The Muslim world has erupted in a series of protests that has already taken several lives and may well take more, over an American film which blasphemes against the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). These protests are taken as evidence of blowback, as the American Ambassador to Libya has been killed, and as evidence that Muslims are not ready for the freedom of speech that democracy is supposed to bring and which is supposed to be the result of the Arab Spring. Though the Arab Spring is mentioned in most analyses, there seems to be a ducking of the obvious question: is this latest outbreak of blasphemy related to the rebellion in Syria, by now the oldest and the bloodiest of the revolts?

One reason why there does not seem to be a clear relation is that films have a relatively long lead time. Another is that the film seemed designed for blaspheming, and reflected the malice of the filmmaker. The film’s originator is said to be Nakoula Bacile Nakoula, an American and a Coptic Christian, of Egyptian origin. The intention may have been to show how unreasonable Muslims are, but it shows an understanding of Muslims, though a malign one, and of the buttons to push which would cause them to show that unreasonableness.

It would almost seem that the Western world was engaged on a persistent and long drawn-out campaign to make Muslims willing to accept blasphemy against the Prophet (peace be upon him), with this film merely the latest episode. It is reminiscent of the Danish cartoons controversy, which was the most recent episode of blasphemy. Until the 19th century, Christians understood the concept of blasphemy well enough, because they accepted it for Christ. However, as the West, especially Europe, became de-Christianised in the 20th century, not only did it become ready to accept blasphemy against Christ, but also became unable to understand how Muslims were not ready to accept blasphemy against the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). It must be noted that the tolerance of disbelief, which includes a rejection of his Prophethood by disbelievers, has been pioneered by Muslims. However, since the use of Christianity by the USA began, as a tool of imperialism, Muslim resistance to blasphemy has assumed an anti-imperialist character.

Blasphemy also encompasses the limits of the Islamic restriction on free speech. In fact, that seems to be the new limit of freedom, and of all kinds, not just speech. Criticising free speech is a marker of someone opposed to the current Western dispensation. The diaspora in the USA are among those saying that Muslims have been manipulated into violence. This brings to mind an episode from Muslim Spain, which has been considered an example of the toleration of Islam. Some bishop cast about for an idea, and preached the commission of blasphemy so that they might achieve martyrdom. The authorities carried out the executions even as they negotiated with the bishop to stop. He did not. The authorities got him replaced, and his successor ordered his followers to stop. One of the lessons of this episode is that Islam is not infinitely tolerant. Second, blasphemy of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) is not to be swallowed just because it was committed to cause trouble (in those days, to gain martyrdom; now, to create a bad image of Muslims).

One of the charges made is that the protests show anti-Americanism. This anti-Americanism is perhaps inevitable, not just because the film was made in the USA, but because the USA itself occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, and has backed not just Israel, which illegally occupies Palestine, but also India, which is illegally occupying Kashmir.  The objection that Muslims somehow resent the American freedom to blaspheme does not take into consideration the harmful effects American imperialism has had on the image of the USA among Muslims. Then there has been bad American behaviour in Afghanistan, which has included desecration of corpses, and of copies of the Holy Quran.

The amount of blasphemy taking place now seems to have spiked, with a French magazine publishing blasphemy in the midst of the protests over the film. It is almost as if Muslims are being forced to accept the principle that freedom of speech means they are supposed to tolerate anything being said about the most sacred personalities of their religion. It seems that someone has realised that the Muslim willingness to die for the faith must be eliminated if Islam is to be reduced to another religion, to be trotted out only for rituals, and not to affect the realities of life. In short, the challenge of political Islam can only be met by blasphemy. This ignores the reality that political Islam is not something new, but is mere orthodoxy. Similarly, the orthodox view of blasphemy prescribes a whole procedure, which includes the death sentence.

Because Nakoula is of Egyptian origin, there has been some speculation that the film might be a response to the Ikhwan having won the Presidency, but there has been one person asking why the Muslim world has responded so angrily while doing nothing to help co-religionists in Syria. That the protests broke out in Egypt shows that it remains the centre of the Arab world, and the comparative silence over Syria shows how much blasphemy is a visceral issue for Muslims. Since the West was trying to portray Syria as a sectarian issue, of Shia versus Sunni, the blasphemy issue, by cutting across the sectarian divide, has demonstrated the essential one-ness of the Ummah. However, the blasphemy has meant that Syria has gone behind in the agenda not just of all Muslims, but of the Arab world in particular.

The reaction of the governments has been one which does not reflect well on the nation-state. All have taken this as a law and order problem, as the Yaum-e-Ishq-e-Rasool is doing, with the result that their police forces have been willing to kill protesters to defend the film. Well, more specifically, US diplomatic missions.  No one can question the existence of those missions. The net result is that the deaths in the Islamic World so far have been at the hands of the police. Under those circumstances, the OIC, which is a collection of these nation-states, would perhaps not be very effective, but on an issue deeply involving the Muslims of the world, it cannot risk taking a stand opposing not just the USA, but one of its basic tenets.

There should not be any misconception: freedom of speech means freedom to blaspheme. Islam does not allow such blasphemy. There is a basic conflict here that will not be solved, one way or the other, by the present controversy.

The problem for the Muslim world is accepting that the American state cannot stop the film. The misconception arises because of the protesters’ own experience of the state as a powerful entity operating beyond the law, often enough with US support. The USA must also not forget that its willingness to ignore its own laws in prosecuting the War on Terror has led to the demands that the USA jettison one of its freedoms for the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). After all, what makes freedom of speech so sacred that it allows blasphemy?