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Anti-Muslim video: What Muslim teachings say about retribution for blasphemy

Protests and riots broke out across the Middle East and Asia over the past week, rejecting an anti-Muslim video's portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. What does Islamic theory condone?

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Demonstrators hold a message aimed at the US during a rally to condemn the killers of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other staffers during an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 12.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

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The recent protests across the Middle East have revived a debate about blasphemy in Islam – how it is defined, and how devout Muslims should respond.

While some Muslims cite the Quran or hadiths – sayings or actions attributed to the prophet Muhammad – as justification for violent retribution, Muslim scholars and analysts alike say there is no clear mandate in Islamic theology for such a response.

Instead, they say, the recent violence reflects societies roiled by power struggles and competing ideologies, in which Muslims are used as pawns for political gain.

"The punishment for blasphemy and even the definition for blasphemy is not in the Quran. There are some hadiths that address it, but it's ambiguous," says Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. "So it's very vague and … it's manipulated by those who want to raise a mob and wield power within a society."

In this case, the offending material appears to be an amateurish 14-minute YouTube clip that portrays Muhammad as a bumbling philanderer and child molester who makes up his religion on the fly and incites his followers to unrestrained violence.

The movie clearly was meant to incite a response.

"Sadly, we had idiots on our side take the bait – hook, line, and sinker," says Arsalan Iftikhar, a Muslim commentator and author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

"Of course there are going to be a lot of [non-Muslim] right-wingers who are saying Islam is a religion of violence," he adds. He attributes the violence to decades of dictatorial rule with little freedom of speech.

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