By now, everyone is familiar with how upset many Muslims were by the 14-minute amateur video, released on YouTube, called “The Innocence of Muslims.” The new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, advised from the podium at the U.N. General Assembly that, "insults against the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, are not acceptable. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed."
At a certain level, this seems fair enough, even though the person responsible for the video was not under Morsi’s legal jurisdiction –to allow or not to allow. Regardless, one should not go about insulting other people's religion. If I were a Muslim, I would be offended, though I might not have taken the bait on such a trivial incitement (in the sense that this was some guy in his garage studio, not a government or a religious body speaking). The Obama administration did everything it could to condemn this film.
On the other hand, shouldn't this be a two-way street? If President Morsi demands that no one in the West insult Islam, how about saying something regarding the frequent insults to Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East? Why, for instance, didn't he denounce the burning of the Bible in front of the US Embassy last month?
Of course, there are many such examples, but let us focus for a moment on the Jews. The Egyptian religious station Al-Rahma TV, on May 4, 2012, presented a child preacher, who pronounced that, “Al-Qarni, once said: Jerusalem is being held captive by the brothers of the apes and the pigs.”
Sheikh Muhammad Ahsur, the deputy director of Al-Azhar University (which President Barak Obama praised to the skies in his 2009 Cairo speech), in an Al-Alam TV (Iran) broadcast, September 30, 2011, said that "jihad has become an individual duty incumbent upon each and every one of us, because our enemies have grown arrogant and have persisted in their great tyranny... they support the unjust oppressors, the offspring of pigs and apes."
At the Friday (1/9/2009) Al Azhar mosque sermon, Egyptian cleric Sheik Eid Abdel Hamid Youssef preached that “God has inflicted the Muslim nation with a people whom God has become angry at [Qur’an 1:7] and whom he cursed [5:78] so he made monkeys and pigs [5:60] out of them. They killed prophets and messengers [2:61 /3:112] and sowed corruption on Earth. [5:33 /5:64] They are the most evil on Earth. [5:62/63]”
If you are familiar with Islam, you will know that those “pigs and apes” are the Jews. However, there is no need to decode Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s statement. Recall that he is the de facto spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was welcomed back in Egypt by a crowd of several million people in Tahrir Square on February, 18, 2011. On Al Jazeera TV, January 2009, he said:
“Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jewish] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them — even though they exaggerated this issue — he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”
As outrageous as these examples are, they are not at all exceptional. By going to the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute, anyone can peruse the almost daily splenetic vituperations against Jews and Christians that appear in the Muslim media.
Does anyone anywhere in the Muslim world ever apologize for any of these statements? If not, why not? On September 25, President Obama said, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” But should it belong to those who slander Jews and Christians? President Morsi, said, “We have a responsibility in this international gathering to study how we can protect the world from instability and hatred."
OK, then, let’s address the asymmetry between Muslim outrage at perceived insults to Islam, and the seeming Muslim indifference to insults to Judaism or other non-Islamic religions. Is this a matter of hypocrisy, or something else?
The lop-sidedness is the result of several things. First of all, Islam is a faith of supersession, which considers all prior revelations inferior and faulty. In the Qur’an, Jews are cursed forever. In Muslim eschatology, Christ returns at the end of time to break the cross. Second of all, and most importantly, Islam does not recognize freedom of conscience, which is why it does not acknowledge freedom of religion. As the pioneering scholar of Islam, Ignaz Goldziher, pointed out many years ago, there was not even a word for conscience in Arabic. (The word damir is used for this purpose today, though it does not literally mean conscience.)
If one does not have a conception of freedom of conscience, which is entirely absent from mainstream Sunni Islam, one cannot very well hold in high regard the choices others have made for other religions – much less allow one of your own to convert. This is not to suggest that Islam is without a moral sense, but merely to say that its moral sense is derived solely from its own revelation, and not at all from reason. The principle of Islamic jurisprudence is: “reason is not a legislator.”
In other words, mainstream Sunni Islam does not regard reason as a legitimate basis upon which to discern morality or to choose religion. Mohammed al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), considered by many Muslims to be next only to Mohammed in importance, said that reason can only know self-interest. He also advised that "the mind, which, once it testifies to the truthfulness of the prophet, must cease to act." If reason cannot independently know right from wrong, how could it be trusted to know true religion from false? Integrity of reason is essential to freedom of conscience. Without it, conscience means nothing – which is why so many Muslims view conversion from Islam as, necessarily, an act of perversion which should be punished.
The inviolability of conscience has as its ultimate source the idea of man as created in the image and likeness of God. That image includes reason's ability to come to know the truth and of the will’s capacity to choose it freely. In Islam, it is blasphemous to say that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the notion of inalienable rights is alien to it.
Ultimately, respect for other religions is not based on the content of those religions, as those who hold one religion must of necessity consider the others false or wanting in some way. It is based upon respect for human beings in so far as they possess inalienable rights, especially freedom of conscience. This understanding helps us to appreciate why, within Islam, the denigration of other religions is standard fare, and why it would not naturally occur to many Muslims that this would be a problem. And that, in itself, is a problem with which we must come to grips by something other than our own apologies.
Robert R. Reilly is a member of the board of the Middle East Media Research Institute and the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind.