More to anti-western violence by Muslims than an offensive film
ANALYSIS: While religious fanatics are involved in the current protests, they are also inspired by US policies that alienate millions in Muslim world
THE PAST week has seen an apparent flaring up of anti-western violence in the Muslim world. On September 11th, the US ambassador to Libya was killed along with three other embassy personnel. Within days there were attacks on US embassies in Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.
The ostensible cause of all of this was the emergence into public view, courtesy of YouTube, of a previously obscure and virulently anti-Islamic film entitled The Innocence of Islam.
The film, which amongst other things depicted Muhammad as a paedophile, was produced in disputed circumstances by a southern Californian Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted bank fraudster, who initially represented himself as of Israeli Jewish background.
Regardless of its origins or limited aesthetic qualities, the film has certainly succeeded in stirring up emotions. The familiar image of Muslim mobs storming western embassies to avenge hurt to their religion filled newspaper and magazine pages, as commentary focused on why Muslims cannot tolerate criticism of their religion.
The decision earlier this week by the French government to close embassies, cultural centres and schools in about 20 countries, in anticipation of violent protests at the publication by a satirical French magazine of caricatures of Muhammad, reinforces these concerns.
Negative representations of Islam and of Muhammad are nothing new. The emergence of Islam in the 7th century was followed by the rapid expansion of Muslim political power. By the eighth and ninth centuries, this had spread to western Europe, as Spain, Sicily and parts of France were ruled by Muslims.
For hundreds of years Muslim armies and navies were seen as threatening to Europe. Fear and ignorance animated popular, scholarly and religious responses to Islam. At the time of the Crusades, the Muslim opponents of the Christian forces were explained in biblical terms: Muhammad was a cardinal with frustrated papal ambitions; earlier he had been thought of as one god among many worshipped by the “Saracens”. The others, according to one source, included Mars, Plato and Apollo.
In Dante’s Inferno, Muhammad is relegated to the eighth of nine circles of hell as a sower of schism and scandal. Many saw Islam, as some do to this day, in terms of biblical prophecy, a preparation for the final appearance of the antichrist. The 13th-century crusader Oliver of Paderborn claimed that: “Islam began by the sword, was maintained by the sword, and by the sword would be ended.”
Age-old tropes of Islam as barbaric and intolerant continue to flourish. Yet, the expression of revulsion on the part of adherents of religion at what they perceive as insults to their faith is not unique to Islam.
At least since the second World War, the expression of anti-Semitic views has met with widespread condemnation, if not outright proscription. In the UK in 1977, the editor of Gay News, a fortnightly newspaper, was found guilty of blasphemous libel and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment (the sentence was suspended) and fined £500 for the crime of publishing a poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, about a homosexual Roman centurion’s love for Christ at the crucifixion.
More recently, the Irish government in 2009 enacted a Defamation Act, which sets out a new offence of publishing or uttering “blasphemous matter”, defined as uttering material that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, if the intention behind the utterance or publication is to cause such outrage.
The enactment of such laws raises crucial questions about the balance to be struck between respect for the religious sensibilities of others and freedom of speech. However, such a balance has been struck without enormous difficulty when what is at issue is less freedom of speech but more incitement to hatred or violence.
The film that motivated the violence of the past week appears on the face of it to have more to do with incitement than with the assertion of basic human rights. However, the violence also raises questions about the extent to which it represents an expression of religious hurt or something more.
For the answer to this question, we need to move beyond the simplicities of generalisation about something called “Islam”.
In the first place, a religion that encompasses a global population of almost one billion people, which, unlike Christianity, knows no clerical hierarchy and has no equivalent figurehead to the Roman Catholic pope or the archbishop of Canterbury, which finds expression in Sunni, Shia and Sufi Islam as well as in a multiplicity of orthodox and heterodox sects, which ranges in expression and interpretation from the austere Islam of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia to the syncretistic Islam of Asia and east and west Africa, cannot be reduced to a single, overarching label.
Secondly, as Edward Said noted many years ago, something called “Islam” does not move whole populations to act in specific ways. In order to understand the events of Benghazi or Cairo or Sana’a in the past week, it is necessary to put them into context.
The assault on the US consulate in Benghazi is already the subject of much controversy. There is dispute as to whether it was indeed an outburst of anger at the depiction of Islam in Nakoula’s film. Some inside and outside Libya question how a spontaneous display of religious outrage could escalate so quickly into a heavily armed attack on the consulate.
On September 19th, Matt Olsen, director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, told a hearing of the US Senate homeland security committee that what had taken place was a terrorist attack. Others at the hearing suggested the attack had been pre-planned for the anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Likewise, the assault on the US embassy in Yemen is the subject of controversy. Writing from Sana’a during the week, American freelance journalist Adam Baron noted widespread scepticism that one of the most secure buildings in the capital could be so easily breached. Baron also noted that most of those guarding the embassy belong to forces loyal to a nephew of deposed president Saleh. The suspicion that the former president had a hand in making the attacks possible is commonplace in Sana’a and credible given his track record in office.
Beyond the local detail, it is no coincidence that in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana’a, it was the symbols of US power that came under attack. Despite the fact that President Obama has built some fences with the Muslim world, the US is still seen as having key interests opposed to those of many in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world.
Continued and largely unconditional support for Israel, the primacy of the Saudi Arabia alliance and the deployment of lethal unmanned drones against those designated as US enemies are just a few of the policies that alienate hundreds of millions of Muslims from Pakistan to Yemen. The sense that many in the Muslim world are disenfranchised by the dominant global economic model adds to popular disenchantment.
History teaches us that there will always be religious fanatics. But why ordinary people use religion to justify resort to violence asks more demanding questions of us than can be addressed by the simplicities of Islamophobia and the demonising of the entire Muslim population of the world.
Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics at University College Dublin and is a visiting lecturer at Bethlehem University, Palestine. He is co-author of Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World: The Dynamics of Change, published by Routledge in 2010.