Headlining the news this past week was the eruption of violence in the Muslim world over the film “Innocence of the Muslims.” I’ve seen the extended trailer for the film, and it is derogatory and degrading regardless of what one thinks of Mohammed or Islam. I’m not saying the violent deaths of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, and others were justified; it’s just that I can understand how the film has stirred up such intense reactions around the Islamic world.
Basically, the issue is one of respect. The film showed a total lack of respect for the deeply held convictions of Muslims around the world. Supposedly Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (who originally identified himself as Sam Bacile), the Egyptian-American producer of the film, is a Coptic Christian. I don’t think the rest of the Christian world applauds him in the least for his efforts.
I can understand Nakoula’s anger toward Islam. Even before the fall of President Mubarak, the Christian minority in Egypt had suffered great hardship at the hands of Islamic extremists. Since the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the persecution of Christians has become more organized and extreme. For example, in late August, in the city of Dahshur, a huge crowd of Muslims surrounded the homes of 80 Christian families, threatening to burn them to the ground. The Egyptian police simply urged the Christians to leave before they were burned along with their homes. Bowing to international pressure, the Egyptian government eventually called the Christians back to their houses, which the Muslim crowds had totally pillaged in the meantime.
This sort of persecution can generate great bitterness, but it doesn’t have to. I know many Christians in the Islamic world who are saddened by such persecution, but who are still serving with love in the countries where they are being persecuted. Kasr el Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo is one community of Christians who are trying to make a positive difference in their country. During the Tahrir Square uprisings last year, this church opened its doors to tend to the wounded, regardless of religious affiliation. This from a church that has seen its pastor arrested and members killed by Muslims who disagreed with their Christian faith. For all the criticisms being flung at evangelical Christians these days, the members of Kasr el Dobara Church are truly living out Jesus’ command to “love their enemies.”
But besides offering that glimpse of hope in an otherwise dismal setting, I want to address the issue of when too much is too much. “Innocence of the Muslims” picks up on aspects of Mohammed’s life that scholars have discussed for years, most notably his violence and his involvement with women. But to depict him as a crazed buffoon, as the movie does, does nothing to further the serious dialogue needed between Christians and Muslims in order to help the world survive. We should debate issues openly and honestly, but with deep respect for one another.
I’m afraid that in the interest of total freedom of speech, we have traded intelligent discussion for parody and lampooning. This transaction is not limited to the tensions between the Western and Islamic world, either. One can see it popping up in politics, the discussion of social issues, debate on university campuses and talk shows. I’m afraid that inflammatory degrading communication often generates more heat than light, and a lot of innocent people get burned in the process.
So my challenge for this week is, how about entering into a serious dialogue with someone who is different than you? If you are a Christian, why not ask a Muslim neighbor what they really believe and why? If you are a Democrat, why not try to have a peaceable discussion with a Republican? The list could go on and on. I’m not asking us to compromise on truth, but to pursue it with integrity and humility.
Rev. Jim Govatos is senior pastor at Aloma United Methodist Church located in Winter Park. A former atheist, Jim is passionate about helping people understand and experience a living faith in Jesus Christ. Please share your thoughts by emailing email@example.com