The recent attacks by European leaders on the Islamic Prophet Muhammad are not a new phenomenon. Rooted in the history of conflict between European and Muslim powers, certain European leaders and intellectuals had always sought to insult or malign the Prophet as a means to provoke and degrade Muslims. This was not because they considered it to be a 'freedom of expression' but the orientalist thinkers had understood the sacrilegious status the Prophet held among the threatening Muslim powers.
For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is not a divine being but a human pre-determinedly appointed by God to be the receiver of His final divine revelation. Thus in that spirit "Islam begins and ends at Muhammad" for his life is considered a practical demonstration of the Islamic way of life. It is centric to the Islamic belief, that one cannot be truly Muslim until they love the Prophet more than their wealth, family and themselves. The 20th century psychoanalyst Eric Fromm had argued in his best-selling The Art of Loving that "Love is a decision. It is a judgment". For Fromm if love was only a feeling, the promise to love someone forever would be a fragile commitment without any basis. Accordingly, in Islam, love for the Prophet is not just a feeling but a decision and a judgment that is essential to belief in the religion.
The Western layperson fails to understand the fierce reaction of Muslims over what they would see as an insignificant drawing of a religious figure. Even in the case of a significant maligning campaign against the Prophet, the average layperson in the west would expect Muslims to simply wave it off and ignore it. This miscommunication of cultures is because "The Western audience judges the sentiments of Muslims for their religion, in terms of the sentiments they have for their own religion" as in the words of the incumbent Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan has recently taken up the campaign of explaining Muslim sentiments to the western public, who he feels would understand if properly elaborated. He talks about how he was in dismay, when he went to the UK as a teenager only to find out that a comedy film was being showcased across cinemas creating a mockery out of Jesus. While, Islam reveres all Prophets from Adam to Jesus alike, the status of Jesus in Christianity is perhaps even superior to the status the Prophet Muhammad holds in Islam. This is because Jesus is God while the Prophet Muhammad is human. For an average Muslim unexposed to the normalcies of western civilization, such a disregard of Holy personalities would then be an unfathomable idea.
While it is true that the western public is indeed unaware and uncomprehending of the sentiments Muslims have for the Prophet, the same cannot be said about the leadership of the Western world that is well informed with their government institutions bearing the legacy of centuries of orientalist knowledge. The orientalists knew Islam as well as the traditional scholars of Islam did, but as per Edward Said, the Orientalist agenda was not to learn the religion in its true spirit. Rather their aim was to discredit Islam by bending it on their own terms or in other words their pursuits were in line with the Focaultian understanding of power: "Knowledge is Power".
In line with their predecessors, some Western leaders deliberately keep the governed masses ill-informed about Muslim sentiments, all the while claiming to build a pluralistic and inclusive society. For populist leaders to succeed, they must unite and rally their followers against a common enemy. The common enemy then doesn't get any better than the foe from European memory; 'the barbaric followers of Muhammad that refuse to assimilate and wish to take over Europe'. Attacks on the Prophet and the subsequent reaction from Muslims serve as a catalyst for this strategy. Then, every community has its share of extremists that kill in the name of religion, to name a few, the Christians have the Ku Klux Klan, the Jews had the Irgun and the Hindus had the Tamil Tigers. It often occurs in situations like this that a lunatic the likes of those mentioned pops out from the Muslim community and goes on a murderous rampage claiming retaliation. Naturally, populist leaders make use of these incidents to blame the entire Muslim community and excusing it for further marginalization.
The sentiments of Muslims for the Prophet Muhammad are no mystery. A common saying goes that "The pain of the heart is greater than physical pain". Indeed agony that comes from emotional attachment can be far more significant than physical hurts that are often short-lived. Many Western countries have taken steps to ensure that the marginalization of vulnerable communities, be it through hurtful remarks or prejudice is now intolerable. Homophobia, misogyny and other forms of discrimination often warrant legal actions in many parts of the world. In Europe, the denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence punishable with jail time in many countries.
One may argue that these forms of discrimination or mockery of genocide are not a valid comparison with the mockery of the Prophet Muhammad. Discrimination directly affects an individual while the denial of the holocaust is an insult to the memory of those that lost their loved ones in the tragedy of mass genocide. On the other hand, mocking the Prophet Muhammad does not affect individuals but only attacks their beliefs. However, what all of these occurrences of offense to others have in common are the emotional value attached to the historical incident, personality or one's identity. To understand the Muslim perspective on this, it is important to note that ideals of what is 'standardly offensive' are a social construct of society. There is no manual book that determines something to be legitimately offensive and something not to be. Just as discrimination is taken to be an insult of the discriminated person's feelings or denial of the Holocaust, is taken to be an insult of Jewish feelings. Muslims take any insults of the Prophet with the same sentimental value. For Muslims the Prophet Muhammad defines their community, their purpose to live; his life is a manifestation of the image of Islam. Generally stating, a Muslim may not raise an outcry to insults of their personal characters, however mockery of the prophet becomes an issue of communal opposition that resonates with every believing Muslim. Hence attacking the Prophet is not just an attack on religious beliefs but an attack on the entire community that holds him to be dearer "than their wealth, family and themselves".
Another valid point of contention to this argument may be that if the demands of Muslims are entertained then everyone would find something to be offensive. It is realistically not possible to determine and prohibit everything that every community may find offensive thus the only prohibitions of offense are standardized to when an individual or a tragedy is attacked rather than religious beliefs. The Muslim protestation is not to genuine critique or debate but rather against disrespect. Muslims are aware of the fact that one who does not believe in Islam by default rejects the claims of the Prophet Muhammad's truthfulness. Yet this is not an issue of antagonism but of mutual respect for one that disagrees. While the world cannot ban every count of offense but it can take steps to curtail the disrespect of what is sacrilegious to a community, all the while keeping doors open for legitimate discourse.
Muslim calls to boycott French products are thus a product of this marginalization and hatred that is being directed towards them. The doors to discourse would be opened in this case if there was genuine debate about the Prophet Muhammad and his teachings. However meaningless caricatures and insults are a deliberate provocation viciously planned to disrupt order in society.
Written by: Muhammad Hunain Khan
The writer is a student of York University, Canada, where he also serves as the Pakistani Community Director. He frequently writes on politics, history and current affairs. He tweets @Khan__Bahadur