Muslims, stop swallowing extremist bait

It’s time for Muslims to stop letting Islamophobes goad them. Violent reactions to perceived insults to Islam are a black eye for Muslims that cost the lives of good people like US ambassador to Libya J Christopher Stevens and foster a vicious cycle of hate that benefits no one except bigots on all sides.

The latest wave of violence to defend Islam, stemming from the Innocence of Muslims movie, reveals a lot about the forces at work. A Coptic Christian living in California who opposes Egypt’s new government, reportedly produced the amateurish movie, found only online, that depicts the prophet Muhammad as a womanizer and pedophile. The movie was publicized by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor best known for threatening to burn the Quran, to promote his mock trial of the prophet on Jones’ International Judge Muhammad Day.

On the Muslim side, a Salafist television station played excerpts of the video then, issuing a challenge to viewers, according to the Los Angeles Times, “demanded to know how Islam could be treated in such a debasing way.” In Libya, radical militias that oppose the post-Qaddafi government were behind the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Stevens and three other Americans.

On both sides, the impetus for violence and prejudice arises from a tiny minority fringe that uses its mirror image to create a cycle of hate. Anti-Muslim propaganda helps radical Islamists incite violent protests. In turn, those protests give ammunition to anti-Muslim extremists that contend Islam is different from other mainstream religions. Further anti-Muslim acts give impetus for Islamist extremists to incite more mob reactions that stoke more anti-Muslim provocations. To end this cycle of hate, Muslims need to ignore these insults and further marginalize, rather than publicize, the insignificant figures that spew them. Publicity is the only thing that gives bigots power.

To their credit, many Muslim leaders have condemned the violent reaction to the film and the extremists on both sides inciting it. But more Muslim leaders and individuals need to stand up and be counted. It’s sad to see violent protests across the Arab world following Friday prayers, as if there’s some connection between the practice of Islam and rampaging mobs. Violence to avenge perceived insults to the prophet doesn’t make anyone a good Muslim, it just makes them a bad human being.

It’s a sad irony that the revenge attacks began on September 11. Eleven years earlier, strikes against the US by Muslim extremists provided a flashpoint for shameless ideologues such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, and their sycophants such as Condoleezza Rice, to exploit Islamophobia to promote their own political agenda. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the George W Bush administration’s global war on terror rhetoric surrounding them gave rise to perceptions of a Western war on Islam, a view promoted by Muslim extremists looking to advance their political agendas.

Still, Americans are bewildered that US diplomatic buildings have become favored targets for mobs across the Muslim world. The US government had absolutely no connection with the production or distribution of the offending film and has given it no support. As all good people of goodwill should, US officials ignored the film until they could no longer do so, then condemned it unconditionally.

Americans are especially perplexed by the attacks in Egypt, where the US gives $1.55 billion in foreign aid annually; and Libya, where Western aid was crucial to the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi. Furthermore, at great personal risk, Stevens entered Benghazi when it was the center of the revolt and under attack by Gaddafi loyalists. Warmongering by the Bush administration and the checkered history of American engagement with the Muslim world, including virtually unconditional support for Israel, tells only part of the story.

Muslim extremists say that America hates Islam, but in fact, it’s religious extremists of all varieties that hate America. The US represents values antithetical to extremists, freedom of thought, individual rights, and education for all. Religious extremists favor freedom only until it gives them power and influence. Then they expect conformity and blind obedience.

As a former US diplomat, I’m particularly saddened by the attacks on US embassies consulates. I joined the Foreign Service while American diplomats were held hostage in Tehran and served at the US embassy in Dar es Salaam that was leveled by al Qaeda bombers in 1998. A hidden tragedy of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks is the difficulty they add for dedicated diplomats like Stevens to reach out to the good people in their host countries, to share key American values and prevent cycles of hate from arising. That’s just the way the extremists want it.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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