After listening to a speaker defend Shariah, or Islamic law, as just and merciful last spring, a young Muslim found himself walking out of the auditorium with a member of a Christian group called Truth Defenders.
“Why do you follow the Prophet? He was a womanizer, terrorist,” the man said to Mohannad Abu Alrub, a member of the Muslim Student Union at University of California – Irvine. “That didn’t fly with me,” Alrub told me later.
Outside of the auditorium the man readied a camera as his fellow anti-Islam activist shouted out another insult to the Prophet. Alrub wasn’t sure what he said, but he could guess. His face, lightly olive-toned and with a trim black beard lining his jaw, reddened with anger. “What did you say about the Prophet?” Alrub asked forcefully, stepping toward him.
I saw Alrub react to the insults against Muhammad while reporting my graduate school thesis, which explored how the MSU would be affected by the conviction of the Irvine 11 for protesting the Israeli ambassador. The thesis is being posted in three parts at Reza Alsan’s website, Aslanmedia.com, for the year anniversary of the conviction. (See Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3.) In the midst of Islamophobia, I found, the MSU has embraced activism in defining themselves as Muslim and American.
While the MSU is unique in its outspokenness, the recent response to the anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims” shows how all Muslim Americans must learn how to respond to attacks to their faith. In subsequent weeks, Muslim Americans have called for respect for the Prophet—and the removal of the video from YouTube based on their qualification of it as hate speech—but they’ve favored showings of interfaith solidarity over protests.
There is no agreed upon way of confronting Islamophobic attacks, Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), told me when I asked her about the Shariah event at UC-Irvine. “The hard part is that we don’t know what works,” she said.
When members of the Truth Defenders questioned the speaker about his “liberal” view of Shariah at the MSU event, he responded calmly with historical evidence for his views. “You are misrepresenting the religion that you say to profess,” the group’s leader responded.
While many have honest questions about Islam, anti-Islam activists aren’t willing to listen. “The problem is that the labels and accusations stick and the response don’t,” Lekovic said.
For this reason, Aslan, the author who posted my thesis, aims to disarm critics. “I don’t respond to those people. I just make fun of them,” he said at an event earlier this year, responding to a question about the social media debate about Islam.
Twitter humor was Muslim’s weapon of choice against Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent Newsweek article entitled, “Muslim Rage.” “Muslims just hijacked @Newsweek’s hashtag. Pun intended. #MuslimRage,” @Arab_Fury tweeted, with others offering other silly examples of things that made Muslims mad.
When Alrub showed his anger at the Shariah event, his Muslim Student Union brothers pulled him away. The group has long been considered extremist for its outspoken political activism for the Palestinian cause. The anti-Islam activists had arrived looking to provoke and confirm this reputation, his older friends explained to Alrub, then a sophomore. He later wrote an apologetic email to the group, explaining that he had learned that it’s best to ignore the “enemies of Islam.”
But ignoring them “is just being dismissive,” said Faisal Qazi, a respected member of his Southern California Muslim community. “There are people here and Europe that are leading a movement to intentionally hurt [Islam] and it plays out really well in the hands of extremist who then use it effectively.”
A neurologist with “prerequisite knowledge of religion,” Qazi had been giving a series of Friday prayer talks on the Prophet at Fatiha Mosque in Azusa when the protests against “Innocence of Muslims” began. He used the opportunity to talk the Prophet’s role as a peacemaker and leader, urging his fellow Muslims to follow Muhammad’s example.
“He addressed the social issues of the time. He was a transformer and a reformer,” Qazi said. American Muslims, therefore, have an obligation to be civically engaged—and especially to vote. But they won’t be protesting the recent video, he said.
“We know the culture we live in. We don’t give credibility to the movie itself,” he said, noting that even overseas, protests have been at most 200 people strong and not indicative of Muslim cultures.
A similar attitude prevailed in France after a magazine there published denigrating the Prophet. “Any protest could be hijacked and counterproductive,” said Mohammed Moussaoui of the French Muslim Council, despite calling the film and cartoons “acts of aggression.” Still, police guarded the magazine’s offices and French embassies closed the day the cartoons were released.
In Southern California, where the video was produced, there’s also been the expectation of violence. Police officers in the city of Orange told a Coptic church to keep their doors locked in case of retaliation, according to the Huffington Post. Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were called to the filmmaker’s Cerritos home, and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and his family reportedly went into hiding.
“He’s absolutely terrified because they’ll kill him if they find him,” Steve Klein, an anti-Islam activist in touch with the filmmaker, told the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed, a Pakistani cabinet minister offered a $100,000 bounty for his killing, and the Pakistani Taliban has now offered $500,000. Pakistan has seen some of the most violent protests, but Muslim American commenter Haroon Moghul insists the video is simply an excuse for a small minority to vent frustration over U.S. foreign policy.
In the United States, though, Muslim American leaders respond to Islamophobia through interfaith initiatives rather than violence. Muslim and Coptic leaders in Southern California spoke out together at a press conference. Basseley Nakoula has nothing to fear, Maher Hathout, senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “If he’s hiding from us, he’s wrong. We don’t go after people for what they say.”
Interfaith groups have also gathered around the New York Muslim community to protest the posting of subway ads that imply Palestinians are savages. Pamela Geller, a well known anti-Islam activist, is behind the ads.
UC-Irvine’s MSU also values interfaith partnerships. When the Truth Defenders tried to provoke its members to violence, I was talking to Lee Weissman, a supporter of the MSU who blogs as Jihadi Jew. After his fellow MSU members had helped Alrub understand what was going on, he approached the two of us to apologize for his actions.
Alrub wanted to make it clear that he didn’t give credence to the Truth Defenders. Just as the anti-Islam activists distort Islam, he wrote in a follow-up email, “we know that being rude and disrespectful and insulting other religions is not what Christianity teaches.”
Photo Caption: Muslims at the University of California Irvine pray and protest on behalf of those fighting for freedom in Syria. By embracing activism, they identify as Muslim and American and counter Islamophobic images of the group.