Muslim leaders in Russia have condemned the American anti-Islam video that sparked the Libya riots which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, as well as the riots themselves, calling for unity amid what appear to be religious provocations.
“People of faith shouldn’t give into these kinds of provocations,” said Albir Krganov, Mufti of Moscow and first deputy chairman of the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims in Russia.
An obscure filmmaker, reportedly named Sam Bacile, became the focus of the Arab world’s anger after his 14-minute video poking fun at Islam and the Prophet Muhammad sparked protests at the American mission in Benghazi, where Stevens died along with three other embassy staff.
Promoted by notorious fundamentalist Christian pastor Terry Jones, known for his public burning of the Quran, the video, entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” has attracted widespread criticism even from non-Muslims for what they have said was its operative role in Stevens’ death. YouTube has refused to remove the video, though it had banned it briefly in Afghanistan and in other high-risk places, including several Muslim-populated countries.
While anti-American riots continued on Thursday across the Middle East, with at least one death reported near the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, Muslim leaders in Russia decried both the violence and the film.
“No matter what kind of government we live under, secular or religious, we are obliged to follow the law,” Krganov said, adding that he was personally insulted by the film. “Provocations like this are especially designed to breed discord among people of different groups and religions.”
Others, such as Rushan Abbiasov, deputy head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, agreed. He dismissed the film as a shoddy attempt to portray Muslims as villains.
“The film reflects only the point of view of the author – an ignorant man in pursuit of political goals,” Abbiasov said.
The reactions arrive amidst a moment of deep uncertainty for the United States and its role in the greater Middle East, especially on the heels of the tumultuous Arab Spring. Added to the mix is the deep polarization in American society and across its political spectrum, in which a progressively greater divide seems to have grown in recent years between conservatives and liberals.
Jones, for one, has become somewhat of a cult icon in the United States for his staunch conservatism and vehement distaste for Islam. In an interview with Newsweek on Thursday, he refused to take responsibility for the film’s reception, adding that the video poses “absolutely no danger to [Muslims’] lifestyles, to their families.”
“What it does, of course, is insult them, but that’s what freedom of speech does,” he said.
But Rafik Mukhametshin, head of the Islamic University in Kazan, capital of the predominantly Muslim Republic of Tatarstan, points to exactly this sense of careless self-expression that constitutes “the single worst part about democracy.”
“In this case, democracy stopped being democracy and turned into a free-for-all,” he said, also adding that he was deeply offended by the video. “I believe that this is a form of abusing democracy.”
Russia has problems of its own concerning Islam and its steady radicalization in several regions. A coordinated attack in July on two high-profile clerics in Tatarstan, which killed one, stoked fears that radical Islam had broken through its traditional borders in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region.
Meanwhile, killings continue almost daily in Russia’s North Caucasus Republics, where radical Islamic insurgents who subscribe to Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, target local officials, claiming they are corrupt enemies of Islam.
Yet Mukhametshin added that Russia’s Muslims are unlikely to act out violently against the video. Rather, he said, they may take a more “civilized approach” and express their protest constructively, through letters, announcements and articles.