Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post by Saadia Faruqi. Saadia is an interfaith activist, blogger for Tikkun Daily and The Islamic Monthly, and a speaker on American Muslim issues. She lives in Houston, Texas and is currently writing a collection of short stories set in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi
The Muslim world is once again riled up over a video. Still feeling the after-shocks of The Innocence of Muslims, which resulted in violence in the Middle East in 2012, it seems as if we haven’t learned anything from that experience. Freedom of speech and censorship will always butt heads, and it seems as if Muslims will forever be caught in the cross fire. This time, the video offending Muslim sensibilities is a Katy Perry music video.
Just that last sentence alone should give any sane Muslim a pause. Katy Perry is probably a well-known figure even to American Muslims who don’t listen to popular music or watch VH1. Like many other American singers and artists these days, Katy is no stranger to controversy. Music in the twenty first century seems to revolve around sexual innuendo, violent overtones, or offensive speech, and sometimes all three combined. Kate Perry is no different. From her first mainstream video called “I Kissed a Girl” that catapulted her to stardom (as a pastor’s daughter her prior musical performances were gospel), she has remained in the public eye due to her flair for musical theatrics, colorful costumes and less-than-innocent lyrics. In all that, she is no different from all the other singers out there today.
What made her different this week is that Katy’s latest video Dark Horse depicted, among other things, a man wearing a pendant with the words Allah in Arabic, who was later burned along with said pendant during the video. Does it really make a difference that the video is set in Egypt during a time period when Allah was not worshipped at all, and in a geographical region not known during that time for speaking or understanding Arabic, or writing in any script apart from hieroglyphics?
So was Katy Perry trying to be controversial or hateful? Was she deliberately trying to be blasphemous and hurt the sentiments of the billions of people of all faiths worshipping God (as Allah is called in English)? My instinctive answer is no. My guess is that she was just trying to make a video that seemed exotic, and didn’t really care about being 100% authentic. Then why the hue and cry? Why did a certain young man, 22-year-old Shahzad Iqbal, decide to start a petition on Change.Org to ask Katy to take down the video because burning the name of God is – wait for it – blasphemy? Is it warranted? Is it fair?
So far, I’m conflicted. I do believe that the video wasn’t inflammatory, and that as Omid Safi explained very succinctly in his recent Religion News Service blog What Would Muhammad Do? Muslims have hundreds of other, more serious problems to deal with than a Katy Perry video with a burning Allah pendant. Of all the petitions we could start and all the causes we could get behind – from drone warfare and racial discrimination to Islamic terrorists and so much more – why choose something that should rightfully be on the lowest on the rung of our priority ladder? Of course, the 65,000+ people who signed the petition and finally forced Katy to remove the pendant seem to agree with Mr. Iqbal’s tactics. Perhaps they wanted to find a battle that could actually be won? Maybe they all felt that Allah’s name needed protecting and an internet police should be the only way to do that.
On the other hand, I find this kind of protest a refreshing change from the previous murder and mayhem strategy employed by many of my more zealous Muslim brothers, especially in the Middle East. At least starting a petition on a popular website rather than rioting on the streets and burning American flags is a better way to protest. But at the same time, what message are we giving to the American public with what I and most others consider a frivolous petition? It’s like proving the concept of “Muslim Rage” – that we Muslims are always angry over something, always finding fault in others, never willing to forgive and forget. Every slight must be punished otherwise the honor of Islam will be in jeopardy.
A More Serious Problem
This brings me to the main reason why I’m not willing to condone the petition. To me, protests like this have become symptomatic of a more serious problem: a sense of rigidity and intolerance in current Islamic thought that has no basis in the Quran or Sunnah and was never seen in the practice of the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Our intolerance is such that we see takfir as a common theological supremacy tool and our sensibilities are often inflamed in Muslim countries like Pakistan where a single word or action by Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis or Shias can make us scream blasphemy! Is this what the true spirit of Islam really is? We condone acts of promiscuity and drug abuse and violence in our cultures but get upset over supposed blasphemy. How do we define what blasphemy is, and where is that fine line that separates it from freedom of speech?
I have more questions than answers. It’s all very complicated, but I pray we can try as an Ummah to start focusing on finding the good in others rather than constantly finding fault. That’s what Islam teaches us.