the movie’s insult to Islam and Prophet Muhammad, and with Him on their side the faithful should not be afraid to vent their anger against the West, which belittles Islam and abuses Islam’s prophet.

There was, of course, no earthquake in Washington, and no movie theater had been destroyed. In fact, the movie has never made its way beyond YouTube. But for several days, the fabricated text message and email made the rounds, forwarded and reforwarded around Pakistan and in some cases to Pakistanis living in the diaspora. It was part of a campaign to arouse Muslim passions by what author Salman Rushdie has termed “the outrage industry.” Similar false mass messaging convinced millions after 9/11 that Jews had been warned to stay away from the Twin Towers, implying a conspiracy that many still believe without a shred of evidence. Last year, after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, anonymous messages suggested that the raid in Abbottabad was a staged event and bin Laden had been killed months earlier.

Such well-organized manipulation of sentiment belies the notion that orchestrated protests are spontaneous expressions of Muslim rage. Like followers of any other religion, Muslims do not like insults to their faith or to their prophet. But the protests that make the headlines are the function of politics, not religion. Hoping to avoid being accused of siding with blasphemers, the Pakistani government tried to align itself with the protesters’ cause by declaring a public holiday and calling it “Love of the Prophet Day.” Although 95 percent of Pakistan’s 190 million people are Muslim, only an estimated 45,000 actually took part in that Friday’s demonstrations around the country against Innocence of Muslims. The protests mattered largely because of their violence: as many as 17 people were killed and scores injured.

Men of religion have often slandered each other’s faiths. Islam has endured its share of criticism and abuse over the centuries, especially from Christians, against whom they fought for control of the Levant and the southern corners of Europe during the Crusades and the Ottoman wars. The 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus hurled the ultimate insult at Muslims when he declared that everything Muhammad brought was evil, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Historically, Muslims returned the favor by pointing out the flaws in other religions and outlining their own perfect faith. Muslim emperors ruled over large non-Muslim populations while Muslim preachers and Sufi mystics worked to proselytize and win converts to Islam. But there is no record in those days of mob violence against foreign envoys or traders in retaliation for blasphemy against Muhammad or Islam allegedly committed by Islam’s enemies in distant lands.

The phenomenon of outrage over insults to Islam and its final prophet is a function of modern-era politics. It started during Western colonial rule, with Muslim politicians seeking issues to mobilize their constituents. Secular leaders focused on opposing foreign domination, and Islamists emerged to claim that Islam is not merely a religion but also a political ideology. Threats to the faith became a rallying cry for the Islamists, who sought wedge issues to define their political agenda. To this day, Islamists are often the ones who draw attention to otherwise obscure attacks on Islam and then use those attacks to muster popular support. The effort is often aided by Islamophobes hoping to create their own wedges by portraying Islam as a threat to Western civilization. Conservative and practicing Muslims who are not Islamists are caught in the middle, along with scholarly commentators on Islamic history and tradition who are not Islamophobes.

The past two decades have seen periodic outbreaks of protest over insults to Prophet Muhammad and Islam. In each case, the protesters were not reacting to something they had seen or read in the ordinary course of life. With the exception of The Satanic Verses, none of the objects of complaint were even widely accessible until the public was whipped into a fury. The Islamists first introduced the objectionable material to their audience and then instigated the outrage by characterizing it as part of a supposed worldwide conspiracy to denigrate Islam. The emergence of social media and the swiftness of international communications have made it easier to choreograph global campaigns, and in Muslim-majority countries, Islamists tend to be among those who are most effectively organized to take advantage of technology for political ends.

An early prototype of these mass-mobilization campaigns centered on Rangeela Rasool (Playboy Prophet), a salacious version of Muhammad’s life. Published in British India in 1927, the controversial book was hardly a bestseller. In fact it went mostly unnoticed until Muslim politicians encountered it two years later and complained. The British authorities arrested and tried the book’s publisher, Rajpal, only to acquit him. Agitation by Muslim groups encouraged a young illiterate carpenter by the single name Ilmuddin to stab the publisher to death in Lahore. Ilmuddin was given the title of ghazi (“warrior for the faith”) by Islamist political groups and was defended in court, albeit on technical grounds (and unsuccessfully), by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would later become the founder of Pakistan. The British amended the Indian penal code to add punishment for blasphemy and incitement of religious hatred.

Pakistan Daily Life
A dark, make-shift school set up after-hours in a shop in the slums of Karachi. (Shakil Adil / AP)


The Rangeela Rasool controversy polarized Hindus and Muslims, particularly in the Punjab. The region eventually had to be parceled out between the two religions in the 1947 Partition, and the two Punjabs suffered the most brutal communal violence of that horrific time. Pakistani leaders sometimes cite the book’s publication as an example of how the Islamic faith would have been threatened under non-Muslim rule had the British left the subcontinent undivided. It does not matter in that political argument that there are roughly as many Muslims today in India as there are in Pakistan.

“Defending the honor of the prophet” is widely regarded as a worthy cause, not to be opposed or criticized even by secular Muslims. If a secular politician dares to point out that the faith of 1.6 billion people can scarcely be threatened by a book with a print run of only 1,000 copies, he can easily be targeted as a defender of blasphemers. The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was murdered last year by his own bodyguard for questioning the reasonableness of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The country’s Islamist media described Taseer’s killer as a latter day Ilmuddin, and lawyers showered him with rose petals.

Like all modern political tactics, religious protests tend to be timed for best effect. The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz first published Children of Gabalawi—an allegorical novel in Arabic that allegedly belittled Islam—in 1959. And yet the book didn’t become the target of significant protests until 30 years later, after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature, and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheik,” currently in U.S. prison for instigating terrorism, condemned the 1959 book. The publicity surrounding the 1988 Nobel Prize provided an ideal opportunity for Sheik Omar to rally his base and advance the cause of polarizing Egyptian society. His fatwa finally caught up with Mahfouz in 1994, when a knife-wielding Islamist stabbed the novelist in the neck, leaving him hospitalized for several weeks and suffering from permanent nerve damage.

Obscure books and writers can be just as useful. Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami (“Islamic Party”) has never done well in elections, but it has a long record of seeking, publicizing, and capitalizing on perceived insults to Islam in hope of flexing its political muscle. Its activists are trained in street protests and choreographed demonstrations, and the party was one of the main organizers of the protests against Innocence of Muslims in Pakistan. Back in 1971, in the midst of the civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh (and soon after Jamaat-e-Islami had suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls), the party discovered and loudly denounced The Turkish Art of Love, a sex manual containing derogatory references to Prophet Muhammad that was published in 1933. During the ensuing riots, Christian churches were attacked, and liquor shops (which were legal at the time) were looted. The British Council building in Lahore was also attacked.

Ironically, all the books that have been targeted for protests over the years remain available to this day. Rangeela Rasool can be downloaded from the Internet. Children of Gabalawi continues to be read in many languages. Even The Turkish Art of Love can be easily bought almost anywhere in the world. The Satanic Verses protests of 1989, culminating in Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, only increased the book’s sales.

If the protests were really supposed to silence insults against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, their failure should by now be obvious. Instead of being shut down, objectionable books and movies have gained publicity. Obscure publications—and, in the latest case, Internet posts—have become internationally known. Rather than ending dissemination of material offensive to Muslim sensibilities, the protests have almost always had the opposite effect. In the case of Innocence of Muslims, the video was posted on YouTube in June, but hardly anyone paid attention to it until Egyptian Islamists broadcast it in early September.

There is nothing in Islamic tradition that requires Muslims to come out in the streets and throw rocks or set things on fire every time they hear of someone insulting their faith. Like Jewish and Christian scriptures, Islam’s sacred texts speak of divine retribution as well as of God’s mercy. References to holy war are interspersed with exhortations to charity, kindness toward others, and respect for life. Every chapter of the Quran begins with the words “In the name of Allah (God), the most compassionate, the most merciful,” encouraging believers to practice mercy over retribution.

Victims of Pakistan’s disastrous 2010 floods took refuge at an ancient graveyard (Vincent Yu / AP)


In fact, the Quran refers to Prophet Muhammad as “Rehmatul-lil-Alameen” or “the one bringing compassion for all worlds.” After announcing his prophethood, Muhammad prayed for those who insulted or opposed him. In one famous episode, he once went to inquire about the health of an old woman in Mecca who had thrown garbage on him every day. When she failed to show up to deliver her daily insult, he was concerned. Such compassion won converts to Islam and contributed to the faith’s expansion.

But a religion is what its followers make it, and the demands of Islamist politics in recent times have helped to stamp Muslims as being prone to anger and susceptible to violence. Meanwhile, bigoted nobodies have been made influential when their anti-Islam provocations have succeeded in unleashing the fury of tens of thousands around the world. But to the orchestrators of the protests, none of this matters. Their target is not the perpetrators of the insults and abuse. Instead they are only looking for ways in which to mobilize Muslims against the West, if only to present themselves subsequently as the mediators who can bridge that divide.

Since falling under Western colonial rule, the Muslim world has developed a narrative of grievance. The view is shared by Islamists, who consider Islam a political ideology, and other Muslims who don’t. Like all national and community narratives, it has some elements that are true. It is a historical fact that the Muslim world spent centuries in ascendance before Western influence rose, and Muslim power declined. And there is no question that Western imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries was far from benign. It divided Muslims, denigrated them, and used modern technology—from the printing press to electronic media and the moving image—to render a caricature of a once-preeminent civilization and the faith that rests at its heart.

The current weakness of the Muslim world, however, is not entirely the fault of Western colonialism and postcolonial machinations. For a century or more, overcoming that weakness has been the driving force behind almost every major political movement in the Muslim world, from pan-Arabism to contemporary Islamism. Nevertheless, Muslims have made practically no serious effort to understand the causes and remedies of their decline over the past 300 years. Outrage and resentment—and the conspiracy theories that inform them—are poor substitutes for comprehending why Islam’s lost glory has proved so difficult to resurrect.

Islamists see the world as polarized between the Ummah (the community of believers, whom they describe as one nation) and the rest. The West’s rise, rather than the Ummah’s decline, receives far greater attention from Islamist scholars and leaders. Their worldview is summarized in the Arabic-language title of a book by the Indian Islamist scholar Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Its English-language version is unremarkable enough—Islam and the World: The Rise and Decline of Muslims and Its Effect on Mankind. But the Arabic edition’s title translates literally as: What the World Lost by the Decline of Muslims. The civilizational narcissism is clear. “Our decline is the world’s loss,” it suggests. “We do not need to change anything. The West needs to fix things for us so that it does not lose the benefits of our civilization.”

The outrage industry ensures that Muslims continue to blame others for their condition, raging over their impotence instead of focusing on economic, political, and social issues. At the same time, successive civilian and military governments in Pakistan have chosen to appease the dial-a-riot Islamist hardliners rather than confront them. A multitude of Islamist groups has sprouted, including jihadi militants battle-hardened in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and a competition of sorts now takes place among them over who is the greater champion of the honor of Islam and its prophet. A similar development is evident in the rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt and in other Arab countries.

Even strategically pro-Western rulers find it convenient to perpetuate the Ummah’s narrative of Islam being under siege and Muslims being the targets of an insidious global conspiracy. Morale is kept up by bogus stories of miracles, such as the destruction of the theater that showed a blasphemous movie, or the one claiming that Neil Armstrong converted to Islam after hearing the call to prayer while he was on the moon. (He didn’t.) It is rare to find mention of hard negative facts in the general discourse within the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which collectively account for approximately one fifth of the world’s population but only 7 percent of global output.

Pakistan homeless sleep along the dividers in the streets of Lahore. (Arif Ali / AFP-Getty Images)


The economic dysfunction in the 22 Arab countries, several of them blessed with oil reserves, highlights how Muslim scholars and politicians have failed to understand and explain the waning power of the Ummah to their people. The Arab countries had a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion in 2010, compared with the European Union’s GDP of $17.5 trillion. Spain alone produced $1.43 trillion in GDP, without the benefit of natural resources such as oil and gas. The wealth of Western nations comes from manufacturing and innovation, neither of which has found much favor in Muslim-majority countries.

A real debate among Muslims about their decline might identify why the Ottoman and Mughal empires refused to accept the printing press for more than two and a half centuries after Johannes Guttenberg invented movable type. It might also explain why Muslims failed to embrace the Industrial Revolution, modern banking, insurance, and the joint stock company, even after these had emerged in Europe. Instead, most of the discussion focuses on real or perceived historic injustice. “We are weak because we were colonized,” Muslims tend to say, instead of recognizing that Muslim lands were colonized because they had become weak.

The “knowledge deficit” mentioned in the Arab Development Report of 2002 continues to worsen. Roughly half the world’s illiterate adults are found among Muslims, and two thirds of that number are women. Greece, with a population of 11 million, translates more books from other languages than the entire Arab world, which has a cumulative population of 360 million. Since the 9th century, when the Abbasid rulers of Baghdad patronized learning and built a huge library for its time, only 100,000 books have been translated from other languages into Arabic. The same number of books are translated from other languages into Spanish every year.

A thousand years ago, Muslims led the world in the field of science and mathematics. Today they are noticeably absent from any list of recent inventors and innovators in science and technology. Since 1901, only two Muslims have won a Nobel Prize in the sciences, and one of them (Pakistan’s Dr. Abdus Salam, Physics, 1979) is not deemed a Muslim in his home country because of his association with the Ahmadiyya sect. Not coincidentally, only a handful of Muslim-majority countries fulfill the criteria for freedom set by the independent group Freedom House. Even the “Arab Spring” seems unlikely to change that harsh reality.

Decline, weakness, impotence, and helplessness are the words repeated most frequently in the speeches and writings of today’s Muslim leaders. All four are conditions that feed outrage—the response of people lacking real power to change their circumstances. Ironically that response is cultivated by leaders who could channel their people’s energy toward real solutions. Instead of orchestrating hate on the pretext of even the most insignificant provocation, Muslim leaders could extend literacy, expand education, and make their nations’ economies more competitive. But as in Western democracies, the politics of wedge issues is always easier to pursue. Rising Islamophobia in Europe and North America helps Islamists keep things on the boil. “Us versus them” is always a useful distraction from “us versus our problems.”

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington from 2008 to 2011, is a professor of international relations at Boston University and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

This piece was published in The Daily Beast on Oct1st 2012