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Interview with MB Guidance Bureau Member Abdel Rahman al-Barr

Abdel Rahman al-Barr

A few days ago I posted an article I wrote for Lapido Media exploring the religious motivation and justification for protesting an insult to Islam. Much of the perspective rested on the answers of Abdel Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood and a specialist in the Islamic sharia.

Due to the events al-Barr was unavailable for a face-to-face interview, but graciously provided his time in answering my written questions. For deeper understanding of the subject treated in the article, here is the transcript in full:

  • A popular chant during the protest was: ‘With our souls and our blood we will redeem you, oh Islam!’ What does ‘blood’ imply, and how will it ‘redeem’ Islam?

This phrase means the speaker is ready to give his life for the sake of his religion, willing that his blood may flow in its defense. If it becomes necessary he will enter a military confrontation to defend Islam even if he must face being killed or martyred in the path of God.

  • The film was clearly offensive to Islam. But what does Islam teach about defending the religion against insult? Even if peaceful, why are such demonstrations religiously necessary?

Religion is one of the sanctities that man will protect and defend with all he has, even if this leads to giving his life. In the case of this offensive film it is necessary to announce refusal, condemnation, and anger with the most powerful expressions. We request the government with allowed this film to appear – that is, the United States of America – to prevent [its showing] and to hold those who made it accountable, as they have instigated hatred and incited animosity between peoples. Expressing this refusal is a religious obligation, because Islam requires the Muslim to reject error and seek to change it with his hand, if he is able. If he cannot he must reject it with his tongue, and demonstrations are one of the ways to do so.

  • During the demonstrations, some called the Copts of the Diaspora, especially those involved in the film, ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’. What does Islam teach about the use of insults against those who insult it?

Those who use such phrases are likely from the common people – not scholars – who were pushed by their anger from the enormity of the crime. But Islamic teachings call for the use of good phrases which do not insult. God the exalted said in the Qur’an: ‘Speak well to people’, ‘Say to those who worship me, “Speak what is good”’, ‘Return the evil with that which is good’, and ‘Return what is good if there is animosity between you’.

  • The Qur’an states in al-Nahl, 125: ‘Invite to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in the best manner.’ Even peaceful protests seem to diverge from this, and open the door for many to express anger poorly. How do demonstrations, though politically legal, help shape an Islamic morality? How should anger be expressed in Islam?

We must know that free demonstrations are a new experience for our people, as the repressive regimes dealt with them extremely harshly, to not allow them. Because of this, until now the culture of demonstration remains disfigured for many. Maybe this will improve in the future, but the careful observer will note that demonstrations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood are better disciplined even in the slogans and phrases used. This is because Islamic morality is moderate in both satisfaction and anger. Powerful expressions of anger must respect justice and avoid triviality. The Qur’an says: ‘God does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged’. So if a man is oppressed he may use forceful phrases to express this oppression, but without triviality or debasement.

  • Almost no Americans had ever heard of this film until Egypt began to demonstrate against it. To what degree to Muslim religious leaders bear fault for the excesses of these protests, as the Brotherhood called originally for escalation?

Religious scholars are not the ones who began the incitement, and they had no means to prevent it. Those who incited people were some activists who knew of it from the internet, and from here the common people began talking about it. It is natural the scholars could not stay silent in the face of this rejected crime. Personally, if it was in my power I would not have given this subject any importance because it is a vile work. Its producers do not posses human decency or creative value, and the film has no artistic merit. But the new media in its modern form diffuses the insignificant to work up the people – this is what happened with this vile film lacking creative value. Of course, the expansive publication via media had the largest influence on the common people, stirring them up and giving attention to this insulting film.

Thanks to Amr al-Masry for translating the questions into Arabic; any errors in translating the answers are my own, with graciousness asked specifically for the verses from the Qur’an.

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The Islamist Theology of Protesting

The demonstrations and violence surrounding the anti-Muhammad film Innocence of Muslims reveals two worlds which could not be further apart.

The West cherishes freedom of expression and allows religious ideas to be subject to debate, denial, and even ridicule.

Meanwhile, efforts to enshrine blasphemy provisions in Egypt’s new constitution are well underway, surely to receive a boost from this most recent outcry.

Those most offended took to the streets and unleashed the vilest invectives against those who insulted their prophet. Lapido filmed people at the US embassy in Cairo who were noisy, though not riotous.

Of the involvement of a supposed Israeli-American Sam Bacile (now known to be an alias for an American Copt Nakhoula Bacile Nakhoula) the crowd shouted, ‘Khyber, Khyber, oh you Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!’ Khyber refers to Muhammad’s victorious 629 AD siege of a Jewish oasis in the Arabian Peninsula, where he imposed the jizia tax for the first time.

Of the involvement of Coptic-American Maurice Sadek in the movie’s promotion, the crowd shouted, ‘Copts of the diaspora are pigs!’ A sign held aloft declared, ‘We are all bin Laden, you [Coptic] dogs of the diaspora.’

And besides the ubiquitous ‘Allahu Akbar!’ protestors chanted, ‘With our lives and our blood we will redeem you, oh Islam!’

Lapido Media spoke with two Islamists about the recent protests, in a bid to understand.

Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman

Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman of the Islamic Group received Lapido the evening of the first day’s protest, when the flag of the US embassy was removed and burned.

His family has maintained a sit-in protest on the opposite side of the embassy for over a year, demanding the release of their father, Omar Abdel Rahman. Better known as the Blind Sheikh, he is in prison in America over his role in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombings.

Abdel Rahman is not a religious scholar, but a veteran jihadist from the wars in Afghanistan.

‘For any offence against Islam,’ he said, ‘the Muslim has the right to defend himself against the one who says it, and shouting “our lives and our blood” displays his love of his religion.

‘It does not mean to kill an embassy employee, but if the filmmaker comes to Egypt, he will be torn limb from limb. This is permitted in Islam.’

Concerning the signs praising bin Laden and calling foreign Copts ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’, Abdel Rahman stated this was not meant literally, but ‘to scare them’.

‘They want to destroy Egypt and are its enemies, so this frightening is permitted in Islam.’

Asked about condemning all foreign Copts without distinction, Abdel Rahman stated this was a misunderstanding of Arabic rhetoric, where the general was meant to convey the particular, and exaggerate the grievance.

The use of insults was also misunderstood by the West, conveying not literal figuring but contempt.

‘This also is allowed in Islam,’ he stated, when invited to compare such contempt with the Qur’anic verse extolling ‘good preaching’ against a non-Muslim challenger.

‘Everything has its time and place,’ said Abdel Rahman. ‘It makes no sense to issue simple good preaching during jihad. If someone is attacking you, you resist and fight back, you do not just say a good word.’

Abdel Rahman al-Barr

Lapido then asked Abdel Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau specializing in the shariah, to comment in a written interview.

By this time the American ambassador to Libya had been murdered, the embassy and school attacked in Tunisia, with outbreaks of violence in many other parts of the Muslim world.

‘Religion is one of the sanctities that man will protect and defend with all he has, even if this leads to giving his life,’ he said.

‘In the case of this offensive film it is necessary to announce refusal, condemnation, and anger with the most powerful expressions.’

To explain what makes this a religious obligation, al-Barr drew from a well-known tradition of the prophet.

‘Islam requires the Muslim to reject error and seek to change it with his hand, if he is able. If he cannot he must reject it with his tongue, and demonstrations are one of the ways to do so.’

Al-Barr noted that many of the demonstrators were ‘common people’, and Egypt did not have a culture of demonstrating. He hinted that the slogans used might be questionable.

‘Islamic morality is moderate in both satisfaction and anger,’ he said. ‘Powerful expressions of anger must respect justice. The Qur’an says: “God does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged” (4:148).

‘So if a man is oppressed he may use forceful phrases to express this oppression, but without triviality or debasement.’

Al-Barr blamed the media for taking an obscure film and throwing it in the face of Muslims. He gave no credence to the idea that religious scholars had a share in the blame for the excesses which took place, but did suggest some regret.

‘It is natural the scholars could not stay silent in the face of this rejected crime. Personally, if it was in my power I would not have given this subject any importance because it is a vile work.’

Instead, ultimate blame lay elsewhere, indicating the vast difference in cultural perspectives.

He concluded: ‘We request the government which allowed this film to appear – that is, the United States of America – to prevent [its showing] and to hold those who made it accountable, as they have instigated hatred and incited animosity between peoples.’

This article was first published on Lapido Media on September 19, 2012

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