On my way back home from work, my mind worked on a synopsis for a blog post about some uncontroversial issue.
As I got home, however, I saw that one of my Indonesian friends had texted me. Asked me to not go out alone unless I have to. Because I’m white. And because some people would want to kill any white man they could get their hands on.
I have lived in Jakarta for over two weeks now. The reason she says this today is because the Jakarta election is only two days away, and because the ongoing global nonsense about a film. And no, I’m not talking about the new Resident Evil with it’s ”Think global. Kill local.” Although that slogan certainly applies. No, I’m talking about the movie that was NOT well made.
Some guy makes a movie. The story is so simple and badly written that an unskilled teenager anywhere in the world could have written it. The filmmaking displays a total lack of resources as well as a total lack of skill and talent. Any group of unknown wannabes could have made it. And that’s exactly what happened. This film was not made by “The West”, “America”, or “Hollywood”. It is simply a case of some random guy, somewhere in the world, having a camera and a big grudge against Muslims.
Bad movie, bad reactions
Yet, this mediocre film, ”The innocence of Muslims”, becomes extremely famous. Pretty much everybody knows about it now, denying this film the obscurity and lack of recognition it deserves. A lot of people have even seen the film, in spite of it clearly not being worth their time. All this because some people fought very hard to make it famous, advertising it’s existence by killing people and attributing their crimes to being outraged
about the movie.
Ironically, that’s exactly what the film is designed for. It’s 13 minutes long, claiming to be a long trailer for the real movie. Personally I doubt that this longer version exist at all. The film starts with violent present day Egyptian Muslims burning a hospital to the ground while the police choose to do nothing. Thus the Muslims kill an Egyptian woman, probably a nurse. Simply because she’s a Coptic Christian. The film then switch to be a bad adventure story with a silly person identified as Muhammad as its protagonist.
The maker of this movie may or may not be white. (Some reports have indicated that he’s a Coptic Christian from Egypt, one of 300.000 who have recently fled to USA because of persecution from Christian-haters within the Muslim majority.) Just in case he might be white, some people think it’s a great idea to murder any white person they can find. Or burn down the local Kentucky Fried Chicken, in spite of the overwhelming odds that the owner is actually a local businessman who is not white and has never even visited America.
Well, it might not be about skin-color as much as about being American. That’s what my friend warned me about. Those people may think that I’m American. And she’s right, of course. Never mind that most white people are not American. Never mind that many Americans are not white. And never mind that the maker of the film may very well be Egyptian or whatever rather than American.
Some people turned of their brains to mindlessly blame a wide category of people. Whites. Americans. Westerners. Jews. Christians. Or Muslims.
Please note that I’ only talking about those who actually have this mindset. For example, there’s a huge difference between being critical against USA politics and hating all real or imagined Americans. Much of the protests, especially the ones that are not violent, are not really about the movie and not about hatred or intolerance either. It is just people seizing the time to protest about things that have annoyed them a long time. But back to the issue of those who distribute blame so widely.
One of the primary factors here is one of the basic forms of categorism I have noted over the years: If a person or group in a category you dislike does something bad, then they see it as representing the whole category of people. On the other hand, if a person or group in the category does something good, it doesn’t count. The person does not represent the category, at least not at that particular time. I’m sure there’s a lot of psychological research on this facinating consistency in lack of consistency.
Of course, the violent reactions triggered by the film were never really about the film. And the hatred against muslims triggered by those violent reactions was never really about those violent reactions. No, this is about people who already hate a certain abstract concept (the West, Freedom of Speech, Democracy, Islam) or a category of people (White people, Americans, Modern city-dwellers, Muslims).
Global violence – and anti-violence
In Libya, the people elected a secular democratic government. When militants used the film as their excuse to murder the American ambassador, many demonstrated against the terrorists.
In Egypt, the leaders of the fragile young democracy are trying to handle this mess as well as they can. The extremists are strong, and try their best to use the film as their excuse to encourage violence.
Here in Indonesia, nobody has been killed. It would be preferable to keep it that way. There has been some property damage, and some wounded people. Police officers as well as protesters. No bystanders or victims of attacks. 400 people participated in the demonstration that turned violent. Lets say that none of them came from other cities or the countryside to participate in the protest. That they were all living in Great Jakarta.
That’s 400 out of a population of 30.000.000. And as for those 400, it is likely that most of them never intended the protest to turn violent.
The violence sparked some television talk show debates about what to do with the thread of ”radicalized” religious people, as the totalitarian Islamists are often called here. I saw one of those earlier this evening. (A coworker helped me understand what they were saying.) There appear to be consensus in the Indonesian public sphere that it’s okay to do peaceful protests against insults against Islam (although many worry that all protests may encourage people to make such insults in the first place), but that it is not okay to be violent or break the law. The president himself made a speech on this matter early on.
Indonesia is a country where at least 85% of the population is Muslims. A democratic country, where most of the Muslims vote for secular candidates. Right now, Islamist parties have 30% of the seats in parliament, with surveys predicting this to drop to 15% in the next election. These Islamist parties do not condone violence. Translated to political Christianity, this branch of political Islam is more like the republicans of USA and Kristdemokraterna of Sweden, while the Islamist terrorists are more like those Americans who bomb abortion clinics and the Rwandan Hutu Supremacists who used Bible quotes to justify their genocide. However, many suspect that at least one of the Islamist parties indirectly contributes to the violent extremism. Just like many suspects that the republicans indirectly contribute to violent Christian extremism.
Radicals or fascists
The radicalized/extremist Muslims would have it that they are the ”true” Muslims, while the majority Muslim population is not as true to Islam as they are. Christian/western supremacists are more than willing to agree on this. See the ”True representatives” discussion above. Personally I strongly prefer to talk about religious fascists rather than religious radicals. Because there are different ways to be radical, and some of those ways are good.
The Islamic intellectual Irshad Manji has another word for certain bad versions of Islam: ”Desert Islam”. With this she means a harsh and narrow-minded version of Islam, that has it’s roots in ancient tribal culture rather than in the teachings of Muhammed – who fought to move society forward, beyond this petty tribalism.
Regardless of what you call them, they exist. Groups and individuals who hate modernity and modern city life. Who hate democracy and human rights. Who look only backwards to ancient times, wanting to turn the clock back and roll back all improvements that has been done these last few hundred years.
Some of these groups are Christian, some are Islamic, some are Hindu, and some worship the northern pantheon with Thor and Odin and the others. The Nazi party of the third reich encouraged it’s own peculiar mix of Christianity, Northen Pantheon and general mysticism.
Such backwards-facing groups, especially the violent ones, are a threat to everyone. Including their own members, since such groups very often turn their hatred inwards. However, it would be wrong to claim that these groups represent all of their religions. Singling out one single religion makes it even worse.
In the West, it is becoming increasingly common to do this kind of categorism against Muslims. This particular form of categorism is often called antimuslimism. This antimuslimism give all Muslims the blame when a Muslim do something bad in the name of his religion, but don’t give them any credit when other Muslims do good deeds in the name of their religion. In the minds of some antimuslimists, Islam can be to blame even when someone who is not Muslim (but not White either) does something bad without doing it in the name of religion or whatever. There is really a big overlap between antimuslimism and regular racism.
The antimuslimists and the worst of the backwards-facing groups within Islam agree with each other on some important things. They agree that trying to create a global Taliban Afghanistan or similar is the ”true” face of Islam. They agree with each other that the vast majority of Muslims, who want democracy and human rights, are not as ”real” or
”true” Muslims as the extremists or radicals or desert Islamists or whatever you want to call them.
This phenomenon, antimuslimism, is often called ”Islamophobia”. In my opinion, this label is a very bad idea. The question here is, what is the essence of Islam? My andwer is that this is something that muslims will have to decide for themselves. Many of them reach different yet peaceful conclusions, and they can agree to disagree.
The word antimuslimism is an accusation of not understanding muslims and not giving them the respect they deserve. This is a good starting point for demanding a wider understanding with more diversity.
The word islamophobia is instead an accusation of not understanding Islam and not giving it the respect it deserves. This is a dead end. Can someone who does not belong to a certain religion ever truly understand it? Many religious people would disagree, at least regarding their own religion.
The word islamophobia is very useful for the antimuslimists, since it makes it so easy for them to make a convincing argument. All they need to do is to pick any one of the worst Islamic groups, agree with it’s interpretation of what Islam truly mean, and ask if this religion really deserve our respect: ”If it’s islamophobia to be against beheading of innocent people, then I am an islamophobe”. They even get the moral high ground of ”respecting” these Islamic groups interpretations of Islam, never mind that these groups never had a mandate to speak for all Muslims in the first place.
More importantly, one of the most basic forms of antimuslimism/islamophobia is to view ”Islam” as one single monolithic entity. The word ”Islamophobia” encourages this mindset, making the problem worse. We need to talk about diverse Muslims, not about one single Islam.
In the west, many who see Islam as monolithic are divided on how to interpret riots done by Muslim groups. One side blame ”the Muslims”, while the other side believes that ”the Muslims” can not be held accountable for their own actions. It must me explained away, as if they were children with no self-control. Both sides are wrong. The groups who use violence, or promote violence, should be condemned. Held responsible for their own actions. If their actions are true to their interpretation of Islam, then their interpretation of Islam should also be condemned. Meanwhile, everyone need to remember that these groups do not speak for all Muslims That it would not be fair to condemn all Muslims along with these organizations.
It is also important to keep in mind that politics are complex. While cracking the imaginary monolith is a start, the real world Muslims are far more diverse than what one can divide into two groups or a few groups.
Sadly, many in the west simply divide Muslims into “Good Muslims” and “Bad Muslims”. To make it worse, this division has often been drawn by completely different lines than enlightenment and commitment to democracy and human right. Most infamously, USA has traditionally favored the “stability” of despotic regimes. (Don’t get me started on Operation Ajax. Just don’t.) Meanwhile, leftwing groups tend to favor any group, no matter how totalitarian, that opposes America and Capitalism.
Back to Jakarta
So, anyway. Like I said, the election is only two days away. Well, one day now. I started writing last night, and now I finish in the morning before I get back to work. There are two candidates in this second election round. Jokowi and Foke. Jokowi got the highest number of votes in the first round, but did not secure the 50% needed to win right away. Foke came second, and is also the incumbent governor. Jokowi are backed by two political parties, Foke is backed by several – including the Islamist parties, but also big secular parties.
In the second round of the election, there has been a lot of negative campaigning. Followers of Foke has been resorting to what is here called SARA: Using race and religion to incite hatred. They are trying to convince people that they must vote for Foke because Jokowi’s running mate is a Christian of Chinese ethnicity. Some of them are spreading the vicious idea that a Muslim who votes for a non-Muslim is not a true Muslim himself.
For this reason alone, if nothing else, I hope with all my heart that Jokowi will win. A victory for him would be a moral victory for diversity, while a victory for Foke would be a moral victory for those who promote a tribalist and backwards-facing mindset. These are small victories, but they do count.
From a Jakarta perspective, the film could not have come at a worse time. With the racism and religious tribalism already on the surface, the anger over the film may even tip the scale in Foke’s favor. I certainly hope that it will not. Then again, if Jokowi wins in THIS current social climate, the moral victory is even greater. Meanwhile, I didn’t plan to go out tonight anyway. But if my plans had been to take a long walk in unfamiliar parts of the city, I would have reconsidered. Stayed at home tonight after all, and do the exploring some other day.