In an exclusive interview, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Ahmed Rehab tells Gihan Shahine how Muslims should react to the current wave of anti-Islamic bigotry
How do you assess the recent US-made anti-Islam film and the French cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohamed? Are they an exercise in freedom of speech as the Western argument goes or are they an insult designed to humiliate and offend Muslims?
They are both. Freedom of speech can be misused to insult and humiliate. But it is still freedom of speech. The problem is not so much the insult to Islam, since ridiculing an idea or belief is protected as free speech in the West. Rather, the problem is the bigotry and hateful stereotypes peddled through the ridicule of the Prophet Mohamed, who is used as a proxy symbol for Muslims worldwide. In so far as the hateful stereotypes against Muslims constitute hate speech, we have a moral responsibility to call it what it is. Most commentators in both the West and the Muslim-majority countries fail to make this distinction — yelling in one of two equally wrong directions and essentially missing the point.
Do you see the recent attacks on Muslims and Islam as indications that the West is caught up in a new wave of Islamophobia?
There is no doubt that since 9/11, the West has been struggling with a disturbing rise in Islamophobia. The recent film is not a standalone case but is a manifestation of a broader trend that is especially apparent on websites, blogs, YouTube, and the social media where Muslims or Islam are bashed in vulgar terms and images. Above and beyond the general trend, there is a unique and distinct organised network of dedicated anti-Muslim propagandists who feed into it and in many cases instigate it. Several people involved in the making or marketing of the film are plugged into this organised Islamophobia network in the US that has been responsible for several other hate campaigns against Muslims which have also drawn large public responses.
Do you find links between these attacks on Islam and the rise of the Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring?
There is a link in so far as extremists on both sides use the other for fodder. Anti-Muslim extremists in the West need extremists in the Muslim-majority world to point to and say: “See, we warned you. They are dangerous and they hate us.” And extremists in the Muslim-majority world need the anti-Muslim extremists in the West to say: “See, they hate us and will never accept us.” The existence of each validates the other. In general, Islamism is problematic when it resorts to rigid, exclusive identities and world views. That is unfortunately often the case. If Islamism were a fluid, big-tent entity, it could diminish rather than contribute to Islamophobia.
Do you believe in conspiracy theories suggesting Israeli involvement in the recent anti-Muslim film?
No. There is no evidence to suggest direct Israeli involvement in this particular film. There was direct Israeli involvement in the anti-Muslim film Obsession a few years back, and generally speaking those involved in the organised Islamophobia network are almost always die-hard Israel supporters. Many of the funders of Islamophobia are also funders of hawkish pro-Israeli initiatives. So there is a general link. But in the case of this particular film, it is an Egyptian Coptic man who was allegedly behind it. Another well-known Coptic Islamophobe marketed the film. It is, however, important not to generalise or blame Copts as a group for the controversy. These are individuals we are talking about here.
Do you think the media has been a major contributor to the recent rise of anti-Muslim sentiments?
No. Perhaps the Islamophobia of 10 or 15 years ago could have been blamed on the mainstream Western media, Hollywood included. But today the media has greatly matured in its understanding of Muslim issues, in part due to Muslim integration and interaction in American life, and it is not to blame for the most part. Rather, it is the anti-Muslim propagandists who have taken to the open and unmoderated platform of the Internet as an alternative form of media through which they can peddle anti-Muslim innuendo who are the major contributors to the hate campaigns. It is the same thing with Muslim extremists who look to the Internet as the primary media for the dissemination of their ideas.
Do you think that the involvement of two Coptic Christians in the making of the anti-Islam film marks a new turn in the US anti-Islam movement?
No. This movie is largely an insignificant event. Had it not been for the free marketing given to it by rioters in the Muslim-majority world, very few people would ever have heard of it. Prior to the rioting, it was either ignored or roundly ridiculed by both American Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is an embarrassing film, not just from the content side, but from the shabby production side as well.
How do you see reactions in the Arab and Muslim worlds to the recent film and to the French magazine cartoons?
Most people in the Arab and Muslim-majority world ignored the film, as we in the US did, or they protested peacefully. A minority took to rioting. Unfortunately, it is always the violent minority whose actions speak the loudest. I am extremely dismayed by their reaction, which I believe hurts the image of the prophet more than any stupid film could ever do.
What in your view is the best way to react to such offences?
American Muslims have been dealing with organised Islamophobia in the US for a long time now. We deal with it in a strategic, calm, rational fashion that looks to be effective, not simply create noise. I wish that those elsewhere who are offended by Western Islamophobia could simply support our work, rather than take to rioting or engaging in reverse hate remarks. This makes our work more difficult. It helps the Islamophobes and hurts us. We have two simple rules in our work here: do not curb free speech and do not engage in violence.
Do you think the incidents that we have seen recently will persist or even grow in number in the future?
Yes, I believe we will see more incidents of Islamophobia specifically designed to provoke Muslim anger in the future. The smartest thing Muslims can do is not to take the bait, and instead to emulate the patient and thoughtful character of our prophet at times of frustration and adversity.
What can Muslims do to stop the recurrence of attacks on Muslims and Islam?
Absolutely nothing. You simply can’t stop others from expressing themselves non-violently, sordid as their expressions may be. Nor should you. You can, however, either persuade them to change for the better, or ignore them if they decide not to.
Do you think that pressing for international legislation criminalising insults to Islam and its symbols could help?
No. I think it would be a silly idea. It would backfire by further putting a wedge between the West and the East as it pertains to Islam and Muslims. In any case, I do not believe such a resolution would ever be passed.
What action did you take to stop this wave of hate against Islam and Muslims in the US?
We responded first and foremost by remembering the Prophet Mohamed, peace and blessings be upon him, and his example. The prophet never returned ignorance with ignorance or hate with hate. He always took the high ground and lived up to his values and ideals. We tried to do the same. We asked Muslim Americans to ignore the film and not give it any attention. We simply exposed the hateful and bigoted record of the anti-Muslim propagandists involved. And then we responded with a positive educational message about the prophet. As an African-American imam in Chicago once said, “if someone puts a dirty cup of water out, all you need to do is put a clean one next to it. And then let people make their choice.”