Anti-US protests
Henryk M. Broder


When I receive an invitation to brunch or afternoon tea, before committing myself I always ask the hosts if any parents are going to be there with their children. If the answer is yes, I thank them for inviting me, say I’m otherwise engaged – and stay home.

I know how things are going to go at that brunch or tea. Bratty kids are going to be throwing food, climbing under and over the table and everywhere else, and terrorizing the adults with banshee screams. The adults for their part will do precisely nothing by way of toning things down because if they do the kids will act up even more.

I have nothing against children. But I do have a problem with parents who give in to their offspring and somehow seem to believe that this amounts to masterful childrearing.

I feel the same way when I see all the over-excited Muslims on TV, in Benghazi, Cairo, Khartoum, Islamabad, Jakarta and even Sydney, demonstrating against a movie they’ve heard insults the Prophet Mohammed. I ask myself: what do these men do when they’re not demonstrating? Don’t they have a family to feed? A job? Where do they get all the American or Israeli flags that they burn in front of CNN and BBC cameras? Do they whip them up on the sewing machine at home, or are there shops in Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, specialized in the manufacture of flags from enemy states?

Whatever the facts, one thing is clear: the demonstrators are behaving like children aware of their power. They know that nobody will dare stand in their way. What’s more, they know there will be plenty of adults who express sympathy for their vile behavior. In Germany, these would include Claus Kleber of the ZDF TV channel heute journal daily news, who attributed the escalation of the situation to "radicals on both sides of the issue." Or my colleague at Stern magazine, who titled his commentary on "a stupid video" that "has the Islamic world in an uproar:" "Sow Hate, Reap Hate." (By the way, after 9/11, peace-movement critics of the U.S. hit the streets using these same words.)

Flying off the handle

The sheer infantilism of the demonstrators, who communicate with each other on cell phones but otherwise live in the 7th Century, rubs off on such sympathizers. After the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, people were saying that the book was not a literary masterpiece – that its main purpose was to offend the sensibilities of Muslims.

Similarly, the Muhammad caricatures that were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten were called "primitive" and "without artistic merit." This time, it’s a "recklessly impudent, badly crafted movie using evil ideology to make fun of the Prophet Muhammedand Islam" – as if the quality of the film had anything to do with the rage it has unleashed in the Muslim world. Does anybody believe that the sons of Allah would be clapping enthusiastically if this "recklessly impudent," "badly crafted" movie had been some Pasolini or Tarantino masterpiece instead? (On Wednesday, French riot police were sent to guard the offices of controversial French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in preparation of their publication of cartoons mocking Muhammad.

Ethno-psychologists and Islam experts say this: Muslims have not yet reached the point where they can tolerate any sort of maliciousness or derision aimed at their religion without flying off the handle. We need to give them time. But one who espouses that argument is not only a cultural relativist but is exhibiting a form of racism. The logical consequence would be to advise Muslims to travel long distances by camel instead of taking a plane, or to forbid them access to the Internet, because they have not come far enough yet.

However, one can make the assumption that anybody who is capable of booking a flight on the internet, or flying to Munich or Zurich for treatment in a clinic, is also capable of not blowing their top if somebody makes fun of their religion.

Double standards

A few weeks ago, the satirical German magazine Titanic ran a tasteless, recklessly impudent and cheap satire of the Pope that hardly anyone would have noticed if the Pope hadn’t tried to block sales of the issue. However, the Pontifex Maximus did not send his Swiss Guard forth to punish the editors, nor did he call on the faithful – some billion people after all – to rise up and storm embassies. He let his lawyers handle it. And then, a day before the deadline that had been set for an end to negotiations, he let the matter drop. That gave papal critics cause for a second round of jubilation. But there was no Catholic jihadist to take offense at that and call for a Holy War against the disbelievers. And that was no exception: it’s the rule.

This year, the German film Paradies: Glaube (Paradise: Faith) was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The movie is about a missionary nurse named Anna Maria "who takes her love of Jesus to extremes," which is a nice way of saying she masturbates with a crucifix.

You don’t need a lot of imagination to conjure up the reactions in the Muslim world if Anna Maria hadn’t used a crucifix but some object holy to Muslims instead. No jury in the world would have dared even to show a movie with something like that going on. And you need even less imagination to anticipate the reactions of news commentators like those already mentioned – such a movie would not only be recklessly imprudent and primitive, but a downright provocation!

But where its own freedoms are concerned, the West uses double standards. We’re so morally sure of ourselves that we can take religious provocation. They, the Muslims, still have to learn. But since that might take a while, we need to step back. German Minister of the Interior Hans-Peter Friedrich announced that he would do "everything legally admissible" to prevent the film Innocence of Muslims from being shown in Germany, not because he wanted to protect German viewers from a cheesy, badly crafted movie, but out of concern not to throw "oil on the fire."

Only one thing helps -- a visit to an oasis of reason and good sense: Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based TV channel reports that ever more Syrians are wondering how a video about Muhammad could be causing more uproar in the Muslim world than the bloodbath in their country.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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