Father Douglas May continues to be the only U.S.-born Catholic priest in Egypt. He has lived in the Middle East and Egypt for 20 years since 1977. Doug attended the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome in the early 1980s and the Comboni Institute in Cairo in the early 1990s. Doug is CIDT’s international coordinator in addition to his pastoral work and efforts to promote greater Arab-West understanding and improved Muslim-Christian relations. After viewing an excerpt of the film on Youtube, Doug expresses his outrage at the intentional or unintentional insensitivity of this film and tries to explain, without excusing, the violent reactions of many Muslims who have either seen parts of the film or heard about it.
As the sole U.S.-Born, Catholic priest in Egypt, who has spent 20 of the last 35 years living and working in the Middle East, I feel the need to comment on the Youtube Muhammad film trailer that Muslims see as mocking the prophet, Muhammad. While many Christians and secularists might say: “What’s the big deal?”, there are many Christians who were very upset with films like “The Life of Brian” in the late 1970s, The Last Temptation” in the late 1980s and “Priest” in the mid 1990s. To be honest, my own personal philosophy is that “If you can’t laugh at it, it’s not worth dying for”. I’ve watched all three films above multiple times and have even preached on them. During a retreat I participated in 2006, I read the Da Vinci Code as “challenging reading” that raised questions and made me reflect while many Christians condemned it and preached against it.
After spending 18 of the last 30 years in Egypt, I am not a romantic when it comes to the realities of religious intolerance, social discrimination and sectarian violence experienced by many Christians due to religious fanatics who claim to be Christian, Jewish or Muslim. I have overheard various “men of religion” refer to Christians using the religious “M” word, “mushrik” meaning polytheist and idolater or “K” word “kafr” meaning infidel. I’ve heard it all and seen a lot. While two wrongs never make a right, Christians of most denominations should never fail to recall the violence, discrimination and persecution we have been guilty of during our own 2,000 year history “in the name of God and Jesus Christ”.
I cannot speak for Muslims outside of Egypt, but I can try to explain the reactions of many to such a film without equating these reasons to being justifications. Most Americans get quite upset when we watch the American flag being burned or trampled on. We at least get upset if someone desecrates the Bible and Catholics get very upset if someone desecrates the Eucharist. Maybe we don’t burn those who do or torture them anymore, but we have in the past. We claim to be “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all” and yet we have always found at least one race, nationality, religion or orientation to focus on and “go after”.
Western societies that profess “freedom of religion” have moved toward “freedom FROM religion”. Personally, even as a Catholic priest, I feel that “religion” in civil democracies have the obligation to form and educate the individual and collective conscience of its followers and to be “a voice of conscience” in society. However, I oppose any religion dictating to government how it should legislate morality according to any particular religious belief system. At the same time, this is NOT the current reality in the Muslim world whether I/we like it or not. Cultural sensitivity must include religious and social sensitivity.
In our world of “political correctness”, it is generally no longer acceptable to make fun of or ridicule: people of color, women, gays, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, Poles, Italians, Germans, etc. Yet it is still “open season” to depict Arabs as “rag heads” and Muslims as “terrorists”. Muhammad in Islam is forbidden to be “imaged” in any way except with his face covered so adverse are Muslims to any image of God or any person for fear that the image itself might be worshipped. Photos of family members and political leaders have invaded most non-religious spaces in Arab-Muslim countries as they are seen as distinct from religious images.
Therefore, depicting Muhammad in pictures, whether “moving” or not, is forbidden. To depict Muhammad as a sex-crazed, simpleton simply goes too far. Before coming to the Arab-Muslim world for the first time in 1977, could I laugh at this film watching Muhammad look like a fool? Probably yes, just as I laughed at Jesus and John the Baptist in The Life of Brian. However, as a priest, would I feel free to “juggle” the “Body and Blood of Christ” at the altar during Mass as if I were performing in a circus act? NO! It just isn’t done! If I was short of toilet paper, would I resort to tearing out pages of the Hebrew or Christian scriptures in a time of need? NO! It just isn’t done. So, is burning the Koran, desecrating the Koran and insulting Muhammad OK? NO! It just isn’t done by anyone who is aware and sensitive to Muslims and respectful of Islam.
Would I possibly defend the “theoretical right” to do such a thing? Probably yes, just as I would defend the theoretical right to defecate on the American flag. However, rights come with responsibilities to respect others, their rights and their sensitivities. I have never been afraid to question, challenge and disagree with religious and political ideologies and their representatives, but I try to do so with some respect. This film is a classic example of “going too far” while hiding behind the concept of “freedom of speech” and hiding under the rock of “unadulterated bigotry”. It also places local Christians in the terrible situation of “guilt by association”.
Either unintentionally out of pure ignorance and stupidity OR intentionally out of an expressed desire to be inflammatory and incite violence, the makers and distributors of this film are as guilty of a crime as the demonstrators who have resorted to unjustified violence and killing in defense of Islam and Muhammad. If motive and premeditation can be proven, I would challenge the U.S, government to arrest and convict the makers and distributors of this film. I would suggest that Muslims along with moderate Christians and Jews take the film makers and distributors to court and sue them for “inciting violence” if such a cause exists in civil law.
Once again, I have heard it all and seen a lot in terms Muslim attitudes and acts against Christian and other minorities living in the Arab-Muslim world. I know many of the experiences of those living in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and North Africa. I am not defending bigots and fanatics among Arabs and Muslims any more than I would defend bigots and fanatics among Christians or Jews. My focus here is to openly attack and condemn the bigots and bigotry involved in the production and distribution of this film whether they be Christian, Jewish or secular. It is time to say “enough is enough”. I say “enough” and you should too.