Saturday, April 05, 2008

"Fitna" and the Muslim Mind in Egypt, A Remembrance of Things Past

As one might expect nowadays, the reaction within the dar al Islam to the distribution of that questionable little film, "Fitna" was hysterical. In the West there was fear. The official site of the film was blocked by Network solutions, the site host, who posted this notice: "This site has been suspended while Network Solutions is investigating whether the site's content is in violation of the Network Solutions Acceptable Use Policy. Network Solutions has received a number of complaints regarding this site that are under investigation. For more information about Network Solutions Acceptable Use Policy visit the following URL:" Id. In addition, "Fitna has been condemned by the Dutch government and Dutch broadcasters have avoided showing it. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called it "offensively anti-Islamic"." Dutch MP's Film Angers Indonesia, BBC News Online, March 31, 2008.

There were protests in the dar al Islam.
"Following the release of Geert Wilders' film Fitna, a group of 53 Jordanian MPs have delivered a petition to their government in Amman, demanding that it break all diplomatic ties with the Netherlands. They also want the Dutch ambassador expelled from the country. The Jordanian parliament consists of 110 members, 60 of whom were present when the petition was delivered."

Fitna Continues to Draw Protests Across the Muslim World,, March 31, 2008 (drawing from a report in Radio Netherlands 2008). Though there was a bit of bathos to the protests, or just boredom. A Los Angeles Times blog post from Tehran noted that "the demonstration showed mostly apathy. Only about 40 students, 25 guys and 15 women, showed up for the outing. They brought a couple of loudspeakers and called for the sacking of Wilders, who has likened the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf." They chanted against America and Israel, but also denounced liberal Iranian political factions as traitors." Ramin Mostaghim, IRAN: Protest Against Dutch Film 'Fitna' Draws Tepid Crowd , Babylon and Beyond, Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2008.

Beyond that hysteria, Gamal Kkrumah provides a very interesting commentary in Al-Ahram Weekly. Gamal Nkrumah, Blasted Backlash, Al-Ahram Weekly, 2-9 April, 2008. "Fitna (Sedition), a recently-released 17- minute film made by the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, is the latest production to incense sentiment across the Muslim world, Egypt included." He notes the usual tenor of protest from virtually all levels of society in Egypt. "The hitherto heated dispute is fast acquiring a sharper edge, and reactions in Egypt and other Muslim countries to the screening of Fitna have been nothing short of frenzied." Id..

And then he does something different. He provides a memory of the possibility of a different reaction in an equally Islamic Egypt.

"Freedom of expression and secularism were once the hallmark of our own cultural heritage," Samir Farid, one of Egypt's leading film critics, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "In 1935 an Egyptian writer, Ismail Adham, published a book entitled Why I am an Apostate. Nobody called for his trial, let alone his death. Nobody called him an infidel. That was freedom of expression,"

Farid laments the way in which, over recent decades, Muslim societies have become prey to the dictates of self-styled religious authorities who are seeking power. "When Westerners watch televised interviews with Osama bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri in which they celebrate the attacks of 11 September it should come as no surprise that some of them will go on to produce films, plays and books depicting Islam as a religion that glorifies violence," says Farid.

Id. Though Farid recalls other insults to Islam, he also recalls a different form of reaction to them, even in Egypt.

Farid draws a comparison once again with the far more relaxed climate of the early and middle part of the 20th century. "In 1926, the celebrated Egyptian actor Youssef Wahbi announced that he intended to portray the life and times of the Prophet Mohamed. The issue was debated in the press but no one dared to threaten Wahbi. Yet such an announcement would be unthinkable today. Times have changed, and no actor now has the courage to challenge conventional Islamist wisdom."
Id. Nhrumah thus nicely, though subtly, reminds his audience of several things: the reality of violent protests today, the closing of minds in both the dar al-Islam and Christendom (if I might be excused the anachronism, so well suited to the story). And indeed, it is easy, in the protests and Western self righteousness over Fitna, to forget the not so long ago protests in Christendom over "The Last Temptation of Christ." And indeed, at least one state, Chile had sought to repress the film entirely, prompting an opinion of the Inter-American Court. See Human Rights Watch, Limits of Tolerance (1998) at 137-138. Another film, a comedy, Monty Python's Life of Brian (which was banned in Ireland and Norway, and advertised in Sweden as "the movie that is so funny it was banned in Norway"), or so Wikepedia relates. Yet there was a difference I suppose.

The Last Temptation of Christ and the Life of Brian might be viewed as an internal matter. But should that maker a difference? Nkrumah suggests it may not:
"As Muslims, we have a duty to respond to attacks on Islam launched in the name of freedom of expression. Artistic expressions such as Fitna necessitate rejoinders from intellectuals who are true believers," Gamal Qutb, Islamic scholar, told the Weekly.

"The film is an unwarranted affront to Prophet Mohamed and Islam. We have an inalienable right to defend the values of Islam and monotheistic religions. Westerners may have forsaken religion but we in the East uphold its sanctity and the respectability of the prophets of old, not just the Prophet Mohamed, but of Jesus, Moses and other prophets."

Gamal Nkrumah, Blasted Backlash, Al-Ahram Weekly. That is certainly a view shared among the religious. The problem, as Benedict XVI has often explained, echoing the sentiments of other Christian traditions, is not so much with other religions as it is with the secular (the more successful competitor) that the battle for legitimacy and conrol of behavioral norms lies. It is to that competition that all religion ought to turn (at least before one gets back to the traditional contests among religion). ""There is a schism over freedom of speech. There is the question of the politics of morality, or the lack of it," is how Farid sums up the situation." Id. Nkrumah also suggests that there is more than one way to approach this discussion, even in the dar al-Islam. The politicization of religion has all sorts of regrettable consequences. The stakes are high. But even "Fitna" can cause a certain remembrance of things past--wispy, quickly receding, as those who lived it pass. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Swann's Way (1913 original publication) (Charles K. Scott-Montcrieff, trans., New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1922). A failure of memory of things past and traditions of tolerance may be the greatest victim of religious visions rooted in history.

No comments: