Is One Offensive Cleric More Important Than 38 Reasonable Ones?
By: Firas Ahmad
On October 12th 38 highly respected and theologically diverse clerics from the Muslim world wrote what is widely considered a respectful and engaging “Open Letter” to the Pope in response to his controversial comments about Islam made during his Regensburg address in September. Not only was the letter of historical significance, but it also represented an articulate and reasoned invitation to dialogue from Muslims with the Papacy on matters of theology and faith. The signatories included top scholars from Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, the United States, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Kosovo, Oman, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Iran.
Around the same time, a single Muslim cleric in Australia, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, delivered a sermon to about 500 followers where he allegedly compared some women who do not dress modestly to uncovered meat being left out for a cat.
I wonder which story received more news coverage.
If we follow the Google news aggregator as a gauge, at the height of the news coverage of the Open Letter to the Pope, the story appeared in about 220 different news sites across the world. The only major English language news web site to carry the story on the front page was BBC. Most notably, the major US media outlets almost entirely ignored the event. With the exception of a front page story that week in the Christian Science Monitor and a small story aired on CNN, the letter came and went without much fanfare.
As the fury over Hilali’s remarks continue to gain momentum, according to Google there are currently over 800 news services carrying the story. That is quadruple the coverage of the Open Letter. I would expect this to increase before it subsides. The cleric’s remarks are drawing furious reactions from around the globe, and the life of the story is likely being extended by the already tense debate over Muslim women who wear veils in the UK.
The open letter signed by 38 scholars, who represent all eight major schools of thought in the Islam, is more representative of the global Muslim community than this one lone Australian cleric. However, judging by the prevailing media coverage any casual reader would think the exact opposite.
When Pat Roberston or Jerry Fallwell make embarrassingly ignorant comments, they are dismissed as the ranting and ravings of old senile men. When any Muslim cleric does something similar, in the court of public opinion Islam is guilty of the offense until proven otherwise. When it comes to the media, Muslims can hardly catch a break.
The sad reality is that if the 38 scholars who wrote the Open Letter really wanted the world to hear what they had to say, they should have first congregated in Cairo and burned an effigy of the Pope.
Firas Ahmad is Senior Editor of Islamica Magazine