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Mehdi Hasan on Islam and blasphemy: Muhammad survived Dante’s Inferno. He’ll survive a YouTube clip

Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue.

Dear Muslim protester,

Where do I begin? Having watched you shout and scream in front of the world’s television cameras, throw petrol bombs and smash windows, I reluctantly decided to write this open letter to you.

Let me be blunt: you and I have little in common other than our shared Islamic faith, our common belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger. You live in a Muslim-majority country, where religion (or should that be religious extremism?) defines the boundaries of political debate and the limits of free speech; I was born and brought up in the liberal, secular west as a member of a minority Muslim community.

If I’m honest, I have to say that, listening to your belligerent rhetoric and watching your violent behaviour, I struggle to recognise the Islam in which you profess to believe. My Islamic faith is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy; it revolves around the Quranic verses “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6). Yours is a faith disfigured by anger, hate and paranoia.


Please do not misunderstand me: yes, you have every right to be angry. I have no time for those neoconservatives here in the west who airily dismiss “false grievances” in the Middle East and beyond. Muslims have much to be aggrieved over – from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay, from Abu Ghraib to Haditha, from US soldiers urinating on the Quran to the spate of racist films and cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/ delete-as-applicable.

Anger, however, is not an excuse for extremism. Have you not read this saying by the Prophet? “The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.”

Today, 14 centuries later, too many of us seem to have lost all self-control. Your fanatical counterparts on the Christian evangelical right have a phrase they often deploy: “WWJD”, or “What would Jesus do?”. Perhaps you and your fellow protesters should ask “WWMD”: what would Muhammad do? Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, on police stations and shops?

We both know the answer. As a child, you will have been taught, like me, about how Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by the pagan worshippers of Mecca – but never responded in kind. The Quran calls him a “mercy for all of creation”.

But your anger has blinded you. You tell foreign reporters you are protesting against injustice – but the fight for justice begins at home. Where were you and your fellow flag-burners when a poor, 14-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan was arrested on trumped-up charges of “blasphemy” in August and threatened with the death penalty? Where are you today when the Syrian regime continues to wage war against its own (Muslim) people? Why do you not protest outside the embassies of the Bahraini regime, which tortures and tear-gasses its (Muslim) citizens?

You say you love the Prophet and cannot bear to see him abused, yet in Saudi Arabia the house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, was flattened to make way for a public toilet, while the house where Muhammad was born is now overshadowed by a royal palace. Where is your rage against the Saudi regime? Or is your selfprofessed love for the Prophet just a cynical expression of crude anti-Americanism?

You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.

Own goal

Perhaps the greatest irony, and tragedy, is that by publicising the online insults directed at the Prophet, you have given the wretched “Sam Bacile”, the maker of the offensive movie, and his Islamophobic, evangelical Christian ally, Steve Klein, a victory they could never have achieved on their own. Need I remind you that when the full-length film, Innocence of Muslims, was released earlier this year, it was shown only once, to an audience of fewer than ten people, at a run-down cinema in California?

Meanwhile, the reputational damage done to our faith – exacerbated, I hasten to add, by lazy journalists in the west who cannot seem to distinguish between Islam and its adherents – has been immense. Have you not seen the cover of Newsweek magazine? “Muslim rage”, screams the headline.

But I have some (bad) news for you (and, for that matter, Newsweek). You represent no one but yourself. You do not speak for Islam or for the Prophet. Nor are you representative of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. In a recent Gallup survey conducted in ten Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 80 per cent of the global Muslim population, believers, when asked what they admired most about the west, cited political freedoms, fair trials and . . . wait for it . . . freedom of speech.

Your actions undermine not just the great religion of Islam but a worldwide Muslim community, or umma, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.

Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue. As the great Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib once wrote: “Remember that people are of two kinds: they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”

Yours faithfully, Mehdi.

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and the political director of Huffington Post UK.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.