Around 900 years ago, back in the days when most of Europe was lost in the Dark Ages, the then-deranged Muslim ruler of Jerusalem decided to tear down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He was quickly deposed, and the Church hastily rebuilt at Muslim expense. The Muslims apologised.
It was too late. Within a few months, reports of similar attacks on Christian pilgrims and symbols in Palestine had spread across Europe. Pope Urban II seemed powerless to respond. He was more concerned with corruption within the Vatican (much of it his own doing), and with the presence of other allegedly false competing claimants to the Pontiff’s throne.
The Pope's “solution” to the internal crisis was to seek a diversion. He declared the first crusade. Historians agree that in leading this battle, the then-Pontiff was less interested in defending the honour of Christ or Jerusalem than in shoring up his own power and diverting attention away from crises within the Church.
Hardly 900 years later, the tables have turned. This time it is mainly Muslim leaders who are embroiled in corruption and scandal. The generals, emirs, kings and presidents-for-life that rule most Muslim-majority states (usually with the help of their Western patrons) have failed to effectively deal with the poverty, illiteracy and other economic and social ills too numerous to list here.
Today these rulers are also seeking a diversion. One obscure neo-Conservative Danish newspaper appears to have provided it. What they have also proven is that perhaps Muslims are in the midst of their own Dark Age.
In the past few weeks, two bastions of Middle Eastern liberty and democracy - Libya and Saudi Arabia - have withdrawn ambassadors from Denmark. In many Muslim countries, Danish goods are being boycotted.
In my birthplace of Karachi, frenzied Pakistanis hit the streets with protests that did more damage to the Pakistani economy than to anyone in Denmark. Don’t these people have work to do and mouths to feed? Then again, some of these men (Pakistani women have more important matters to attend to) will protest each time they think a Pakistani batsman is given out “lbw” unfairly.
And across the Arab world, supermarkets have removed Danish goods from their shelves. Recently, a Syrian Muslim rabble decided that the best way to defend the honour of their Prophet was to attack and burn embassies of at least three European countries. In Gaza, with Israel ready to cut the fiscal umbilical cord, Palestinian gunmen seem content to bite one of the few hands that feeds them by occupying and threatening workers at the headquarters of the European Union.
Had someone unaware of the cartoons viewed the response, they might think Denmark has invaded Bosnia or Iran and was unjustly occupying its territory. They might think Danish settlements replaced Israeli ones popping up in various places across the West Bank. Or perhaps the Danish Government had passed laws banning girls from wearing headscarves in schools.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, an obscure privately-owned newspaper in Denmark published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. One cartoon apparently showed the Prophet standing at the pearly gates of heaven in much the same way as St Peter in the Catholic tradition. Another portrayed the Prophet’s turban as a bomb.
The cartoons were first published in the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten. Most people living in Muslim countries would probably be unable to pronounce the paper’s name, let alone having heard of it.
And so today, I and many other Muslims feel compelled to stand up and be counted. To defend the honour of a man I grew up to regard as a Prophet.
No, not from a dozen cartoons published by a neo-Conservative Danish newspaper. Nor from their reproduction in newspapers across Europe and even New Zealand.
We feel compelled to defend the honour of the Prophet of Islam from the shameful actions of some people claiming to be his followers.
No, we are not ashamed of Islam. We are not ashamed of the Prophet Mohammed. We are not ashamed of the values with which many of us grew up, values that are so similar to those of my Anglican school or my many Jewish colleagues and friends.
What upsets and shames us is the depths to which some Muslims have sunk.
I wonder at how low Muslims have stooped that some of them are prepared to resort to mob violence to display their religiosity. In doing so, they appear ignorant of (or worse still, reckless to) the fact they are mainly targeting the innocent.
The Arabic phrase used by the Koran to describe the Prophet Mohammed is rahmat al-lil a’alameen (literally “mercy to the worlds”). Like the other Prophets recognised by Islam (including the Messiah Jesus), Mohammed always preferred forgiveness over revenge.
Instead of following his example, many 21st century Muslims are behaving in similar vein to the then uncivilised medieval Europeans did during the Crusades.
Today, some Muslim mobs are attacking anything deemed Danish. They are being egged on by selfish, undemocratic and dictatorial kings, generals, emirs and presidents-for-life.
Muslim countries are suffering problems taller than the tsunami waves that brought so much misery to hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Indonesia. Muslim women in various countries are being murdered by members of their own families for the sake of defending some false notion of “honour”.
Millions of Muslims are living in poverty and disease in Pakistan following the devastating earthquake. Millions more are starving in refugee camps in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Muslim-majority nations are riddled with corruption. Their leaders are squandering resources and wealth while their citizens live below the poverty line.
Yet today some governments of Muslim-majority countries are encouraging their citizens to attack European embassies. For many dictatorial and undemocratic Muslim regimes, the cartoon controversy represents a wonderful diversion away from the real problems facing their communities.
Instead of protecting the honour of their Prophet, some Muslims seem intent on destroying their own honour by behaving in a manner their Prophet had condemned 14 centuries ago.
What appears to have (quite understandably) upset Muslims most is one cartoon depicting the Prophet wearing a bomb as a turban, suggesting that he preached terrorism. Yet surely the worst way to protest against this is to commit acts of terror such as tearing down and burning embassies.
Boycotting Danish goods may be a more peaceful and preferable manner of protest. Yet even such a boycott effectively punishes the innocent and attributes the disrespectful manner of one newspaper to an entire nation. To blame all Danes for the actions of one newspaper editor claiming to defend freedom of speech is as absurd as blaming all Muslims for the acts of terror of a few lunatics claiming to defend of Islam.
Those Muslims who really care about the honour of their Prophet should focus their attention on improving their own situation. They might start by considering what sort of deal non-Muslim minorities get in Muslim countries, and how non-Muslim religious symbols are abused in Muslim publications. Perhaps they would then understand why some Muslim minorities (including now those in Denmark) will be copping plenty of flack due to their antics.
The Muslim mobs might also consider how the Prophet responded to attacks on himself. I am not aware of any biographical record of the Prophet taking any revenge for attacks on his person. I remember one recorded incident of a Jewish neighbour who was in the habit of pouring faeces over the Prophet. One day, the faeces stopped. The Prophet’s response was to inquire about the neighbour’s health.
How far some of today’s Muslims are from the golden example of the man in whose name they are causing so much destruction. Don’t they have enough problems of their own about which to be concerned? In the grander scheme of things, in the context of poverty and natural disasters and culturally-related oppression of women and so much else, are some Muslims so narrow-minded and infantile as to ascribe so much importance to 12 cartoons?
My message to Muslim mobs is simply this - before you consider tearing down the houses (and embassies) of others, think about cleaning up your own.