Challenge and Response: The Case of Islamophobic Wilding
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
The Center for Understanding Islam
The challenge posed by Geert Wilders’ ten-minute film attacking the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, is political. He is a member of the Dutch parliament and a leader of a far right party that is trying to gain votes by exploiting the growing alienation and hostility between the minority of Muslims in Europe and the majority population.
He hopes to provoke radical responses by Muslims in order to support his party’s message that Islam must be purged from Europe and the Qur’an must be banned in public and criminalized even for private reading at home. He knows that some governments and other special interests in the Muslim world will oblige him by using his challenge to the Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam in order to consolidate their own power by stealing the thunder from their radical opponents. He has learned from the Danish Cartoons affair how tempting it is for unpopular Muslim governments to prove their legitimacy by facilitating and even provoking well-orchestrated and well-controlled violence against the “enemy”. Some Westerners, of course, have been known to do the same, and Geerts is one of them.
The first response that would be natural among Muslims is to fall into Geerts’ trap and resort to violent protests. Heavy-handed measures against such protests could merely provoke greater violence.
The second response is to do nothing. Many Muslim leaders are trying to avoid violence simply by urging all Muslims to avoid the trap. Perhaps the leading advocate of the “do nothing” school of thought is Tariq Ramadhan, who knows the situation in Holland and the background of this crisis. In a position paper first published in http://www.alarab.online and then loosely translated and eventually reproduced in http://www.theamericanmuslim.org on January 22, 2008, Professor Ramadhan writes that, “The noise surrounding this movie’s launch and the public statements of Mr. Geert Wilders are always so extreme that anyone can understand his objective is to provoke a reaction and to get media coverage and attention. For the time being he seems to be succeeding beyond all expectations. Mr. Geert Wilders is a populist. He has no serious real social policy, and he is trying to get voters by feeding and exploiting their fears! He is now revealing his true nature, and the best response is to ignore him. The worst case scenario for him would be not reaction, but silence!”
“Yet we know that in these times of tensions, anything can happen. Governments in the Muslim majority countries, organizations, and politicians can use this crisis for their own political stakes. As happened with the Danish cartoon crisis, some governments and/or religious organizations (radical or not) used the whole story as a means to mobilize the people in order either to divert them from the true problems in their own countries or to get popular support by attacking ‘the West’ represented as ‘the enemy’. Governments and organizations can shape uncontrolled, over-emotional reaction through inflammatory statements and by ‘orchestrating’ protests’. Thus no one can predict where it may end. ...
“The Dutch government needs to preempt a vicious circle of radical response by making it clear that the government does not support and even condemns the film but that it is not banning it because this would violate freedom of expression. Wilders should not be prevented from speaking or even jailed, as some have suggested. One responds to him only when there is a legitimate basis for argument, but should simply ignore him when he is mounting an orchestrated provocation.”
The third response, similar to the second one, is for Muslims around the world to leave the response to the Dutch. Right now, the Dutch seem to be doing a pretty good job without our help in getting popular support for restricting the access of Geert Wilders’ film within the Dutch media. The Dutch, however, would no doubt never ban it altogether, simply because the Dutch for decades, if not centuries, have had a reputation of liberality. The Dutch became famous for boldly supporting liberal thought when Cardinal Suenens almost forty years ago led the aggiornimento that led to the Second Vatican Council. In 1972, he became the global Catholic leader of the charismatic movement, otherwise known as Catholic Pentacostalism, which was a somewhat heterodox but much needed reintroduction of spiritual awareness, somewhat resembling the Sufi revival, both orthodox and heterodox, in modern day Islam.
The fourth response would be actually to hope that the Wilders film will gain maximum coverage so that it will backfire from its own extremism. In this way, the phenomenon of “Islamophobic Wilding” might end up with positive results, providing that Muslims do not fall into its trap. I use the phrase “wilding” as a takeoff on the phrase invented to describe the gang that almost fatally beat the woman jogger in Central Park a few years ago, because this is what Geert Wilders is trying to do to the the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, and to the Qur’an.
There is a famous precedent for this fourth response in what might be called the “boomerang” strategy to hang a criminal by his own petard, that is, to exploit his mistakes in order to hang him. This precedent occurred in 1993, when I was contacted as head of the Legal Department of the American Muslim Council. A man from Detroit called me in the middle of the night to say that he would give us any amount of money immediately if we would shut down a radio station in Florida. He happened to listen to it apparently in a hotel room and was beside himself with rage. This station regularly aired the most demonic attacks on Islam and Muslims, which was a trend just then beginning as a professional discipline in a few Evangelical seminaries.
My initial advice was to ignore this radio station, but the caller insisted that he would not go to asleep until I had agreed to shut it down. I told him that the American constitution guarantees freedom of speech, limited only by threat to human life or malicious defamation. I told him that at best he had a weak case, but I would check it out with a leading law firm. I warned him that any decent firm would charge at least $10,000 merely to evaluate the case in order to determine whether to take it. He replied that money was of no consideration.
In the process of checking out the case, so that I would not look too ridiculous in contacting a reputable law firm, I encountered a very similar case involving Yusuf Islam, the famous “Cat Stevens”, which occurred only a couple of years earlier, also in Florida. One of the bible belt preachers had attacked Yusuf Islam, as I recall, as a diabolical beast of the Anti-Christ, which is favorite term that I use sometimes myself in referring to the most extremist Muslims.
The result of this case was startling. Instead of trying to sue the station or shut it down, Yusuf Islam asked the radio station to give him equal time to explain what Islam really teaches. He figured that fortuitously through the grace of Allah he now had a great and unique opportunity to reach an audience of millions who otherwise would never hear anything well-informed and objective about Islam. The surprise ending is that the owner of the radio station offered him twice the air time that the Islamophobic preacher had used. One reason was that this boosted the advertising revenue for the station because the controversy attracted a lot of attention and discussion.
It is important to note that Brother Yusuf did not directly debate the rabid preacher, because such a debate would not be conducive to intelligent discussion. This was the reason I backed out of a “debate” on a national hook-up scheduled with Robert Spencer last fall on November 8. On November 6th, I concluded that we were on the same side in warning about and trying to counter the radicals who pose as Muslims, such as Osama bin Laden, who are using religion as a political tool to vent their hatred on everyone who disagrees with them. I told the producer of the show that I would join a two-man panel with Spencer after he had had a chance to read my latest book, which the IIIT is bringing out under the title The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice, more than a hundred pages of which directly expose almost line for line Spencer’s biased reliance on extremist Muslims as source material in his current book, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.
The Yusuf Islam strategy probably could be followed successfully in the Netherlands, but it would be vital that the responder or responders be nearly of the same calibre as Yusuf Islam. To get the largest possible audience, it might be best to let Wilders speak as widely as possible and then counter his message by providing an enlightened presentation on Islam in every media outlet that Wilders uses, as well as in those he did not try to use or could not use.
The fifth response, which could augment some of the above, would be for the most authoritative Islamic scholars around the world to join in publishing a declaration, or even a fatwa, refuting violence as a civilized means to counter disinformation about Muhammad and Islam. This could be accompanied by a position paper explaining the truth as understood by classical Islam not by the denizens of caves in Afghanistan.
This would help forestall the threat by the Iranian Foreign Ministry to suspend diplomatic relations with the government of the Netherlands if the Islamic Wilding film is publicly shown. The responsible officials in Iran should leave the proper response to people who understand Western culture and who know how to use the boomerang strategy to turn radicalism against itself.
The action now required for this fifth response is to convince the most authoritative Islamic leaders to issue a proclamation to counter Islamophobic Wilding by explaining the classical consensus of Muslim global leaders on all the issues raised.
These should include all the signatories of the response to Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Elocution, which response was published on the Eve of the ‘Id al Adha, 2007 (1428), in the document, A Common Word Between You and Us: Muslim Scholars Appeal to Catholic Scholars for Dialogue and Peace. The Wilding Declaration should include the 170 scholars of all eight schools of Islamic Law who signed the famous “Amman Statement Against Takfir” in 2005 in Lebanon, as well as those who signed the Religion against Terrorism Conference Statement in Turkey in 2003.
The approach to this end might best be through Professor John Esposito, who is already undertaking an effort along these lines, or additionally by internet outreach through the hundreds of relevant listserves and blogs. The person who may be best equipped for this task is Sheila Musaji, who wrote and published the following articles in her scholarly online journal, http://www.theamericanmuslim.org