Whether the recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya, Egypt and Yemen were provoked solely by an Islamophobic film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad isn’t entirely clear, though most media reports seem to suggest it. Claims that at least one of these attacks — most likely the one in Benghazi that left four Americans dead — may have been the result of a more organized terrorist plot have not been confirmed. Whatever the case, however, this incendiary and amateurish film has sparked the media’s interest, as most news outlets continue citing the film as the likely motivation for the riots.
If this is in fact the case, as it was when a Danish newspaper published cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, it’s worth discussing. As an Iranian-American Muslim living in the United States, I’ve been on the receiving end of countless hateful remarks on account of my religion. As a rule, I ignore the ignorant comments. By refusing to engage such bigots, I save myself a great deal of grief while practicing one of the highest teachings and callings of my faith: peace. The root of the word “Islam” is “salam,” or peace. Thus, for the great majority of Muslims, the recent actions of a small group of rioters against American outposts in Benghazi, Cairo and Sanaa are highly offensive. They do not represent our faith, and in fact, they denigrate it more than any silly film ever could.
By reacting violently to films and other forms of peaceful, albeit narrow-minded, expression, we as Muslims only draw attention to works that would otherwise receive little or no mainstream media interest. The film that apparently sparked the current outrage wasn’t produced by a major studio or directed by a well-known director, but thanks to the riots, suddenly it’s all over the headlines. Likewise, had the aforementioned Danish cartoons been published without all the hullabaloo, very few people outside of the tiny country of Denmark would have even seen or heard about them. But alas, we have. None of this attention was the result of any concerted promotional efforts by the artists involved. Rather, it was the strong opposition to these works that won them recognition.
While I fully believe that the best way to respond to offensive compositions is to pay them no heed, sometimes that’s simply impossible. The current instance is a case in point. In such situations, we must ask ourselves, both as Muslims and as responsible global citizens: What is the most effective and responsible way to respond to an offensive film or cartoon or other form of expression that has gained popularity for one reason or another? What kind of response most respects and represents our beliefs and ideals as Muslims?
Certainly, violence is neither an effective nor responsible reaction. In fact, it’s both counterproductive and un-Islamic. In this case, the most productive and powerful response is also the most viable one: fight bad art with better art; fight ugliness with beauty; fight lies with truths.
Rather than take the defensive, we need to be proactive. We must create our own works of art — our own films, cartoons, satires, songs and writings — to challenge and subvert the Islamophobic messages of less transcendent works.
Today, the world is full of artists doing exactly that—from Khalil Bendib to K’Naanto Zahra Noorbakhsh to Mos Def to G. Willow Wilson to Maz Jobrani to countless others. We need to follow their lead and recognize that art matters, that it can change the world and that it can even eclipse violence.
In the words of Theodor Adorno, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” So, too, every affront to free expression is the enemy of peace, and by extension, the enemy of Islam.