What do local Muslims think?
Chicoans weigh in on recent violence in the Middle East
By now we’re all familiar with the infamous YouTube-posted trailer for a grade-Z movie called Innocence of Muslims that led to deadly uprisings across the Middle East.
On Sept. 11 the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked, leading to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three embassy workers. Protests spread and more than 50 people were killed in the following days of unrest.
Two Pakistani politicians, including a current cabinet member, have offered bounties of $100,000 and $200,000 for the murder of the video’s shadowy creator, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-born American citizen and convicted fraudster, currently in jail for violation of probation.
Chico Muslims and educators contacted recently were virtually unanimous in saying that the violent protests and riots were wrong and did not represent the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Ali Sarsour is a retired store manager just back from a five-week trip to his Palestinian homeland. He’s lived in Chico for more than 40 years and holds annual “Arabic dinners” for Chico groups like the Torres Community Shelter and the Shalom Free Clinic to familiarize the public with his culture. Sarsour said he believes Muslims should express their frustrations without violence.
“The 20 people killed in the Pakistan demonstrations represent stupidity at its highest,” Sarsour said.
While traveling he saw two schools of thought on the Innocence video. In the first camp are the enraged who want revenge against America for past wrongs. Sarsour said he believes many extremists in this camp are using the scandal to gain supporters.
The second and by far the more prevalent group are those who want their fellow Muslims to get over it.
This group, Sarsour said, believes the high-profile demonstrations give massive and unnecessary publicity to the YouTube trailer. Sarsour contends the video was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, that the violence and protests are the result of years of pent-up anger for U.S. support of Israel and Middle Eastern dictators.
In contrast, he cites the reaction in his Palestinian home city of al-Bira as an example of an intelligent response. There, fliers were handed out announcing a rally after Friday prayers. People gathered peacefully, held up signs, made a few speeches, then went home, he said.
Jed Wyrick, the chairman of Chico State’s Religious Studies Department, says the controversy provides a moment for all to realize that religious offences are not limited to Muslims. He cites incidents that have insulted Christians such as the 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which depicted Christ kissing men on the lips, having sex and marrying a woman.
In a similar vein, a notorious 1987 photograph titled “Piss Christ” featured a plastic crucifix with Christ submerged in a glass of urine. Prominent protests were waged against both the film and photo but without the violence seen recently. Wyrick said the Innocence rebellions show a fundamental ignorance by many Muslims about the U.S. protections of freedom of speech.
Najm Yousefi teaches classes on Islam and Middle Eastern history at Chico State. “I’m not saying the protests were right or wrong,” he said, “but the YouTube video was made with a clear intention to provoke.”
Yousefi points out that those protesting, rioting, burning flags and throwing rocks are a fraction of a percentage of Muslims worldwide. “For instance, India has 250 million Muslims, but I doubt that even 200,000 protested,” he said. Unfortunately, he continued, these high-profile antics give a false impression that most Muslims feel this way.
Salam Ali is a junior mechanical-engineering student and the public-relations officer for Chico State’s Muslim Student Association, whose purpose is to broaden the understanding of Islam. She is also adamant that the violent protests were wrong. “The YouTube video should start a wildfire of knowledge, not destruction,” she said.
Ali wears the traditional Muslim hijab head scarf and said she has felt anti-Islamic animosity on campus through glares and insults, yet retains a positive outlook on life. A Muslim whose family hails from Palestine, Ali was born and raised in Willows.
Like Sarsour, she recently returned from a trip to Palestine visiting family and friends. Ali said she is concerned about misconceptions regarding Muslims exacerbated by the anti-American protests. She wants to enlighten people that her religion is one of peace and non-violence. While she thinks the Innocence video is a complete abuse of freedom of speech, she doesn’t believe it should be illegal. She said examples of healthy reactions to it would be to donate Qurans to the public or to wear buttons saying, “Ask me about my religion.”
Hadi Hamoud is the president of Chico State’s Great Prophet Mohammed Association. His club holds one event each semester to enlighten the public about Islam. (See “Explaining Islam,” by Tom Gascoyne, CN&R March 15.) Like fellow student Ali, the senior computer-science major said he thinks the aggressive responses to the video were wrong.
“The violent protests were an overreaction that goes against the lessons of Islam,” he said. “The Quran teaches that the Prophet Mohammed was a messenger of peace, mercy and love.”
However, he also said he believes that the video should be banned because “the U.S. government knows that millions of people will protest it and innocent people will be killed.”
Recently, President Obama provided a rebuttal to this view. In a speech to the United Nations on Sept. 25, Obama defended the nation’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech to prevent the silencing of critics and minorities.
Hamoud insists that insulting Mohammed is far worse than burning a nation’s flag. But like the others contacted for this story, Hamoud agrees that the rioting was done by a small minority whose antics damage Islam by creating an image that Muslims are terrorists.