FROTH ON THE SEA
That a thirteen-minute long tawdry inanity from a dubious manic character could trigger off an uproar both from the emotionally and psychologically volatile fundamentalist groups as well as from states and governments is something that needs talking about. Complex social trends are taking over, quite beyond taming- a plethora of forces, factors, ideas and ideologies that collide and crack and clash and rebound.
For one, the disproportionately huge impact of something that deserves no more than a contemptuous sideglance points towards the enormous sway of the mass media in determining what ought to garner attention, how much and for how long. It also raises critical questions about the ‘freedom of expression’ that defines the cyber world- a blind and amoral freedom with no parameters and no ethic, that knows neither good nor evil, truth nor falsehood. Before the communication revolution becomes a hydra on the loose making fools and gasping helpless spectators of us all, we need to engage in a rethink of the entire concept of freedom and liberty as it relates to expression. Where does one draw the line between free expression and hate speech? And who draws those lines? Do we want to live in a world where everyone has complete and unlimited access to misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, pornography, falsehood, hate and prejudice indiscriminately disseminated all in the name of freedom of expression?
Still more interesting is the predictability of the action-reaction, provocation- backlash sequence that plays itself out every now and then. Whoever posted the filth onto Youtube seems to have done it with calculated deliberation- in his own words, it was a ‘political act’ in order to push the button driving Muslims into a feverish frenzy sending them to a spree of smashing and burning and ripping. It is like a bored passing urchin looking for some fun, who decides to throw a rock at a rival group so that he can stand back to watch the ensuing entertainment for a cheap thrill. A sick-minded desperado throws the bait and it is eagerly picked up by emotionally charged extremists. The theatric episode gives Islamophobes and extremists from both sides, much to shout out from the rooftops, much to reinforce their simplistic us-and-them narrative of binaries. It is too familiar and too regular a pattern.
And deeply distressing too. One can compare the sudden surge of religious passion over a despicable piece of filth a random maniac posted on Youtube to the lull in the Muslim world, over the state-sponsored carnage in Syria. One can also read into these pathological religious hysterics a tragic disconnect with the spirit and essence of the personage in whose blessed name it is claimed to be. Umm Jameel bint Harb, the wife of Abu Lahab, made up some verses of poetry to defame the Prophet by changing his name to a word that meant ‘the insulted one’ as opposed to "Muhammad" (i.e. the praised one). This enraged Muslims, especially in the early days of Islam when they were weak. The Prophet (SAW), however, responded thus: “Allah is protecting me from the Quraish's insults as they are cursing and swearing at "The Insulted One", whereas I am "Muhammad", the Praised One! (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
In an Islamic Studies class while explaining Surah Al Kausar I could not help but draw the obvious and vital connection between the ‘Abundance’ (Kausar) granted to Muhammad (SAW) and the contemporary context. Kausar, the Abundance of God’s blessing, of virtue, of God’s Mercy and Love, of felicity, peace, spiritual richness, radiance and beatitude through which any obscenity spewed out by odious villains matters nothing. Kausar is also interpreted as abundance of following- but a following not as the froth on the beach...
Thauban (R.A) reported that the messenger of Allah said: "It is near that the nations will call one another against you just as the eaters call one another to their dishes." Somebody asked: "Is this because we will be few in numbers that day?" He said: "Nay, but that day you shall be numerous, but you will be like the foam of the sea, and Allah will take the fear of you away from your enemies and will place weakness into your hearts." Somebody asked: "What is this weakness?" He said: "The love of the world and the dislike of death." (Abu Daud)
An important narrative in the Islamic tradition is of the man who refused to make puerile effort to guard and defend the Sacred House in Makkah against an attacking army, realizing the futility of such an attempt, and relying instead, wholly on the help of Allah Himself while displaying great courage and strength of character. Divinely armed hordes of midget birds crushed the army in an awe-inspiring miracle that manifested the Glory of Allah and His transcendence above and beyond human machination. Realizing that the honour of the Prophet of Allah (SAW) does not stand in need of violent protest marches, nor does such expression accentuate his spiritual stature is a fundamental lesson in faith.
In my part of the world the angry mobs in the name of the Prophet (SAW)’s honour betray the spirit of what they seek to defend. It exposes the superficiality of our understanding of the message of Muhammad (SAW). The audacity of the corrupt and inept regime’s decision to celebrate the ‘Youm e Ishq e Rasool’ (Day of the Love of the Prophet SAW) is revolting, and uncontrollable street mobs on the rampage smashing public property make a grotesque mockery of the grandiose motive. Such street sentiment actually expresses the pent up feelings of frustration and grievance, helplessness and anger over drones and poverty and Gitmo and joblessness and the great atrocity of the War on Terror, seeking cathartic relief in burning and boot-kicking effigies of freakish blaspheming idiots which personify the invisible Effigy of that one hostile monolithic entity called ‘The West.’
I long for a ‘Youm e Ishq e Rasool’ wherein I can relive the message of Muhammad (SAW) in acts of kindness and compassion and spread around me some of the goodness he exuded in abundance. I long for a ‘Youm e Ishq e Rasool’ when I work with greater honesty and integrity, and smile at my colleagues at work more spiritedly than usual, and lend a helping hand more enthusiastically than usual; refuse to throw that plastic wrapper in the street and dispose off the ones I see lying around; send blessings to the Prophet (SAW) and read about the Prophet (SAW) to derive lessons relevant to my personal life and understand more clearly my responsibility towards the community I am part of. That would be a ‘Youm e Ishq’ I would love to celebrate. Not one with aggressively externalized displays of religious passion that turn ugly and then dissipate and fade away like froth on the sea, swept away by the incoming tides just as easily as it came.
We have a remarkable capability to transform into celebrities and global figures of great importance petty deranged slimeballs with our mislaid enthusiasm and fervour. Terry Jones and Nakoula Basseley ought not to matter, as they do not.
What matters, uplifts and heartens is that glow on the horizons still young and rosy but promising- of a rising, rejuvenating contemporary Islam personified by a new generation of young Muslims in the West and also emerging in the Muslim world who have risen to the occasion and responded with composure and wisdom, creativity and intelligence. Lesley Hazelton describes these Muslims as ‘writers, filmmakers, political activists, comedians, academics who wear their Muslim and hyphenated Muslim identity with a casual confidence, are activists but not of a defensive nature, armed with wry humour and a sharp sense of irony. They laugh at simplistic slogans like ‘Islam versus the West’ and the infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ as they represent the blending of civilizations. These are the polar opposites of Islamist extremism and confound the stereotypes, and the more visible they become, the less the smallest and most extreme minority can claim that it represents the whole.’
During a particularly long day at work and longing for a respite, my senior batch of students walked in, telling me they wanted to work on a documentary film on the personality and legacy of the Prophet (SAW). It was heartening, a breath of fresh air to see the enthusiasm, positivity and activism of these young girls. They wanted to record my views on the film by Nakoula. “That doesn’t matter,” I answered. “Like froth on the sea. But this work matters. It is not the froth on the sea, but the glow in the eastern sky. And that is something to talk about.”