Friday, September 21, 2012

Film, Fury, Freedom, & Fraternity. Reflections & conversation with Muslims

As an advocate for coexistence between people of diverse faiths, particularly with Muslims, I have been challenged this past week mainly by the reaction to the film. There was the violence in the streets of Sydney, deaths overseas and a short message on facebook last Thursday, by someone I will call “Khaled” that suggested in colourful language that ‘anyone who disrespects the prophet should be beheaded and forget about free speech’. I found that quite disturbing. Here are some of reflections about my conversations and experiences this week, the need for genuine openness in dialogue, including discussing the hurt caused by "the lousy film", the arguments about free speech and redoubling our commitment to coexistence and respect for all, and related themes in the Torah readings.

In a sermon on Saturday, I reflected on the facebook post. I admitted that I didn’t engage young ‘Khaled’ because I thought it would be a waste of time. His stance infuriated me. Here he was enjoying the benefits of free speech in expressing a view contrary to the dominant one, yet spitting in the face of free speech. This echoed the phrase “he will bless himself in his heart, saying, "I will have peace, ”Shalom Yih-yeh lee” even if I follow my heart's desires, to add the thirsty to the watered[i]". The speaker of this phrase thinks that he can enjoy the benefits of others’ virtues while trampling on those same virtues. Like two adjoining fields, one is watered often while the other is not given any water, the “dry” field will still gain from the water of the other field[ii].

While on Saturday I had no access to news[iii], by evening I became aware of the day’s events involving angry young Muslims demonstrating in Sydney, with a concerned message from a member of the Jewish community. I thought that perhaps I was wrong to assume there was no point in talking with ‘Khaled’. I decided to ask him what he really thinks. Logging on to Facebook, I noticed that his tone had changed; his posts[iv] on facebook have been urging calm.

I asked him about his earlier post about the beheading and free speech. He replied, “I was upset obviously. Freedom of speech is one thing but this (is) freedom of abuse (sic) which is what they're doing. I later put that other status up (about Islamic teachings urging restraint etc see Note ii below.) after I read into the prophet's ways and later changes my mind on this matter, but still outraged."

Free Speech
One of the difficulties here is the sincerity or people on either side of the debate about this film. There are many Muslims who are adamant that such insulting material should not be allowed to be shown, while there are many who believe passionately that free speech is such a sacred principle that it must override other considerations. It is a valid debate. I am leaning toward some restriction of gratuitous disparagement of the beliefs and cherished symbols of others. I think free speech is about people being free to criticise politicians not the freedom to ridicule. The cavalier gross offensiveness of the film at the centre of this hardly deserves protection by the guardians of freedom. I commented to Khaled that I think freedom of speech comes with responsibility. People say "they are just saying what they think", my response is, it would be ok if they actually think. Often what is justified under free speech is knee-jerk prejudice.

Ridicule as a tool in interfaith truth claims
On the other side of the argument, there is a legitimate question about the merit of giving government the power to proscribe robust and offensive debate between competing belief systems. Should the prophet Elijah have been prevented from offending the worshippers of Baal when he mocks their god: “Call with a loud voice, for he is a god. [Perhaps] he is chatting or he is on a chase or he is on a journey; perhaps he is sleeping and will awaken[v]”?

I told Khaled that “I shudder to think what kind of world we would live in if we did not have checks and balances of a free press, eg. my people's holy books were burned repeatedly over the centuries. There is a serious debate about how we can protect freedom of expression which is critical for a just society and also demand respect, tact and consideration for others' beliefs and values. We need to have both Free speech and interfaith respect. How these are balanced is contested”.

Comfort with discomfort
This grappling between competing principles relates to another interpretation of the phrase “"I will have peace, ”Shalom Yih-yeh lee”.  This refers to a person who can see the logic in some demands of our faith but not others. He/she reflects on the fact that “there are many commandments that mystify me and cause me constant struggle and heart-searching…I shall therefore only observe things that appeal to my reason and that my intellect can accept. In this way I shall have peace- and suffer not inner struggle[vi]”.  Yet, we are called on to grapple with perspective that makes us uncomfortable. For both champions of almost completely unrestricted free speech as well as those for whom the honour of the prophet is of utmost importance, there is a need to try to understand what the others are thinking.

Ironically, the demonstrators, while wrong in their violence and insensitive in some of their messages have helped me gain some understanding. When I felt outraged about their suggestions that those who disagree with them should be beheaded, I was essentially championing restriction of free speech. I was taking an essentially hypocritical stance that: Yes, people should be allowed to say anything they like, except things that really offend me, eg. expressing a view about beheading people who have offensive beliefs. Of course, the demonstrators can also be accused of hypocrisy “using offensive slogans and signs, while protesting against people's right to offend[vii]”.

Unwilling to hear?
Yesterday, I joined a team of bridge-building educators in a conversation with Muslim teenagers.  The boys were asked how they were feeling about the demonstrations, I think with an expectation that they would focus on the events of Saturday. Yet, in a quiet and dignified way, some expressed a deep anger and sadness about the film and the desecration of their Prophet. For them it was about the film. On reflection, I think I had a limited willingness to talk about the film and how it felt for young Muslims.  It seems to me that one barrier to understanding what is going on is this resistance to acknowledging how some Muslims feel about the film, preferring to focus exclusively on the demonstration or the real concerns about how the actions of a few people tarnished the image of all Muslims.

Repairing relationships in stages
Apart from Police matters, the first step after the violence on Saturday was to separate the violent few from the vast number of people being tarred with the same brush. Muslim leaders have been rightly concerned with the repercussions, as I write there is a threat of a violent counter demonstration being planned against Muslims in Melbourne tomorrow. The next step that some Muslim leaders are beginning to turn their attention to is the long term relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.

I draw some inspiration for this inter-communal work from some teachings about the relationship between the Jews and God. The Torah states:
My fury will rage against them on that day (because of their sins), and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?' And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.[viii]
It is puzzling that God would still be hiding his face after the people have come to the realisation that something is wrong by saying “, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us”. Yet, this could be interpreted as a complaint about being a victim of God’s rejection or hostility from other communities, perhaps even unfairly, rather than acceptance of responsibility for the part people in our own community play in driving people apart[ix]. In both cases, between people and God and between communities there can be a focus on the consequences and symptoms of damaged relationship, rather than the causes at the core of the relationship itself [x]. It is to this great task that we must now turn. Each of us taking responsibility for what we can do to ensure we all learn to respect each other as neighbours, fellow citizens, and as siblings: the children of Adam and Eve.  

[i] Deuteronomy 29:18
[ii] Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Nehama Leibovitz, Studies in Devarim
[iii] as we don’t listen to the radio or use the computer etc. on the Sabbath
[iv] He wrote, "See I was angry, horrified, filled with rage like many of you out there with the film made against our beloved Prophet (pbuh). The anger was just fuelling the flame and confirming the theories of the non-Muslims, but then I came across this video this brother made... It filled my eyes with tears at the greatness of our Prophet, the kindness of our Prophet, the mercy of our Prophet...He told this story as follows, and my anger just melted away...
He (Muhammad) was a man of truth and a man of justice. A man of humility yet a man of toughness. A man of mercy... Just look at the city of Ta'if, he was pelted and stoned as he preached alone, heartbroken and alone, he had bruised bones and blood soaked shoes, yet he just moved on and prayed to his Lord, "Oh Lord! As long as you're pleased with me, it doesn't matter at all", until the angel Gabriel descended and said to the Prophet, "Give me one word! And I'll flip these homes" and listen to what the Prophet said, he said, "No! Just hold on... Despite everything they did to me, I'm gonna let it go, for the land may one day breed some sweet believing souls..."
[v] Kings I, 18:27
[vi] Haketav Vahakabbalah, cited in Nehama Leibovitz, Studies in Devarim
[viii] Deuteronomy 31:17&18
[ix] Ohr Hachayim,
[x] Ramban, he states, saying: “because God is not with me” is not a complete confession, it is (an initial) thought and regret… and recognition of guilt. See Nachshoni’s adaptation of this.

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